If my first priority of the off season is maintaining the health of our farms, the second priority is maintaining the health of my dogs. Retrievers are fine tuned athletes, but like athletes, they must be in good physical condition. We see a lot of different dogs come through the lodge every year and it’s easy to tell the ones that haven’t had much exercise in the off season. You can’t expect an athlete to sit idle for six months and then come out and perform flawlessly.
This summer has been a different one in my dog book with the addition of Ruff’s son, Junior! Ruff is ten years old now and starting to slow down; he has had a lot of hard miles put on his body in his many thousands of retrieves. During his first few summers, we were training hard everyday to expand on his abilities. The last several off seasons have been spent mainly just keeping him in shape without nearly as much technical training – he already had it down for the most part. With Junior’s arrival, it’s been back to square one!!
Junior started the summer with a professional trainer, rolling through the work of basic obedience, marking drills and handling. I am certainly not a dog trainer, but once the beginning phases of the technical work had been done, I could handle the rest. Keep in mind, I don’t need a field trial champion…I need a rock solid meat dog. I need a dog that marks well, handles well, and keeps me from picking up birds myself. Expanding upon Junior’s training is a matter of putting in the time to give him repetitions and lengthen out his handling on blind retrieves. The hot summer made for many early mornings and late nights, as it was too hot to run him during the middle of the day.
Every morning, I practice the ‘Single T’ with Junior. This is a basic handling drill with him sitting 40 yards in front of me and a pile of bumpers to his left, right and behind. From there, I give him a hand signal directing him towards which pile he needs to retrieve a bumper. This keeps him fresh on his handling, and every few days, I would take the piles an additional ten yards further from him. As the summer progressed, I added ‘angle backs’ that would direct him towards a pile of bumpers 45* to his back left or back right. We also did a lot of ‘pattern blinds’, which are blind retrieves that we run daily. In other words, he doesn’t see the bumper fall, but he knows the route to it. These are done to give him confidence, and have made it easier for him to do ‘cold blinds’ later in the summer. Cold blinds are blind retrieves in patterns that he is not familiar with, done in new areas. These started out short, maybe 50 yards, and as his confidence and handling abilities grew they have stretched out to 150-200 yards now at the end of the summer. We have also worked a lot on marking. Marking is pretty basic, these are birds or bumpers that the dog sees fall. Again, these started out as short singles and have progressed to triple marks shot out of a dummy launcher, with all three marks being 70-150 yards out. When working on marking, we used many different areas and situations: marks in water, dry land, across water and onto dry land, across dry land and into water, short cover, medium cover, heavy cover…and all combinations of them!
Now that the summer is coming to an end, I have a dog that I am confident is ready for what the Fall will bring, both mentally and physically. He is in shape and a chiseled specimen! The biggest thing that really ‘makes’ or finishes a great meat dog is killing a lot of birds over them. Junior has done his work, now it is time for me to do mine and give him a lot of birds to retrieve!
Dove season is opening in a couple of days, the kick-off for what should be another incredible hunting season. I am excited to see how Junior performs and the dog he will develop into. This is somewhat bittersweet, though, as it is going to tear my heart out when I load Junior up in the mornings and have to leave Ruff behind! Ruff is not fully retired and he will still get the nod a couple days a week. He still has his incredible drive, but his body doesn’t recover as fast from intense physical exertion. The bond between a hunter and their dog is incredible and irreplaceable. There won’t ever be a dog that fully replaces Ruff…Junior has big paws to fill. Ruff has earned his spot on a pillow inside! As his journey is slowing down, Junior’s is just cranking up. Best of luck to all of you and your hunting dogs this season. Make some memories!!