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How to Make Your Early Season Efficient

How conditions (and conditioning) help you decide your hunting strategy.

How to Make Your Early Season Efficient

Don’t wait to get your dog in shape for the upcoming hunting season. (GUN DOG photo)

Let’s say you live in the Midwest, and you’ve got a dream chukar hunt booked in Hells Canyon of Idaho, or some other tough-as-nails, up-and-down environment. You would not decide a week before the trip to lace up your hunting boots and head to the gym to use the stair-climber to prepare.

You would start weeks, or better yet, months earlier.

The same rules apply to hunting dogs and the early season. And just like with ourselves and real physical challenges, the main concern right off the bat is weight and starting condition. To put it bluntly, it’s hard to get a dog into shape for hunting season when it’s carrying extra pounds.

This is why I preach the benefits of keeping a dog active all year, and really paying attention to their body conditioning every day. Perfect, ideal weight is a moving target. It depends on the dog’s activity levels, of course, but also on how the dog looks. If my Labs do not have a nice cut right behind the ribs and the lean, but not “too lean” look, I know I need to reduce their calories by half of a scoop. On the other end, and far less common, is the dog that is not getting enough food. With retrievers, visible ribs or a visible backbone, means the dog is not getting enough calories.

dog trainer with labrador retriever on leash
Address any weight issues before diving into conditioning to get your dog ready for the season. (GUN DOG photo)


Cardio, Cardio, Cardio 

A lot of first-time elk hunters show up in the mountains with injuries because they pushed it too much in too short of a time before their trip. This happens with bird dogs as well, and requires that we as owners ask of them what they are capable of when we are working on their early season conditioning.

The first step here, besides tackling any potential weight issues, is to understand where your dog is conditioning-wise. There is a big difference between a dog that has been properly trained into great shape all summer long, versus the dog that goes on a leashed walk once a day.

Hunting dogs need to run. They love it, in fact. We just need to give them the right opportunities to do so. This requires training grounds with some space, and the willingness to provide good opportunities to stretch out and work their lungs.


I really like to mix training into cardio for this, which kills two birds with one stone. Now, if you have a young dog, you’ll probably be training them into shape anyway, because they need lots of training. An older dog that knows the drill, usually doesn’t need as much training. But they do need plenty of cardio.

I tend to use long-distance retrieving drills and hunt-dead drills to sharpen my dogs’ skills and get them moving the right way. These happen both on land, and on the water. I know everyone does not have easy opportunities to let their dogs swim, but I urge everyone to try to find them. Mixing in running on land while using their brains to solve a problem, and then doing the same thing with low-impact, high-cardio swimming, is a great way to really get a dog into shape.

This also gives you options when the conditions are working against you. For example, I might take my dogs out early in the morning in the coolest part of the day to do some land work. Maybe we’ll run some 250-yard, long distance retrieves and then I’ll use a bumper or a dead bird to set up some hunt-dead type drills. As the day progresses and the sun starts climbing higher in the sky, those land-based drills start to become a bad idea.

But cold water is still an option, so we have the chance to keep working on their hunting skills and their cardio—even if it’s blistering hot out. This is important, and it makes a big difference once the early season hunts kick off.

chocolate labrador retriever swimming in water
Water conditioning is a great way to build stamina in the summer heat. It's a low-impact, but high-cardio exercise. (GUN DOG photo)

Early Season Hunts

A lot of us wrestle with the unfortunate reality that early season hunts can be really hot. This goes for all kinds of upland opportunities, and it pays to remember that heat is a dog killer. Now, there is an obvious difference between setting up for a dove hunt on the edge of a sunflower field versus a 10-mile marathon in the Sandhills looking for prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse.

In either case, and every other opportunity, the truth is it’s up to us to be honest about our dog’s conditioning, and the conditions in which we are asking them to work. It goes without saying (although I will anyway) that you should always carry plenty of water with you, but that’s not enough. You should also make sure you’ve got a way to deliver that water to your dog.

Some hunters carry a collapsible water bowl, while others just use a water bottle and hope that enough gets into their dog’s mouth. I actually train my dogs to drink from a sports bottle for this reason, which usually just involves using a little peanut butter to teach them where the water will originate from. After that exposure, they tend to understand how to drink from a bottle.

dog trainer giving a labrdor retriever water
Heat is always an issue throughout summer training and early season hunts. Be sure to offer your dog plenty of water and run them in the cooler parts of the day. (GUN DOG photo)

It’s also a good idea to pour some of that water onto their head, or onto your hand and then rub it onto their head. Dogs lose heat through their mouths by panting, so cooling off their forehead acts a little bit like an air conditioner.

I also try to plan my hunting routes to bring us to clean water, whether that’s a stock tank, a small stream, or whatever. Once at the water source, because I run high drive dogs that won’t quit hunting unless I make them, I’ll break my shotgun open and sit right down. This signals to the dogs that it’s time to relax for a second and then they will resign themselves to the break. This gets them in the water to not only drink, but to also cool off and chill out a little bit.

The early season is a special time. A time that signals the start of the hunting season. It’s also a time when we as dog owners have a heightened responsibility to pay attention to how physically fit our dogs are, and how potentially dangerous the conditions can be to them. The best way to do this is to start early, and slowly work your dog into being really hunt-ready while keeping a close eye on the heat and the task at hand. If you do, you will have plenty of success during the early season while warming up for the heart of the fall when all of the magic really happens.  

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