What Do Hunting Dogs Do During the Off-Season?

Written by: Mark Nissen, Classic Bird Hunts

Keeping this gang entertained and in shape is a year-round operation.

From mid-September through mid-February, it’s “game on” for our hunting dogs. During that time, our team of Brittanys spends two solid months in pursuit of ruffed grouse and woodcock in Wisconsin before heading south for three months to chase Mearns, scaled, and Gambel’s quail in Arizona and New Mexico. The hunting season comprises fourteen-hour days for the dogs. If they are not actually on the ground during these hunting days, they are resting up in their boxes in the truck, with periods of time out stretching their legs, of course. Evening finds the lot of them vying for space in my bed, more often than not.

But what about the other seven months of the year? What do our Britts do to keep busy?

A well-earned trip to the beach is the first order of business at the end of the season.

My first inclination when asked that question is to respond the same way I do when people ask how I spend my time in the off season. My token answer is “as little as possible.” Though there is a certain amount of truth in that, and our whole team does enjoy a breather, the answer is not totally accurate.

Let’s start with the first six weeks after our season ends in New Mexico on February 15th. This period could accurately be described as a hard-earned break. Immediately following season’s end, we usually head to Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Our dogs are truly family: we work together, sleep together, party together, and travel together. The Florida agenda for the dogs includes fishing, swimming, lounging by the pool, taking runs on the beach, and getting reacquainted with family.

Letting dogs like Caesar get two good runs a day is an important part of the spring and summer schedules.

Come April, we load up for the trek back to Wisconsin. There we hunt some liberated birds, but mostly lament not staying a few more weeks in Florida.

From May through August, we do our best to get the dogs out for two brief runs per day. In the mornings, we typically head to mixed-habitat cover, where the main goal is to exercise the dogs while hoping that they leave a few deposits behind. In the afternoons, we head to the local dog park, where they can socialize with other canines and humans. Both morning and afternoon, I like to see them run at hunting speed for ten minutes or so while at the same time reinforcing commands and signals, generally reminding them how to work as a team. Chasing squirrels, rabbits, deer, and other ground game is discouraged. Swimming is always a favorite activity. It is not only a great exercise for the pups, but also provides them an immediate cool-down.  I always have fresh, cool water available, if standing water is not nearby.

When there are new pups coming into the pack, leave lots of chewables around.

July or early August is also the time when I get the crew into the vet for their annual physicals. Scheduling a vet visit six weeks before the start of hunting season allows time for any procedures to be completed. Once hunting season commences, it gets real.

Most summers, puppies also become a part of the equation. Once the house training is over, it’s mostly a matter of keeping the chewing and digging to a minimum. Having another young dog around to play with the pup helps keep the baby-sitting and destruction to a minimum and provides exercise for all involved.

Come September, it’s time to get ready for solid months of hard work.

Come September, we head to our Grouse Camp in northern Wisconsin, where we have three weeks to gradually increase the exercise and training. During this period, we simultaneously scout bird coverts for the coming fall season, while also harvesting the plentiful September mushrooms. We are fortunate that we have good populations of local woodcock, and these birds are arguably the finest wild upland bird species on which to train pointing dogs. Come late September, the guiding schedule is full, and the dogs work daily. We are reunited with hunting friends, both canine and human, and we once again begin the process of “living the dream.”

Mark Nissen is an Orvis-endorsed wingshooting guide who operates Classic Bird Hunts in Wisconsin and Arizona.

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