Dr Jacqueline Boyd, BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, PGCHE, CHES, FHEA, MRSB
Nutritional Consultant, Skinner’s Pet Foods
The nights have started drawing in. There is an early morning chill. Pheasants are exploring ever further afield, and wellies are once again, staple dog walking gear……to many of us, this means one thing – the shoot season is almost here.
After a long, warm and dry summer, with the transition to cooler, wetter temperatures and the expectation of long working days, we need to consider how best to get our canine companions fit and ready for the season. Whether you have beating dogs, picking up dogs, peg dogs or “jack of all” dogs, preparation is key to ensuring you and your dog(s) have a fruitful, enjoyable and hassle-free season as possible.
Conditioning and Training
Many gundogs have an off season. For some, that is total kennel rest and then being brought back to fitness before the season starts. For others, it is a chance to recharge but perhaps partaking in other disciplines, tests, scurries and so on. Some dogs revert to being 100% pet out of season and then become a single-minded gundog on their first day out. Others however, will continue to work daily, perhaps on different, management tasks. Whatever your dog does, thinking about preparing their body (and mind) for the season is important. Indeed, the better the fitness and condition your dog enters the season with, the more likely it is that your dog will perform well for the entire season.
An easy and important way to train and condition is exercise. Mixing the types, duration, intensity and frequency of exercise will also be useful to train and condition your dog for both stamina and those occasional sprints, after a runner for example. Walking on lead, trotting along beside a bike, hunting up areas, long and short retrieves (with gradually increasing weights of dummies!), free running and more regimented training will all help condition different parts of your dog’s physiology – done regularly and well, you’ll also reap the benefits too! As well as training the body, you can incorporate those critical training exercises to brush up on all those mental skills that may have got a little rusty out of season – mental exercise also being useful to keep our gundogs alert and mentally (as well as physically!) agile!
Traditionally, out of season, gundogs are swapped onto a maintenance ration (for example Skinner’s Maintenance or Maintenance Plus) which is typically lower in nutrients (especially protein and fat) than provided in season. Indeed, if the activity level of a dog is dramatically reduced, this is a sensible move to avoid the perils of weight gain and obesity in extreme cases. In the run up to the start of the new season, it’s useful to start making nutritional changes onto a higher nutritional profile (for example, Skinner’s Working 23 or Muesli Mix) in advance of the first day – ideally gradually introducing a more nutrient dense/rich food about a month before. When introducing the new food, do so gradually, ideally over 5-7 days to allow the digestive system (and all the microbes that live in it!) to adapt and hopefully avoid any digestive upset. As your dog’s energy requirements increase in the run up to the start of the season, gradually increase the amount fed, ideally in at least two meals a day to ensure maximal digestion.
For some dogs however, especially those who have continued with different activities out of season, there might have been very little dietary alteration. Indeed, science is increasingly suggesting that keeping your dog on the same nutrient profile (especially fat levels in their diet) out of season, can help maintain their metabolism to deal with those nutrients in season! Worth thinking about next year perhaps!
In Part 2 of this series, we will consider how to manage your gundog as the season starts and on those first few days!