Rick Smith’s aging English setter accompanied him as he guided bird hunts in south Texas and performed practically as well as the younger dogs on the hunt. “He did an excellent job up into his 12th season,” says Smith, of Crozier, Va., son of legendary bird dog trainer Delmar Smith, and a recognized trainer in his own right.
In human years, that dog was 85 years old at the time of his final hunts. “He was about 85, like my dad, but (my dad) is still doing it,” Smith says. “We’re getting more life span out of our people and our dogs.”
Outstanding hunting dogs don’t have to be sidelined just because they’re getting a few years on them, Smith says. With the right care and attention, your valuable hunting companion can retrieve, flush, and point long beyond what you expect.
“The real critical thing about that is you’ve got to stay active, whether that be with dogs or people,” he says.
Hunters tend to get their dogs in outstanding shape as hunting season approaches, but then let them gain weight and get out of shape once it’s over.
“Bouncing back and forth is probably the hardest thing on them,” Smith says. “You need to maintain their standard weight year ‘round. With a young dog, you can get away with it, but as that dog gets older, it gets harder on him.”
“Keeping them lean and mean is good,” says Smith, who feeds his dogs a high-quality dry dog food once a day. “Being overweight works hard on their joints.”
Your dog is at the right weight if you can feel his ribs without much padding, he says.
Furthermore, you should keep your dog active all year, and not just into the months leading into hunting season.
“They’re better off, instead of completely laying up for eight months, to be on an exercise program all year. You should get them out maybe a couple times a week and do some resistance training, like pulling a sled,” Smith says. “Getting them in shape by running when they’re young is good, but as they get older, putting them in a harness on a sled is better because it won’t bang up their joints.”
Whatever activity you choose, just keep them conditioned. “That helps dogs more than anything: keeping them active,” Smith says. “Older people go longer because their body is geared toward going, and it should be the same for your dog.”
At around age 8, it’s a good idea to have your dog’s blood tested. “With an older dog, you want to check how his blood is reading on things like iron, so you can make adjustments with diet or supplements,” Smith advises. “If you start hunting season, say, the first of November, then do this in September so he can get back (in top shape) before you start rigorous conditioning.”
When opening day arrives, have reasonable expectations and make accommodations for your older dog, Smith says.
“Run them in the cool of the morning and late afternoon, and don’t put them under the stress you did when they were in their prime,” he advises. Let them rest on occasion and allow your younger dogs to take the lead.
“You’ve got to go the extra mile because if you realize that you’ve got a real good dog,” Smith says, “you want him to last longer.”
Out Here editor Carol Davis has a Labrador retriever who hunts for one thing only: someone to throw the ball for him.