When you think of winter, do you think cold, snow, and ice? Warm naps by the fire, buried under layers of clothes and blankets, eating leftover Holiday cookies? Or are you crying next to the window, missing the sight and sound of geese flying over as they head south? Missing the cool fall breeze and lush, colorful foliage as your dog points (or flushes) pheasants?
For a lot of people, winter is not necessarily their favorite time of the year. It’s hard with the cold weather to want to go out and do something, so we become stagnant and restless. What’s worse yet is our dogs become restless. We gain extra weight from not moving as much and dull the brain by getting out of rhythm. Staying active all year is important for our bodies and mentality.
Keeping your dog involved will help them to stay sharp. Utilizing commands will help to keep them fresh in the mind. Monitoring their food intake and providing exercise will keep them lean and prevent weight gain, which is hard on the joints and body in general. And above all keeping their mind’s stimulated is going to keep them out of trouble which is caused by being bored.
What do you do to engage your dog? Do you know where to start? Below you can find some different ideas to try this winter season to keep your favorite hunting buddy in tip-top shape and ready for hunting season.
A classic game of fetch out in the yard can always turn a boring day into a whole lot of running and fun for your dog. With all the different variations of fetching toys now available, the sky is the limit on what you can present your dog with as an activity. You can also use a game of fetch to work on and refresh commands. Depending on your surroundings and how the weather is, you could turn your fetch game into a combination of fetch and the next list item, hide & seek.
Hide & Seek
Hide & Seek is another classic game that you can use to engage your four-legged buddy. If they have a favorite toy or a ball that they prefer, you can easily hide it and send them after it. Add their favorite prey’s scent to bring in the hunting aspect of it. If you live somewhere with snow or have tall grass available, use a game of fetch to launch the dummy or ball into the camouflage of snow or grass. There is nothing they’d enjoy more than playing a game that incorporates their favorite job and favorite person.
Take a Walk
Taking a simple walk to the mailbox can offer plenty of opportunities to invest time into going over commands. If you trust your dog to free-run, they will get some time in to stretch their legs and get into a faster gait then a walk. No special equipment needed beyond weather appropriate clothing for you and maybe a lease for them.
Frequent an Agility Park or Dog Park
Taking your dog to the dog park or agility park (they might even have an agility course set up at the dog park) is a free resource available in many areas. Some cities may have multiple dog parks. While visiting the park, you can work on obedience training or play a game of fetch. If your comfortable, let them “play dogs” with some new friends. This, even though it’s not specific to hunting, can be a great way to burn some energy.
Get them on a Treadmill
Have a treadmill hanging out at home? Not only can you use it, but your dog can too! Training your dog to walk on the treadmill may take a little time and practice, but it is doable and can provide a long term resource to utilize in the future. Start by familiarizing them with the machine, and then began coaxing them onto the track with a treat or favorite toy or reward. With the dog on a leash and standing on the track, you should stand next to them and start the machine. It will kind of simulate going for a walk on a leash. Eventually, when they are used to it, you will be able to speed up the pace a little and let them exert some of that extra winter energy. Be sure to supervise the time they are on the treadmill, as a trip may result in “road rash” or, possibly, strangulation.
Doggy Daycare is a great way to get your dog to exert some extra energy, and it’s something that you can set up for when you’re at work or have errands to run. Prices will vary depending on where you live, but it’s a great way to get them out of the house, burning energy and having fun.
Dock Diving (location and weather depending)
If you are lucky enough to live in a location where it doesn’t get super cold and the water stays above 40 degrees, or whatever your dog is acclimated to, give your waterfowl buddy so water time! Even in the summer, this can be a great way to get them off their dog beds and exercising with some running and low impact swimming. It can also help give your dog some confidence if the shy away from jumping out of the boat when it comes time to retrieve. Also, pay attention to their ears, keeping them clean and dry to avoid ear problems.
You can jog any time of the year and it’s a great way to keep both you and your dog in tip-top shape. If you live in a place with lots of snow and ice, keep an eye on your dog’s pads for cuts or any reactions to salt or ice-melting chemicals that may be harsh on their pads. There are different products available to buy that can help keep your dog’s feet safe from cracking and cuts, like booties or salves. It is good if your dog has a hard pad, as it will help protect their feet when they get in the field during the season, so if you can avoid the salt and chemicals, keep them barefoot. You can also purchase reflective coats, but keep in mind the density of their coat and the heat that is going to be created once they start moving. Watch to be sure they are not overheating. If jogging alone isn’t enough, invest in a dog backpack for them to wear. They make weighted backpacks that can help hyperactive dogs calm down and provide a better workout.
Traditionally you probably think of a pile of Husky’s, Malamutes, or some sort of similar mix, but winter is a great time to get your hunting dog into some amateur dog sledding. Even if it means just tossing your kids or grandkids in a sled and rigging it up behind your dog. You can find equipment and how-to’s on the internet, or get involved with some of local dog sled chapters in the area to see if they have tips, tools, and equipment to share. It can be as easy or as complex as you want to make it.
Skijoring is not as well-known, but it can be a fun, fast-paced ride. It’s a cross between cross-country skiing and dog sledding. Basically, you are tethered to your dog, while they’re in a dog sledding harness, while you’re on cross-country skis and they’re running. It’s a fantastic sport for hunting dogs, pairing their great endurance with their willingness to work. Specialty straps/lines are made with bungee ends and quick releases to help make the sport safe and fun. These special straps can also be used in similar sports like Canicross (running) or Bikejoring (biking), meaning this could be a year-round exercise tool and bonding experience.
Snowshoeing is a very common winter activity, along with cross country skiing. Taking your dog along can provide them with great exercise, helping to build and maintain muscle by having to work through the snow. If the snow is crusty the dog’s pad will be able to become harder, which will, in turn, give them a better advantage against rocky or thick brushed terrains. It is suggested you let them be on a free run. By doing this you can also practice any obedience training or commands you may want to brush upon. Free running also helps to keep dogs lean by allowing them to get in extra running and movements they would do during hunting, which will, in turn, be better on their joints.
She’s hunting has become a very popular off-season sport with hunting dogs. The training is very similar to most of your basic hunting training, bringing out your dog’s natural drive to hunt and their desire to please. They even have training kits you can pick up at almost any store you can buy hunting dog supplies. Every year bucks shed their antlers between January and March, depending on the region. These naturally shed antlers just lay in the woods once they fall off. Rather than leaving them to decay in the woods, retrieving them can help deer/elk hunters keep track of the bucks or bulls that made it through the season. If your not a big game hunter, you can still hunt sheds. Buddy up with a friend. Your dog would love to get out of the house, get active, and utilize training commands.
Join a Local Hunting/Training Club
Depending on where exactly you live, look for a local Hunting Dog club. They may have different opportunities to train during the offseason. A few of these groups is North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, or North American Gun Dog Association. Groups like NAVHDA or NAGDA can help you continue training, prepare for different competitions, offer runs in non-competitive courses, you can learn something new, and keep your dog(s) performing at the top of their potential. Just by simply jumping online and searching, you may be able to open a whole new door to off-season training.
Hunting Road Trip
If you have the money and the means or can share costs with a few of your hunting buddies, check out hunting seasons in different parts of the country! With different states and regions come different opportunities to hunt your favorite game, maybe even in a different variety. Arizona’s upland seasons are open into February. You may also be able to learn new tricks and trips that you’ve never seen or tried before. If you join a Hunting Dog club, like some of those listed above, check into other chapters in different regions or states. The more people you know and places you go, the more opportunities that can open doors for more hunting, extra training, and enjoying time with your dog.
Still not motivated to get your dog moving in the winter? Look at it this way; your dog is an athlete, therefore you need to treat your dog as an athlete. This means keeping them active, watching their weight, and keeping up with commands. Sports athletes train almost all year or they become “soft”. This makes them more likely to sustain injuries. Letting your dog get soft can cause you so much time and effort that has to be reinvested into getting them back into shape and ready for the next hunting season. They’re more likely to sustain injuries.
Keeping them active can be as easy as bringing them out when you go get the mail, taking them for a run behind the ATV, or just letting them out to play in the yard. If you have kids, send them out to play with them too. Get the kids involved, making it a family affair to work the dogs. Someday your kids, grandkids, or nieces and nephews might be hunting with you, maybe even handling the dog. Getting them involved and learning will create a great bond and keep a way of life going.
Whatever you decide to do in the off-season is completely up to you. Make sure whatever it is becomes an enjoyable pastime for you and your hunting buddy so that the two of you have many more hunting seasons (and off-seasons) to come.