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Potential Perils of Preseason Conditioning

Essential advice to keep your dog safe during off-season summer training.

Potential Perils of Preseason Conditioning

During summer conditioning, you should evaluate your dog's physical fitness and develop a strategy that fits their needs. (Photo By: Tom Keer)

Summer is a tough time to condition dogs for opening day. Heat related illness gets a lot of attention, but there are many other issues that can cause setbacks, too. Identifying them means you can avoid them.

The Devil Is in the Details

Tomorrow’s training won’t happen with an injured dog, and here are some things to avoid.

Snake Bites: You might not see snakes when you’re hunting, and that’s probably because the cool or cold temperatures make them less active. If you live in an area where venomous snakes are active, then give some thought to snake avoidance training. Handlers should wear snake boots or shin guards to avoid their own trip to the hospital.

Healthy Pads: Depending on a cut’s severity, your dog may be out of commission for a while. Condition a dog’s pads through gradual work in soft to moderate environments and leave rugged terrain for later on. Some products like Tuf Foot help expedite the process. Dry pads cut more easily, too. A Minnesota company created Natural Hound Balm which is 100 percent natural and contains beeswax, candelilla wax, olive oil, and jojoba oil. A daily application restores suppleness to pads while nourishing them to reduce cracking.

Watch the Water: Dogs should drink between .5 and 1.5 gallons of water per day—and more when they’re running hard. But some water can make dogs sick, says Jill Cline, the Site Director at Eukanuba’s Pet Health and Nutrition Center. “Most of the time handlers find clean water in streams, ponds, rivers, or large-animal troughs. But dogs don’t always know there is clean freshwater nearby and commonly drink from what is immediately available. Cooling off in a mud puddle is one thing but drinking from it can cause illness. Bacteria and protozoa found in the standing mud puddles can cause Giardia and diarrhea, both of which reduce a dog’s performance.”

Water Source: “If you’re running in or near a farm field there is no telling what kind of toxins might be in those puddles,” Cline said. “Run-off may contain weed killer or fertilizer used in nearby fields. If you’re training along the coast, the salt in the sea water is a dehydrator. Dogs that drink enough of it can experience kidney failure. The workaround is to carry in your own water. Wear either a vest with a Camelback bladder or toss several bottles of water and a collapsible bowl in your vest. Add some ice cubes to the water, especially the bladder. Bladders against your back heat up to your own body temperature.”

dog trainer giving water to two english setter dogs
Stagnant water in hot summer months can cause deadly algae to bloom. Be sure to provide your dog with a clean water source. (Photo By: Kali Parmley)

Cyanobacteria: Many dog deaths made the national news during the summer of 2019. Reporting states were Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Oregon, and Minnesota. Their commonality in those deaths came from toxicity from blue green algae which can be harmful—if not fatal—to dogs. The algae blooms appear when there are high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in stagnant water during the hottest part of the season.  

Cyanobacteria is called an algae because it is visible when large amounts gather together. They’re frequently colorful, with blooms appearing in blue, bright green, and red hues. One complication is that they’re frequently invisible and are only detected by a strong odor. Gun dogs can encounter cyanobacteria when taking a drink, fetching a bumper, or splashing around to cool off. Dogs that lick the algae from their fur can ingest the bacteria.

Common symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, disorientation, seizures, and collapse. Kidney failure can occur, too. Most of those symptoms resemble the three stages of heat related illness, but there is one significant difference; symptoms may appear shortly after contact while others may take days before they show.

The easiest solution is to know which ponds contain blue green algae. Because of its severity, many states now publish reports of summer blooms. Being able to identify the algae is helpful but not always likely. If you know your dogs have come in contact with the bacteria then thoroughly wash them immediately. After that, call your vet.

dog trainer shooting over water with yellow labrador
Working dogs in water on hot summer days can help them keep cool. (GUN DOG photo)

Watch Self-Cleaning

Dr. Jill Cline says, “Self-cleaning can mean a lot of different things. Saliva has antibacterial enzymes that help dogs get rid of bacterial infections in open wounds. It can get rid of dead skin cells and make fur grow more healthily. Most of the time it's fine, but occasionally it's not good at all.” Here are four common instances to avoid.

Field spraying: “If you're working in shelterbelts next to fields of row crops and your dog licks its paws or pads, they may ingest fertilizer or pesticides used in the field. If you're concerned about what sprays a farmer may have used, rinse off paws prior to loading up your dogs.”

Seeds from hitch hiker plants: “Dog's trying to remove Burdock, Begger's Lice, or Cockleburs from their coats can swallow the seeds which become lodged in their throat or GI tract. Comb out any prickly seeds before they get swallowed.”  

Disease contracted by rolling: “Dogs love to roll, and if they roll around in a field of rye grass, they just may be scratching their back. But if they flop around in a cow pie or in a decayed animal carcass then there is a good chance they can get sick if they lick themselves or eat a bite. To avoid sickness, wash them off in a pond or stream before putting them in the kennel.”

What What Your Dogs Eat in the Field

Dogs can get a hold of things that make them sick enough to miss preseason training. This list is long, but two stand out.

Mushrooms: Not long ago, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson lost his dog to mushroom poisoning. Cline says some mushrooms have "toxins that destroy a dog’s liver and immune system, thereby making recovery difficult if not impossible. Grocery store mushrooms are safe, but Amanita is the most dangerous. False morels that you avoid while foraging won't kill a dog, but they will promote intense vomiting. Hallucinogenic mushrooms like psilocybin have the same effect on dogs as they do on humans: abnormal behavior, howling, and strange eye movement.”

Grass: Are dogs eating grass because they’re sick? “That's the million-dollar question," says Cline, "but there is no formal data on what grass does to a dog's gut. And because research studies are so invasive, the answer probably won't come any time soon. What is known is that dogs frequently vomit after they eat grass which is not good for the esophagus. "If you're training in farm country there is no way to tell if the grass has been treated with chemicals. If you think your dog is eating grass because he has an upset stomach, then consult your vet.”


Fit is It   

Summer training starts with a proper fitness evaluation, says Russ Kelley, an avid upland and waterfowl hunter and Eukanuba’s Scientific Services Nutritionist. “Preseason training should start with an assessment of your dog’s physical condition. Dogs that have been sedentary in the off-season should get an annual physical with a vet. Check your dog’s weight on the scale and compare it to the Body Condition Score. Over-weight dogs should shed a few pounds before handlers increase their work loads, especially in the summer heat. Start with short walks and set ups to condition their muscles, strengthen their cardiovascular system and increase their V02 max. Dogs respond to physical work faster than people, but still, take your time. You’ll avoid injuries if you allow their bodies to adjust to the increased activity.”

two english pointers in woods
Proper summer conditioning will ensure your dog is ready to handle the demand of the upcoming hunting season. (GUN DOG photo)

Feed for Success   

In the offseason, many handlers transition dogs to a lower protein and fat blend. Others maintain proper weight by feeding reduced portions. “Working dogs need performance nutrition,” Kelley said. “Their bodily functions need additional protein and fat for energy, and antioxidants to help with recovery. Beet pulp and FOS help support the GI system, and chondroitin and glucosamine help support tendons and ligaments. Feed gun dogs a performance blend that supports their heightened activity.”

Feed the Right Amount   

Proper feeding is more than scooping kibble into a bowl. To figure out the right amount, first, divide a dog’s body weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert it to kilograms. Then, raise the dog’s weight in kilograms to the ¾ power and multiply by 70.

Here's an example:

• A 44-pound dog’s weight divided by 2.2 means he weighs 20 kilograms.

• 70(20kg) raised to the ¾ power is 662 kilocalories that your dog needs to consume every day just to fuel his daily requirements.

But hard-working dogs need more calories, so how much is enough? If your 44-pound dog is performing light work, multiply that daily caloric need by 2. For moderate work, multiple the daily caloric need by 3. For heavy work, multiple the daily caloric need by up to 6.

Here's how it might look for a 44-pound dog:

Check your dog food bag to see how many kcals are in each cup and feed your dog 1⁄3 of the amount in the morning at least three hours before he runs. The remaining 2⁄3 of his food should come in the evening after his core body temperature has returned to normal.

Kelley recommends weighing your dog regularly. “Body weights need to be measured and recorded a few times per week when you start out,” he said. “Once workloads have stabilized the frequency can be reduced to once every week or two. Under estimating energy requirements will result in weight loss, while overestimating them can result in weight gain.”

dog trainer with mobile dog kennel for training
Wet dogs in warm kennels can develop a fungus—especially double-coated Labs. Be sure your dog is dried off before loading up. (Photo By: Kali Parmley)

Heat Awareness   

Kelley says, “Avoiding heat related illness is important, and the 140 rule of thumb works well. Add air temperature and the humidity percentage together’ if it’s over 140 then be careful about how hard you run your dogs. Make sure your dog drinks plenty of water, too. Dogs need between half a gallon and 1.5 gallons per day for their general health, more if they’re working hard and in the heat.”

Adjust to the Environment   

Some environmental conditions are harder on dogs than others. “Running dogs at high elevations causes them to work much harder than at sea level,” Kelley said. “There is less oxygen in the mountains than at sea level, and a dog’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems have to work harder. Core temperatures climb when dogs work harder, and they work harder running in loose shale, mud, and sand. Those conditions also are tough on their joints and pads, so be sure dogs are in peak condition before you ask them to work in those aggressive terrains.”

bird hunter with ruffed grouse, woodcock, and an english setter dog
Success during the hunting season often start with proper summer conditioning. (GUN DOG photo)

Plan for Success   

Chris Akin from Webb Footed Kennels in Jonesboro, Arkansas says, “It’s tough to train dogs in the summer, especially if you’ve got a lot of personal and professional commitments. Wake up and get your training in early; you’ll work dogs during the coolest it’ll be that day. Dogs also adapt more easily to rising temperatures, so get your butt out of bed in the morning and get after it.”

Akin's advice to keep dogs healthy when they’re not running:

Shady Stakeouts: “Keep dogs cool by staking them out in a shady, breezy area. That’s especially important for dogs with dark coats. A black or chocolate Lab absorbs more heat than a lighter-colored dog.”

No Fungus Among Us: “Wet dogs in warm kennels can develop a fungus. That’s especially common with Labs that have a double coat. Make sure dogs are dry before you load ‘em up.”

Rig Awareness: “Metal heats up fast, and that means the interior temperature inside of kennels, truck toppers, or even a dog box in the back bed of a pickup can get hot. Park rigs in the shade. Also, make sure your kennels have good ventilation. Door fans are a good idea when it’s really hot.”

Heat and humidity always make for difficult training conditions. So do a lot of other issues. Remember that tomorrow is always another training day, one you won’t get to with an injured dog.


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