The cold, snow and ice of winter could turn bird dog owners into couch potatoes, but that’s not to be. The dogs’ busy nature isn’t muted by the weather.
Keeping your bird dogs fit during winter can be a challenge because of ice and extreme cold, but the enthusiastic dogs love to accompany their owners in whatever the winter activity might be. My dogs have accompanied me cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, snowshoeing and walking. But some people skijor and dog sled with them, too.
These activities require some common sense to keep the dogs safe from frostbite, hypothermia, cracked pads, pulled ligaments and other cold- and ice-related hazards. Coats, booties and Musher’s Secret for pads, and staying off really slippery areas can go a long way toward keeping dogs healthy.
Most of the winter, I play with my dogs in their fenced-in area for their outdoor activities because it’s safer for all of us. The dogs chase each other and run after squeaky balls and other toys, playing keep-away when they get possession. You also can work with them on retrieving training.
During winters when snow piles up on my flat-roofed garage (I didn’t build it), I push the snow off the roof into the dog fence, forming a snow mountain. The dogs love running up and down it, burying their heads in soft areas and digging holes in harder-packed spots, chasing each other around it and playing king or queen of the mountain. My oldest Brittany dog Sassy still reigns.
If there is too much ice outdoors, we move our activities indoors. My three Brittanys love to play in a cloth tunnel on a wire frame that collapses like a Slinky for storage. When they get bored making up their own games in the tunnel, I play a few tunnel games with them — such as fetching a favorite toy tossed into the tunnel, encouraging the dog to go part way, stop and stay in one place for a few seconds, and reversing direction — using treats to entice them to do what I ask.
Sassy likes going through tunnels, but she really prefers mind games. She likes to puzzle through my requests and then offer me the behavior she thinks I want. Her favorite is what we call the Kong game.
I ask Sassy to bring me a Kong — a rubber toy with a cavity to fill with goodies. She stands and thinks about where she’s seen one recently, fetches it and brings it to my hand. I then ask her to go find one for Bullet, and then for Quincy. Each time, she stands and thinks about where she’s seen a Kong or she will go to the most likely places — the dog toy boxes or crates — and rootle around looking for Kongs. Once I have a Kong for each, I fill them with peanut butter and treats and give one to each dog in their respective crates.
Sassy knows if she doesn’t find one for each dog, no one gets the special treat.
When she was younger, my husband Jim and I played this kind of fetch game with her by sending her to the toy box for specific toys. If she came back with the correct one — which she did most of the time — she was rewarded with a treat.
Other ideas for indoor recreation include:
— Making up lots of games with regular household items, such as a cardboard box. Secure the flaps inside an empty cardboard box and teach the dogs the commands “in” and “out,” making sure they are launching from and landing on a safe surface. You can put a yoga mat or rubber-backed rug inside the box so the dog won’t slip.
— “Find it” is a favorite. Hide a smelly treat, bird wing or a special toy somewhere in the house and send the dogs to locate it.
— My male Brittanys Bullet and Quincy like to chase a toy up the stairs to the second story landing, then run back downstairs with it. The stairs have a carpet runner on them, which adds a little safety for them, and stairs are really good exercise.
— Use the stairs for more controlled exercises, like teaching the dog to walk backward up them. First, teach the dog to back up on the flat ground or floor by walking toward him until he begins to edge backward, and give it a verbal command like “back.” Once he responds quickly and correctly to this, start backing him onto small rises and gradually increase the height until it is equal to a stair riser. This will take several sessions to learn and requires patience.
— Sign up for a class at a local training facility. Maybe a fun tricks class, or agility, rally, obedience or flyball (dog relay racing). It’s something different that will keep the dogs occupied and strengthen dog-human bonds.
— Establish individual fitness programs, especially for your older dogs. Sassy has a professional program developed for her by a certified fitness trainer at Power Up K9 in Portland. She has her own yoga mat so that her feet won’t slip on my hardwood floors, and a routine of strengthening exercises targeting specific areas of her body — which is troubled by arthritis and other age-related issues — that she performs as I give her the command for each one. Treats are definitely part of the routine.
However you get through the winter, spring will come soon and bird dogs that have been active over the winter gear up more quickly for the warmer weather training that leads to hunting competitions and bird hunting season.
Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys — Sassy, 12, Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.