Working Gordon Setters

Conditioning ... Another Approach ?

Conditioning ... Another Approach ?

Photo: Brian Morris

This article was originally written for the 2008 Irish Red Setter Club magazine and has been reproduced here by kind permission of the author

For the vast majority of us, hunting just simply cannot be enjoyed seven days a week due to work/domestic demands, variable weather patterns and game law restrictions. Furthermore there is little doubt that hunting is best enjoyed when a dog is fully fit and well conditioned. However to achieve this takes time and a great deal of personal sacrifice, as it simply cannot be achieved if ‘fido’ is kennel bound.

My sporting passion is falconry and as such I use red setters, regardless of hunting terrain. It’s a personal thing and probably stems from the fact that I am car bound and desk bound for far too many hours during the working week. As the setters’ performance is a critical element of the field outing, that means they need to be capable of commanding all opportunities as and when they arise. Therefore just as I have adopted modern day falcon conditioning techniques to attain and maintain body mass and condition, I have also come to apply canine conditioning techniques, originating from American bird-dog literature, to obtain similar results with my dogs. These are applied once the dog training basics are instilled, being interwoven thereafter with field training sessions to freshen up what can be a tedious routine when running ground is in limited supply (notably during the spring and summer months).
While satisfactory, this was not ideal for my field demands, though ‘I’ stumbled upon another conditioning technique about ten years ago that has benefited the overall situation.

The technique is associated with cycling. While I was very sceptical at first with regard the logistics and control aspects, it took no more than a couple of outings for the dogs to adjust to the change of routine. Since that time the bicycle has become an important aid to my dogs’ pre-season conditioning and general all-year round maintenance, though just like any other aid/routine, introductory sessions must be made easy to deliver a positive message. As such there is little point taking ‘fido’ out for his first session lasting one hour or more. So be content and take it easy, building up from short journeys of no more than a fast walking pace before progressing onto more distant journeys that involve some trotting and running. Additionally it is probably advisable to undertake initial sessions on your own in a quiet street as it is highly likely that your own cycling proficiency will need a little work at first. This is important to master before progressing onto the bicycle-to-dog co-ordination.

While I am no veterinary I can attest to the benefits from a muscle, breathing and stamina perspective, though like all things in life it should not become the de facto and only way of exercising ‘fido’. As such I still like to mix and match the daily routines with roading, swimming or actual running in open countryside as all of these exercises play their part in development and maintenance of the various muscle groups. Nonetheless I have found that cycling can provide benefits (and not solely dog related) and can now relax in full knowledge that the dogs will be more than capable of handling the demands of the next field outing.

While the cycling conditioning method could be termed a new approach, it is really little more than a variant of the techniques as devised and promoted by the late Robert Wehle (the famous American field trialist/judge and breeder of Elhew pointers) way back in the sixties. However I do believe that the bicycle conditioning method does lend itself to those with small kennels (up to 4 dogs) and who desire to maximise efficiency in a limited time frame. As such the following are observations as based on my limited experience to date.

Exercise Periods
Given this is an aerobic exercise, try and keep this form of exercise to the early part of the morning and/or late evenings (especially during spring/summer periods) as heat in conjunction with such an aerobic activity can bring about de-hydration.

Working Breeds
While the bulk of my experience has been with GWPs and Setters, I do at times leash up my daughters’ cocker spaniels whenever she visits. In stating so I find no difficulty in keeping ‘the pack’ together.

One needs to keep a watchful eye on the dogs’ diet as a richer diet is required to satisfy tougher ‘field’ demands. While all-in-one dog foods are convenient, they are (like the day old chick to falconry) not ideal performance foods and so do need supplementing with some carbohydrates, meat, vitamins, etc….

Given cycling is an aerobic exercise, please do ensure fresh drinking water is available during and after exercise periods to avoid de-hydration.

It is advisable to occasionally check feet/pads as the dog is now being expected to run, at times, on an abrasive surface (i.e. roads and pathways). As such treat any cuts or abrasions with an appropriate cleaning/healing agent (such as F10) and rest till recovery is complete. In doing so and if a particularly deep cut is present, then it may be prudent to simply walk the dog while covering the foot with a small boot (as available at pet shops and veterinary practices) to avoid dirt entering/irritating the wound. Additionally it is advisable to check a dogs’ toenails and ensure they are short and so not liable to splitting.

I would recommend that you do not cycle a dog when a dog has (or is recovering from) a muscle/pad injury. Doing so shall only worsen (or causing a relapse of) the condition. As stated elsewhere, cycling is a demanding exercise routine and so it is advisable not to undertake when the dog is un-well or injured/recovering from an injury.

Young Dogs (less than 9 months of age)
At this tender age it is only important to get the young dogs used to the technique and idea of walking/trotting beside the bicycle. It is also a good idea to carry fresh water, regardless whether the weather is hot or cool, to avoid a young dog de-hydrating. Also keep in mind that the exercise should be fun and yet instructive:

Don’t cycle a young dog till at least six to seven months of age

Don’t initially extend the journey time beyond 10 minutes and stop to let the young dog rest and have a drink of water; 10 minutes may not seem a lot of time, but it is a lot for a young dog to undertake

Don’t have a young dog undertake multiple daily sessions

Don’t test a young dog regarding speed and be content to maintain a steady, jogging/walking pace

Don’t test a young dog on difficult terrain and be content with canal tow-paths and country lanes

Junior Dogs (9 to 18months of age)
At this age the dog is almost fully developed, though it is a long way from being a dependable, seasoned, fully conditioned, polished and trusted field companion. While appearing enthusiastic and ready to do more, be content in gradually increasing pace, the length of exercise periods, frequency and distances covered.

Older Dogs
My experience with older dogs (i.e. 10+ years of age) is limited though I have found that as their pace slows down, the frequency of cycling outings must reduce since their bodies simply cannot sustain even daily sessions. Cycling is demanding, so please let the dog tell you what it is capable of with regard pace, distance and frequency. Also do not cycle a dog when the dog has (or is recovering from) a muscle injury to avoid worsening (or causing a relapse of) the condition.

Gun dogs (though perhaps not including Labradors), in general, pull when on a lead. As such they are capable of pulling the handler along when cycling. Therefore be careful and regulate the cycle speed accordingly to avoid any un-necessary accidents and/or injuries, especially when conditions are wet or frosty.

Dog Equipment
My general philosophy is to keep all equipment light, compact and simple in design. Initial trials using roading harnesses resulted in the dogs pulling a lot more in comparison to a general dog lead, thereby presenting a safety issue for myself. Therefore after testing various dog leads, I resorted to the same non-choke collar and lead equipment I use when afield. These collars used are loose fitting, non-choke style and are widely available through pet retail stores.

Exercise Elements
‘No pain, no gain’ should not apply to any form of exercise as it only increases the likelihood of long-term muscle damage. To this end a gradual approach is required when considering implementation of the bicycle conditioning technique, and as such there are four elements to consider
(1) Frequency,
(2) Distance and Duration,
(3) On-Lead Pace and
(4) Off-Lead discipline.

In principle I like the dogs to ‘get out’ at least twice a day (morning and evening), though I only cycle with them once a day. This is because cycling is a demanding exercise and as such I believe this could do more harm than good, especially if the distance and duration are significant. Furthermore I do not cycle with the dogs more than four times per week - again for the reason that cycling is demanding and to allow their bodies to re-charge.

2.Distance and Duration
Young dogs under the age of 9months should not (in my opinion) be tested beyond a 10 minute journey duration (as stated earlier) as these dogs still have a lot of growing to do. However junior and adult/older dogs can be allowed to undertake exercise periods of increasing distance and duration, providing rest and water is provided en route. For this very reason I favour canal tow-paths, country park walk-ways and forestry roads as cycling ‘venues’ as there are always near-by suitable areas to allow the dogs to not only drink, but cool down by ‘immersing’ themselves in water.

During the working week (and if we are not hawking) I generally cycle the dogs prior to morning departure for work. In general I do not cycle at the weekends.

3.On-Lead Pace
While any dog (due to initial enthusiasm) will initially pull you along, they will (once the exercise is under way) settle down and simply trot along beside you. This is the desired on-lead pace and at ~6-8mph you’ll be able to cover significant distances depending on duration of the exercise period.

4.Off-Lead Discipline
Where conditions permit (open areas, canal tow-paths, etc…) or if I am time-constrained (notably during the working week), I often allow the dogs to free-run while at the same time increasing my own cycling pace. Initially junior dogs will stay with the cyclist, though soon understand they are not restrained and as such will soon leave your side. In doing so the junior dogs will either run ahead to join the ‘pack’ or drop behind to investigate a scent/perform a call of nature. In order to keep all dogs in view and in control, use your whistle to recall them to heel. Such recalls, especially when a dog has dropped far behind or is way out in front, can bring about accelerated bursts of speed that further adds to the benefits to be gained via use of this exercise routine.

Pre-Season Benefits
Years ago I always treated grouse counting activities during late July and Early August as my dog conditioning and pre-falconry readiness activity. Now I simply increase the cycling routine starting about six weeks prior to grouse counting activities, removing a lot of the un-certainty regarding tired runs and all the frustrations that these create, thereby improving the effectiveness of this pre-falconry season activity.

Mid-Season Benefits
Wintertime generally means departure to work occurs before it is daylight and the return home after darkness has fallen. As a result a dog will loose fitness and so struggle when running on more demanding upland terrain, unless a lot of roading is undertaken. However, and based on my limited experience, I have found that cycling (in conjunction with some roading) maintains fitness levels. Additionally I have found that pointing distances have increased; an all important factor to those that cherish distanced points on wild and spooky (gun shy) game birds in mid-winter.

Side Benefits
Junior and young dogs need to understand investigating ‘old scent’ or that chasing is not permitted. As such these dogs can receive some of that education when free-running beside you during exercise periods, since you will be travelling at their running pace.

Road Safety
I do not advocate cycling in ‘tandem’ with a dog(s) on busy roads, though do apply some road safety when on quieter roads in ensuring the dog(s) run on the inside and so protected by myself and the bicycle from overtaking/on-coming traffic. However if cycling on pavements beside busy roads please ensure that the dog is wearing a choke type lead to prevent an issue occurring should the dog ‘spook’ and slip its’ lead.

Personal Safety
From a personal safety perspective I recommend use of a cycle safety helmet. It may not look exactly trendy, but incidents will happen causing you to loose balance, fall off or possibly go over the handlebars. As such you’ll thank yourself for its purchase and wear.

Main cause of ‘tumbles’ are related to dog actions or un-seen pot-holes. Regarding the former these generally happen when ‘fido’ elects to stop in his tracks to perform an act of nature resulting in you coming un-balanced and perhaps failing off the bicycle (hopefully landing without injury). And it does not matter how many times you have travelled the same route, and no matter how many times ‘fido’ has obliged by holding his bladder till the appropriate place. Take my word, he’ll stop when you least expect him to do so. So be prepared and safeguard your safety – wear a cycle safety helmet.

Winter Time - clothing
The already low air temperature of wintertime will drop further due to your own cycling speed and as such gloves and ear protection are essential. While you may not look trendy, take comfort that lighting conditions will generally be poor and that no one will probably recognise you.

Winter Time – bicycle equipment
Wintertime brings about reduced daylight hours and generally poor lighting. As such it helps to see and be seen, so do use effective front and rear bicycle lights. It is also a time of year when conditions can be wet and so it does help to have mud guards/whale fins fitted to the bicycle to minimise the amount of spray and mud that is likely to streak up your back.

In summary, I have found cycling to benefit all my dogs from both a pre-season and general year-round maintenance conditioning perspective. While not as enjoyable as taking to the field for free-running, this form of exercise is simple to apply, can help to resolve pre-season and mid-season canine condition frustrations/issues in addition to easing the time pressures of modern-day living.

Author & Copyright:- Brian Morris

About the Author

Brian Morris has been an active falconer for over 40 years, with the last 25+ years entirely spent game hawking lowland and upland game birds with peregrines. Game hawking relies on pointing dogs and though he ran (and trialled with some success) HPR's (German Wirehaired Pointers) for 13 years, the year 2000 saw him transition to using and field trialling Irish Red Setters. Game hawking over his irish setters on upland terrain is one of his addictions!


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