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If you want to have a successful season, you must prepare. Getting your dog ready for the season and maintaining care through the year will pay dividends and keep your dog running hard, scenting better, and putting more game in hand. To get the most from your four-legged hunting partner, follow our four-step guide below.

Comprehensive Veterinarian Care

It goes without saying that a healthy dog will hunt better, longer, and harder. Good, consistent veterinary care gives you a baseline to work from and takes much of the guesswork out of examinations later if something goes wrong.

“Preventative medicine is the most important aspect of consistent veterinary care. Physical examinations provide the veterinarian with the ability to address abnormalities that may not otherwise be observed by the owner or trainer,” said Jennell Appel, a veterinarian and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. “Routine precautions include preventative medication for heartworm, intestinal parasites, and external parasites such as fleas and ticks. I also recommend a yearly PCR tick panel, which will test for Lyme, Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Exposure to tick-borne disease is a significant concern among all sporting breeds.”

Beyond routine vaccinations, Appel recommends sporting dogs get the Bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine every six months due to travel and exposure to other dogs throughout the year. She also advises vaccination for canine influenza, with a bivalent vaccine protecting against the H3N2 and H3N8 strains.

A preseason checkup could identify potential issues and save you time, money, and heartache later. “A thorough orthopedic/soft tissue exam is important to pick up on possible abnormalities prior to increasing activity level,” said Appel. “All vaccines and bloodwork should also be brought up to date. Observing abnormalities during a preseason exam can potentially aid in the prevention of significant injury or illness by properly addressing these issues prior to the season.”

Get the Most from Your Hunting Dog This Season
A pair of alert, intensely focused English Pointers are hunting in a field, with one on point in the foreground. Aaron Davis

Conditioning

You can’t expect a dog to jump off the couch and perform at a peak level. Along with reviewing standards and expectations you’ll have in the field, getting your dog in shape during the preseason will allow them to hunt hard all year while also reducing the chance of injury.

Appel suggests beginning conditioning programs at least 4 to 6 weeks before the start of the season, which can include both land and water exercise. Land conditioning consists of a slow trot “roading” program, which maintains the dog at a consistent pace; roughly 4 to 5-miles per hour for 10 minutes, three times weekly. Increase the time by two minutes per week until reaching a total time of 30 minutes.

The early season can be hot, and while your dog needs to acclimate working in warmer temps, it’s easy for a dog to overheat. Use commonsense, road early in the mornings, wet the dog down and bring water to help with cooling after the exercise.

Even better, have your dog swim in cool, deep water if you can’t avoid the heat. Water conditioning consists of long slow swims, starting at 5 minutes twice a week, adding 2 minutes per week until reaching a goal of 15 minutes total swim time.

Along with preseason vet care and conditioning, warm your dog up prior to training and hunting. Doing so increases flexibility, increases endurance, and reduces the chance of injury. “The ideal warm up is a sustained, fast-paced 5 to 10-minute walk during which the dog is either on lead or at a heel and walking continuously without stopping,” said Appel. “Consistent muscle contraction is the key to the warm-up.”

Get the Most from Your Hunting Dog This Season
A majestic yellow Lab is standing in shallow water with its eyes focused ahead. Katie Behnke

Feed Properly

For working dogs, the importance of a high-fat, high-protein diet can’t be overstated. Hunting dogs face demands not required of lap dogs and couch-potato dogs of the same breed. A 30% protein, 20% fat diet like Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance will fuel your working dog, increasing muscle growth and recovery, metabolism of nutrients, and will allow the dog to use fat as an energy source instead of carbohydrates. All great things for optimum performance.

Likewise, your dog will feel and perform better if he’s fed properly. Overweight dogs have more strain and stress on their joints and ligaments, which can lead to injury. When a dog injures a ligament or a joint because of repetitive strain, not only are you more likely to lose days afield, but your pocketbook may take a hit from vet visits, pain meds, anti-inflammatories or possibly even surgeries.

To prevent an overweight dog, feed the proper formula for your dog’s workload and based on the package’s feeding guidelines. The guidelines will give you a great starting point but adjust the measured amount according to not just workload but your dog’s specific metabolism and the time of year – always keeping an eye toward ideal body condition.

Measured feeding doesn’t just allow you to keep your pup at the ideal body condition, it gives you a quick heads up if something is wrong. When a dog stops eating, or doesn’t eat as much, it’s an early sign something could be wrong—this is especially true for working dogs. With measured feeding you will quickly recognize changes to your dog’s appetite—something you might not notice with free feeding.

Hydrate Up

It’s easy for a dog to become dehydrated very quickly. In the early season, when it’s often warm, it’s easy to recognize when our dogs are working hard and need a drink.

“Hard-working dogs can become mildly dehydrated after just 15 to 20 minutes of persistent activity, particularly if the temperatures are above 70 degrees,” said Dr. Brian Zanghi, a Senior Research Nutritionist at Purina. “At those temps, take a break after 20 minutes of work and offer water to keep the dog hydrated as opposed to trying to rehydrate the dog afterwards.”

What many hunters don’t realize, however, is that the late season can be just as dehydrating. The cold, dry air of winter can accelerate dehydration for a hard-working, panting dog. Even when it’s cold, take routine breaks and give your dog the chance to drink so you avoid dehydration problems later.

Along with keeping your dog hydrated during work, you can also pre-hydrate them. In the days leading up to your hunt, especially if it’s a multi-day hunt, begin floating their food to get extra water in their body. Add water at a one-to-one ratio so that it just begins to float; your dog should eat all the feed and will subsequently consume more water. You can also bait their drinking water with chicken broth or another desirable substance to encourage drinking.

By taking precautions such as consistent veterinarian care, including a preseason checkup, proper hydration and feeding and engaging in a physical conditioning program prior to the season, you will have a healthier, happier dog that performs better.

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