Like any athlete your gun dog will be more prone to exhaustion and injury when afield if you do not take the time to get it into proper physical condition before the season starts. Poor condition could even result in sudden death under the stress of hunting.
The start of any conditioning program is proper nutrition. The total amount of calories and the percentage of protein and fat your dog will require will always vary according to multiple factors. However, all dogs need more when they are working, and the harder they are working the more they will need. It is particularly important to feed sufficient levels of fat to the dog that is under stress from work, weather and other factors. There are different ways to meet these needs. If your dog is on a diet of thirty/ percent protein and twenty percent fat (performance diet) all year, simply increasing the amount fed may be sufficient. This may be the case with those of you who keep your dog active all year and with kennel dogs, who are naturally more active. If your dog is on a standard adult diet or maintenance diet then putting it on a performance diet prior to the season is preferable. However the needed increase in calories, especially fat, is addressed the increase needs to start six to eight weeks before the hunting season so your dog has a chance to build up the necessary reserves of stored fat in its system.
Your conditioning program needs to address several areas of your dog's fitness. Pad toughness, muscle condition and cardio vascular endurance are all .a concern. The kennel dog will have a head start on its house living brethren in all of these areas. This is one of the few negatives to keeping a gun dog in the house, but it is easily addressed by being more conscientious about preseason conditioning. Pointing, flushing and retrieving breeds all have different body types suited to what they are bred to do, and their conditioning needs will vary to how they are being used in the field, for example either for upland work or water retrieving. The pointing breeds are the equivalent to the human long distance runner while the retrievers may be more like the offensive lineman in football. Take all of this into consideration when feeding and exercising your canine partner.
For upland hunting dogs I start with short twenty minute walks in the field three mornings a week for two weeks. As they start to handle the workouts better I increase the time afield. The third and fourth weeks workout time is increased to about forty-five minute runs. The fifth and sixth weeks are usually the weeks just before grouse season. I increase the workouts to ninety minutes, and one day each of those two weeks is devoted to hunts on the preserve sharpening both their condition and their bird work under real conditions to them.
In our area the first two weeks of grouse season are warm and forbidding with heavy foiliage still on the trees. During those weeks I hunt the first two or three hours of the morning then get out of the woods by ten or eleven before the snakes get active. By the time cooler weather and the heart of the season arrive my dogs are in pretty good shape, and I have benefited as well. Adjust your workouts for your type of hunting and your area of the country, but be sure to slowly work your dog into the shape it needs in order to perform its job to the highest level of efficiency and least level of risk.
Along with a good preseason conditioning program vet checks, keeping your dog in reasonable condition all year and feeding a high quality dog food will all help your dog perform to its maximum level of ability during the hunting season. They will also help to prevent injury and to prevent you from missing a large part of the season because your canine partner is out of the game.
If you are planning a trip that will require your dog to hunt long hours every day for an extended period of time, or if you hunt that way all season then extra attention may need to be given to a dietary supplement, mainly for glycogen replacement. There are several products on the market that do the job when used according to instructions. If you are in doubt consult your vet about the theory and application behind glycogen replacement. Also, when being worked extra hard, dogs sometimes get off their food due to fatigue. Glycogen replacement will help to keep their energy level up, and result in their eating more enthusiastically.
If the need arises appetize their food with a tablespoon of vegetable oil, a small amount of canned food, or moisten it. Do what it takes to keep them on their food. Also remember to keep sufficient quantities of water available before, during and after hunts. Good luck and good hunting!