No matter the age, understanding the energy needs of your bird dog is crucial for a multitude of reasons
The question pops up on bird dog forums and breed-specific forums on social media platforms all the time, “Can we handle the energy of a bird dog?”
The posters want to get a bird dog pup but they’ve heard they can be a handful; they wonder if they’ll be able to manage the infamous exercise needs of a working dog. Or questions come from new bird dog puppy owners at their wits’ end, frustrated that their dog seems out of control and they’re on the brink of considering rehoming it. Advice rolls in and some of it is good, some bad, and some terrible. I usually try to weigh in, having been in their shoes years ago when we were first researching Brittanys and then later when we were desperately trying to give our bottle-rocket of a bird dog pup enough energy outlets so he wouldn’t find trouble on his own.
For the welfare of any pup, a prospective bird dog owner needs to know exactly what they are getting into, and understand the decade- or two-long commitment they’ll need to meet the dog’s energy needs. Some pets are an accessory to life and make few demands of their people. Yet, particularly where their energy needs are concerned, bird dogs are not an accessory but rather a lifestyle.
For those of us who have made that commitment, adopted the necessary lifestyle, and gathered the hard-won wisdom of years of experience, the best advice I think we can offer newbies is “a tired dog is a good dog.” That sounds simple enough, but we all know that can be a challenge to achieve. I always counsel prospective bird dog owners that the much-ballyhooed bird dog “off-switch” that enables these marvelous creatures to be badass perpetual-motion machines for hours on end in the field—but calm companions in the home—is less a function of genetics and more about an owner’s commitment to giving their dog at least 45 minutes to an hour of physical exercise every single day; not just on hunt days.
For anyone complaining about their pup being destructive, the first question should always be to ask about their daily routine and whether the dog has enough daily time to run, play, and socially interact with their people and/or other dogs. If not, the solution is simple: a responsible bird dog owner must recommit to offering that daily outlet and many problems will magically take care of themselves. While not a substitute for foundational obedience training, sufficient, daily exercise opportunities are often the missing link needed for a bird dog to be in a state of mind to absorb new training lessons and evidence the obedience behaviors they’ve already been taught.
Physical energy outlets for bird dogs
For a fully-mature bird dog, the options for daily physical exercise are many. Daily walks, while sufficient for many other breeds of dogs, are best used as a foundation but are not comprehensive for their daily needs. For bird dogs with a natural retrieve instinct, short, 10-minute rounds of fetch in the backyard scattered throughout the day with a tennis ball or stick can greatly increase their daily calorie expenditure. It can also offer handlers a nice break in their days or before and after work. Many bird dogs are also happy to join their people on long runs, and the constant motion can deplete energy stores efficiently in dogs naturally more prone to short bursts of activity.
“Roading” is another activity that professional bird dog trainers use to give bird dogs a daily outlet for their energy—and to condition bird dogs in the off-season—so that they are fully prepared for the higher physical demands of the hunting season. Trainers will typically use an ATV, but roading can also be done from a bicycle with the right equipment and the right safety precautions in place. Observing all safety precautions and finding a reliable safe place to road your dog is critical, but roading can be an effective way to provide an outlet for a dog while not simultaneously exhausting its handler. Treadmilling a dog can also provide many of the same benefits for bird dog owners without sufficient space for roading and can serve as a substitute during inclement weather.
In addition to those old standbys, other physical activities are just as effective for tiring out a bird dog pup and putting less wear on their joints; plus they can be done regardless of the weather. Most bird dogs can be trained through small, pressure-free steps to enjoy the water if they don’t already naturally. Swimming, whether in an indoor or outdoor pool or a lake or pond, is perhaps even more effective than running for the time spent in tiring out a dog. Agility and nose work also provide wonderful physical and mental stimulation for a dog. Further, opportunities to join local training groups are another resource for those looking to diversify their bird dog energy depletion regimens and can be wonderful, mutually reinforcing complements to bird hunting training.
Red flag warnings in bird dogs: Heat and puppy development
While physical exercise provides many benefits for bird dogs, it is also important to keep in mind some important warnings.
First, heat and bird dogs are a very dangerous mix, and all of the same precautions that apply for the hunting season apply to off-season conditioning and energy management. On warmer, more humid days, it’s best to either work on inside energy depletion schemes like treadmilling or break up any of the activities above outside into short, 10-minute-or-less sessions. Note: keep training sessions short. Handlers should immediately stop and bring their dog inside to cool down when any of the very early signs of heat stress are apparent. Also, take special care to follow the traditional trainer’s maxim to avoid working dogs outside at all when the addition of temperature in Fahrenheit and the relative humidity percentage is 150 or above.
“Owners and handlers should pay attention to their dog specifically, not just have a number in their head to remember to be aware of,” said Dr. Lindsay Vega, an emergency and critical care veterinarian from Morgantown, W.Va. “Some dogs are more sensitive to heat than others. Owners probably know their dog well, but may not know how they are in every environment — dry heat, humid heat, different types of activities like hunting.
“Short bursts of activity are great, but it’s best done in the morning or evening when it’s cooler.”
Secondly, special care needs to be taken with a bird dog puppy. Because their joints are not fully formed, long, repetitive exercises like roading, running with the handler, treadmilling for more than very short periods, and more are not advised. Off-leash walks in a safe field where a pup can regulate its energy expenditure and pace are better, as are inside play and socialization sessions with other pups—after the initial 18-week rounds of shots, though it still takes a few more weeks for full immunity to be present. Mental stimulation and short periods of foundational obedience sessions are also great for puppies.
Often a surprise for new puppy owners, pups will also self-regulate with the “zoomies,” or short energy bursts of running around where the pup may appear possessed to their new handler. Securing all breakable objects in anticipation of these brief reigns of terror is a wise precaution. Rest assured, your puppy has not gone insane but is merely instinctually doing what it can to regulate its own energy needs. Semi-comatose napping often follows.
“I’m sure there are a lot of opinions about this and I don’t think either side is wrong,” Vega said, “but this is my opinion: if puppies are born without congenital problems (like hip or elbow dysplasia), are kept lean (not skinny), and are not doing forced, repetitive, high-intensity activity or motions with sharp turns that may lead to development of things like cartilage depletion or arthritis, then exercise is likely beneficial to their health long term. I do believe forced exercise should be reserved for fully adult dogs.”
Vega also noted the dangers of not being vigilant or overly careful, such as gastrointestinal signs as a result of mild heat stress to severe, life-threatening GI signs, neurologic effects, changes in the body’s ability to clot, organ failure, and death with more severe heat exposure.
Overlooked bird dog energy outlets: Mental exercise and obedience
If a bird dog is provided enough daily physical exercise and still evidences an inability to be calm or has problems with destructive behavior, the second question that should be asked is whether the dog has a regular obedience training regimen where his or her mental energy is regularly being tapped. Most bird dogs are exceptionally intelligent and their mental energy needs an outlet as much as their physical energy.
I recently spoke with Rick Smith about this and how many of us pay more attention to the obvious needs our dogs have for physical activity and less attention to their needs for mental stimulation.
“I don’t know anyone who can hunt every day, or run their dogs every single day in the rain or heat, but there’s all kinds of things you can do,” Smith said. “You can hide their feed pan in a different location each day and make them work to find it. Remember: bird dogs need a job.”
Smith also helps his students understand just how much energy dogs use in learning to do what we ask them to do. Pointing to a dog learning how to stand still and wait, a learning objective that uses almost no physical energy at all, he’ll say, “That dog is going to be (tired) tonight. If you could see inside her little brain right now, you’d see the wheels turning a mile a minute.”
In the handler sessions that Smith leads, hour-long lessons can sometimes be all about “standing your dog” or just having the dogs stand motionless for long periods in preparation for holding points later in the field. I can offer personal testimony that these exercises, while relying solely on tapping a bird dog’s mental energy in obedience, are often as effective in tiring out a bird dog as any physical activity, particularly when bird dogs are learning these obedience behaviors for the first time.
Tired dogs are good for us
While managing bird dog energy needs can be a challenge, especially for first-time bird dog owners, the attendant benefits for their owners cannot be overstated.
New owners may see their waistlines trim up as a result of the additional commitments they’re making for their dog’s exercise needs. And, as we condition our bird dogs through any of the above activities during the off-season or between hunts, we are also conditioning ourselves for the physical rigors of the hunting season.
Finally, there is a unique, repetitive, and enduring sense of satisfaction in tiring out your bird dog. My earliest feeling that I deserved the joy of raising Lincoln and also a fraction of his preternatural devotion to me occurred when he was asleep on my lap, off-switch fully activated because I had given him sufficient outlet for his enormous tank of energy that day. New bird dog owners can rest assured that if they commit to caring for their bird dog’s energy needs—as much as for their daily food and water needs—that supreme feeling lies in wait for them, too.
All the frustration and challenges of a bird dog puppy are suddenly worth it and our daily commitment becomes more sustainable when we behold our tired and very good dog, knowing that’s the direct result of our love for them made visible by satisfying their abundant energy needs.
Robb Moore has pursued the meaning of life from Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the Kathmandu valley to the ivory towers of the academy, to Christian ritual as clergy, and hospital bedsides. Recruited as a bird hunter in his mid-40s by his spunky Brittany pup, Lincoln, he is still on the hunt, but only for birds, his heart having found its rest in walking meditation and the Tao of Bird Dogs. [More musings at amanandhisbirddog.com/blog]