A well-trained and disciplined hunting dog is an incredible asset. Conversely, a pup conditioned only to beg for table scraps and lounge indoors can quickly become a royal nuisance in the field and may ruin an otherwise enjoyable hunt.
I grew up with guys who hunted casually. That’s not to say we weren’t enthusiastic about it, but we had other interests that occupied our summers, and the fall hunting season always seemed to sneak up on us. The problem with that kind of reactionary approach to hunting is that the results are typically as you’d expect: less than stellar. Opening morning isn’t the time to ask yourself, “Did I remember to put the plug back in my shotgun after pheasant season last year? Do I have enough shells in my dry box? I never did patch that hole in my waders, did I?”
Included in the latter category, and part and parcel to our reactionary approach to hunting, was whistling for the family dog (up here in Minnesota that’s almost invariably some shade of Labrador retriever), who hadn’t done anything but gnaw on rope bones and take long naps since last hunting season, and heading for the field or the marsh. But taking a pooch who barely acknowledges even the simplest commands into the field a few times a year can be dangerous for the dog and is sure to be frustrating for you and your hunting partners.
Everyone gets a workout when hunting, but that goes double for dogs. They work orders of magnitude harder and cover much more ground than we do, swimming hundreds of yards in frigid lakes or blitzing through thick tangles of buckthorn and willow. Like any athletic event, that demands conditioning and preparation. A family dog that spends most of the year house-bound and immobile will fatigue much faster than one held to an active lifestyle with regular training. This can be especially dangerous in such cases where a dog’s fitness can mean the difference between life and death. A wounded goose on the water can drown an inexperienced or out-of-condition dog.
Also, our canine counterparts are often so enthusiastic about being out hunting that they ignore any pain or discomfort they feel—the warning signs calling for them to slow down or rest—until their bodies give out. I’ve seen dogs run themselves to the point of abject exhaustion while sniffing out Ringnecks. That’s much more likely to happen if Fido is out of shape or disobedient.
Even if your dog is young and in good health, if she doesn’t listen to your commands, she could end up very lost in the woods or found traipsing along a busy highway a mile away. Don’t be the guy or gal who spends the entire hunt shouting themselves hoarse, compulsively punching the warning button on the shock caller remote, only to watch mature roosters flush at the end of the field where Fido has moved on without you. There are few things more gutting than watching your bird dog leap out of the duck boat right as a flock is committing to your decoys.
Even basic retrieval can be challenging for inexperienced or undertrained dogs. Don’t assume your pedigreed pup will instinctively know how to find and recover a bird, or will be willing to swim out past wader depth to grab a downed duck based on your point commands. As with many things in hunting and in life, self-awareness is imperative. One of life’s greater joys is hunting alongside your dog, but don’t let the appeal of that blind you to reality. If your pup isn’t prepared for the hunt, make a point to spend more time training and preparing, but don’t force the issue. Your hunting buddies—and Fido—will thank you.