Published August 22, 2010, 12:00 AM

Training for a new season: Hunting dog experts offer advice

Regardless of the breed, dog owners need to focus on obedience and conditioning as they prepare their hunting companions for the field.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

GRAFTON, N.D. — Kenny Miskavige gets his three dogs ready for hunting season the way a trainer might prepare an elite athlete for competition.

It’s a year-round process, he says, a work in progress. And with fall hunting seasons just around the corner, Miskavige is beginning to kick the training regimen up a notch.

“Now you want to start running them in a little more heat, but you have to be careful,” Miskavige said. “You’ve got to make sure you have plenty of water or access to water.”

Owner of Dakota Rose Kennel in Grafton, Miskavige specializes in German wirehair pointers. But regardless of the breed, Miskavige said, dog owners need to focus on obedience and conditioning as they prepare their hunting companions for the field.

It won’t be long now. Upland game seasons begin next month, and pheasant hunters will take the field in early October.

“A dog can make or break a hunting trip,” Miskavige said. “You get a poorly disciplined dog that starts chasing birds up way in front of the hunters, and it can create some hard feelings.”

Get the birds

With young dogs, Miskavige said it’s especially important to get them comfortable with birds before hunting with them. Thursday night, he was putting his year-old wirehair, Minnie, through the paces in his shed, teaching her to hold a point on a training table with a live chukar partridge.

“Whoa. … Whoa,” Miskavige said in a reassuring voice, prompting Minnie to hold in place even with the bird just inches from her nose. At one point, he even set the chukar on the dog’s back, and still, Minnie didn’t move.

Miskavige purchases his birds from a licensed seller. The chukar he trained with Thursday night wasn’t harmed.

“Especially with young dogs, now is the time to get them on birds,” Miskavige said. “If you want a bird dog, it takes birds — that’s the bottom line. You get out of a dog what you’re going to put into it, and it will show in the field.”

Electronic “shock” collars can help break hunting dogs of certain bad habits such as straying too far afield, but Miskavige said dog owners should avoid becoming too reliant on using them.

“So many people think they can get a dog and grab an e-collar, and it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “More dogs are probably ruined by an electric collar than problems corrected by them. And once you screw up a dog, it’s pretty tough to get them to rebound back.”

Getting in shape

Jim Enlow, owner of North Country Labs in Manvel, N.D., said poor nutrition and conditioning are two of the biggest problems he encounters in the field.

Enlow said hunters should avoid feeding dogs products with ingredients that are high in “byproducts,” which could be just about anything. Instead, he said, he prefers to feed his dogs food with pork, pork meal, chicken meal, beef meal or even fish meal as key ingredients.

Miskavige said some hunters switch their dogs to higher-protein, higher-fat foods before hunting season but he sticks with the same food year-round. The key, he said, is to feed smaller portions during the offseason. Measure out the portions based on the dog’s weight and avoid overfeeding.

“You don’t want to use hunting season as a time to take off the weight,” Miskavige said. “Some people think that the dog is going to lose a lot of weight, but the dog should be in good condition prior to hunting season — their tendons, their legs, all of their muscles.

“Dogs are athletes — no different than a basketball or football player — and the chances of having a leg injury or pulled muscles are higher if the dogs aren’t in condition.”

Here in the flatlands of the Red River Valley, Enlow said it can be difficult to train dogs for working in more rugged terrain such as southwestern North Dakota pheasant country. So, as hunting season approaches, he’ll ride a 10-speed bike and let the dogs run alongside.

The exercise is a win for the hunter, too, he said.

“I don’t like to see guys let the dogs run alongside the pickup,” he said. “Every year, you hear of three or four getting killed that way, and it just breaks your heart.”

Veterinarian’s view

Dr. Rick Odegard of Kindness Animal Hospital in Grand Forks said beyond proper conditioning, hunters also should make sure their dogs are up-to-date on vaccinations. Rabies is on the upswing in both Minnesota and North Dakota, he said, and Lyme disease has become prevalent in Minnesota.

Dogs should be vaccinated for rabies every two or three years, he said, and receive booster shots for Lyme disease annually. Odegard also recommends dogs be protected with a product called Frontline Plus, which is administered to the fur and kills ticks, fleas and other parasites.

Lyme disease is transmitted by deer ticks, which have become more abundant in northern Minnesota in recent years and also have shown up in smaller numbers in North Dakota. Symptoms vary, Odegard said, but dogs often experience stiffness and soreness.

“We’ve been checking a lot more of the lame dogs for it if they’ve got multiple leg or joint lameness,” Odegard said. “It’s surprising how often we find it. We’ve had three or four dogs that we feel were pretty much only North Dakota dogs that were probably exposed in North Dakota.”

In the field, hunters should carry a first aid kit for tending minor wounds.

“Also be a little careful the first few days to make sure the dog doesn’t overdo it,” Odegard said. “Especially watch the temperatures. If it’s warm, make sure there’s plenty of water available and take short walks.”

Enlow and Miskavige said they also add electrolyte supplements to help hydrate their dogs.

Watch the dog

In the fall of 2003, excessive heat resulted in the deaths of numerous hunting dogs during South Dakota’s pheasant opener. Signs of overheating, Odegard said, include excessive panting and the dog’s tongue hanging to the ground; in severe cases, dogs can go into seizures and die quickly.

To avoid the worst, Odegard said hunters should carry a thermometer in the field. A dog’s normal temperature is 101.5, he said, and if overheating is suspected, the animal should be cooled with lukewarm water until its temperature drops to about 103. Then, the dog should be dried off.

“The big things are don’t work them too hard and watch the temperatures, and then the vaccines,” Odegard said.

It might seem like common sense, but after 40 years in the dog business, Enlow, the Manvel expert, said too many hunters wait until the last minute to prepare their hunting companions for the field.

Still, he said, starting the regimen now is better than not at all. And whether the dog is in shape or out of condition, if they show signs of quitting, it’s time to quit.

“A dog will kill himself to please you, and that’s the thing,” Enlow said. “Once they start lagging behind and slowing down, it’s time to take a break.”

As Miskavige, the Grafton trainer, said, a good dog is an investment that needs to be protected.

“There’s no quick fix to having a good quality dog, no shortcuts,” he said. “It takes time — it really does.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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