Don’t let your dog down with festive indulgences.
Wendy Bardsley explains how to keep your dog in good shape throughout the festive season.
The season is well underway and the festive activities are imminent. Whether you have a picking-up, beating or peg dog, it’s a good time to check they’re in good shape and review their performance in the field. Hopefully you will be reaping the benefits of your pre-season preparation and training, but it’s important to consider how you can sustain these energy levels and get the most out of your season. As the festive period of overindulgence approaches, now is a good time to take stock and check if any changes need to be made – think about what is going well and how can you maintain your dog’s health to prevent a drop in performance and ensure an enjoyable, successful season.
Wiltshire gundog trainer Tracy Corbin from Corbinsbere Gundogs picks-up on a regular basis with her team of spaniels.
“I treat all my dogs like athletes,” explains Tracy.
“It’s essential to reach a good standard of fitness prior to the start of the season so they enter the field in good shape. Their workload is increased a couple of months earlier with more training that includes retrieving up hill and down, long memory retrieves, hunting, sweeping and quartering, and extending the time to develop their stamina.”
It goes without saying that the better the health and fitness your dog enters the field with, the more likely it is they will sustain their body condition and performance levels for the whole season.
Gundog competitor Matty Lambden is part of the Irish team and ensures his dogs sustain a good level of fitness in the working test domain to give a smooth transition into the trialling and picking-up season.
“I have a large field with fairly steep hills beside my kennels and I get the dogs to jog up and down the hills,” says Matty. “They absolutely love it and see it as their play time. It also gives the younger dogs a chance to learn from the older ones.”
Beating and picking-up requires stamina and resilience from handler and dog, so it’s important to keep yourself in good shape, too. It’s likely your dog entered the season with a good level of fitness, stamina and overall condition that will enable them to step up and perform, however, it’s easy to let things slide. Be sure to monitor energy levels and condition, especially as the winter weather sets in. Checking their weight, coat condition and stool composition regularly are good ways to identify if any small changes need to be made to their diet.
Matty Lambden determines his dog’s health by monitoring their stools.
“My dogs are individual kennelled, so I know exactly what they’re eating and if I see a change in their stools I can act on it straightaway,” he says.
Consider too whether you need to adjust the frequency and duration of training sessions on non-shoot days and whether your dog needs a complete rest following a shoot day.
Tracy Corbin makes adjustments according to each dog’s needs.
“If they’ve had a long hard day picking-up I would give them a rest day. In-between there’s always a focus on training and working on specific areas such as the stop whistle, making sure the dog is nice and steady, and hunting has to be tight.”
The shorter darker days in the winter can present a challenge with your training if you are juggling a regular job with your shoot days. The late Graham Cox encouraged handlers to think ‘creatively about what can be done rather than bemoaning the impossibility of the situation’. Sustaining your dog’s energy levels and performance throughout the season requires some training in-between shoot days and correct training in the dark may develop your dog’s tool kit for the field – practice your heel work and memory retrieves and don’t let the dark evenings restrict your training development.
There is little quality research on how different diets affect the health of dogs in general. There are advantages and disadvantages to both kibble and raw diets and it’s down to you to select one that suits your dog and fits with your lifestyle and picking-up/beating schedule. However, it’s worth speaking to the food manufactures, developing your knowledge and learning more about what’s out there as this area is continual evolving.
There’s no doubt a dog’s diet must be managed according to workload and individual needs, and as your dog’s energy requirements increase as the season progresses, some question whether you need to increase the amount fed. It may not be the case if your dog has been involved in test or training activities outside of the season.
“I feed my dogs a raw diet as I think it develops their stamina,” explains Tracy. “They have a good quality mince early in the morning on a shoot day and, depending on what day I have ahead of me, I may use the odd Kronch energy bar at lunch time to maintain performance throughout the day. Each dog is different so it’s essential they maintain their weight and not lose weight throughout the season.”
Tracy has seven experienced cocker spaniels as part of her team. These little dogs reflect pure energy and will happily work hard all day. There’s no doubt they are an asset to a shoot day and their flexibility allows them to beat and retrieve. With their hard-working ethos in mind, it’s crucial to manage their energy levels so that they don’t burn out by mid-morning and risk a drop in performance.
High-energy supplement snacks on a shoot day may not be for everyone, but they can provide support and help in maintaining energy levels, especially for dogs that need a little extra fuel for the afternoon shift. Annette Clark, gundog competitor for the England retriever team 2018, picks-up throughout the season with a team of nine dogs. She gives her cocker spaniels Kronch bars on a shoot day for an energy boost.
“I feed all my dogs tripe mixed with Simpsons’s Chicken & Potato. We also feed a lot of minced tripe, chicken and beef, as well as good chicken carcasses.”
Matty also feeds his team of labrador retrievers tripe mixed with salmon oil and feels it works well.
“I usually increase the amount of food during our busy days when the dogs are working hard and the colder weather sets in,” he explains.
Whether it’s the odd pork pie from your lunch or a specialised energy bar they can be invaluable on a shoot day. But beware of the festive canapés and game pies that
are key ingredients of a Christmas shoot. The festive vibes will draw you in to enjoy a hearty indulgence of vast amounts of food knowing you’ll work off the calories in the afternoon drive. Try to resist extending the indulgence to your canine companion – a wandering labrador retriever may find the temptation all too much!
Beating the elements
Before heading off to the pub for a well-earned drink it’s essential to sort your dog first as their comfort and wellbeing is paramount. Regular checks and maintenance of your dog’s body is vital, so drying them down properly at the end of the day and checking for nicks and cuts is a requisite for every shoot day.
Depending on the breed, it’s a good idea to keep a comb or bristle brush in the car for a quick groom at the end of the day, too. If your dog beats it’s important to brush out any burrs, thorns and thistles and check their body at the same time as burrs that are left can knot the coat and cause problems down the line.
Dog coats aren’t for everyone but some need a good coat between drives to avoid tired muscles getting cold. For retrievers and pointing breeds that will be exposed to cold, wet conditions, a good neoprene vest will help to keep them warm. Some of the fleece coats can repel water well and provide a warm layer in colder conditions. There are a plethora of coats available and some remove a high percentage of moisture from a wet coat quickly and cleanly, so do your research and find one that suits your dog’s individual needs. At the very end of a shoot day when your dog is exhausted, wet and cold, fitting them with a coat for the journey home can help to prevent stiffness setting in.
Provide a dry dog bed at the end of the day for the drive home, too. And remember your dog can lose a large amount of body heat overnight if they’ve been working hard all day, so you may want to consider some form of heat in the kennel or warm sleeping quarters if the dog is kept inside.
Being out and exposed to the elements means your working dog also has a much higher risk of injury and disease in the field. Check with your vet that vaccinations are up to date as part of your midseason health check. As with any disease, prevention is always better than cure.
Enjoyable days in the beating line and picking-up are in full flow so now’s the time to implement a midseason checklist to monitor your dog’s energy levels and make sure you’re getting the most out of your season. Whether you want to adjust your training, make small changes to diets or simply monitor your dog’s weight and stools, adhere to your list and enjoy the festive period knowing your dogs are in very good shape for the remainder of the season.
A dog’s diet must be managed according to their workload.
Keep your dog warm and dry after a day in the field to prevent stiffness and signs of hypothermia.