Updated: May 1
I wrote this article based on the outline for a presentation I gave at Auburn University during a Sports Medicine Symposium. The piece is titled “Preparing For A National”. The details layout a comprehensive plan used in preparation for the biggest event in retriever field trials. The strategy I discuss would be appropriate in mapping out a training course for a Master National or a breed specialty. Any event that you might consider to be your ultimate challenge for the upcoming year would benefit from the lessons laid out in this article.
I’m here to talk to you about preparing the elite canine athlete for the most intense competition in all of retriever field trials. In the sport of retriever field trialing, there are three national championship events each year: the National Amateur Retriever Championship, the National Derby Championship, and the National Retriever Championship. From 1986 through 2006, I owned and operated Esprit Kennels. During that time, I trained over 50 field and amateur field trial champions. I have been involved in preparing hundreds of dogs for over 30 national championships, trained over 30 national finalists, and won the 2003 National Amateur Championship. After that time, I joined Handjem Retrievers (2007 – 2012) and became part of a team that won more Nationals than any other in history.
I am going to share with you the process I go through in preparing for a national championship.
The process is broken up into three segments:
The six months leading up to the event, will focus on subjects such as: physical & mental conditioning, nutrition, training fundamentals and keeping it all in balance.
The two weeks prior to the event, I will cover topics such as acclamation, training, the handler factor, dealing with injuries and winding down the week.
The final segment will cover what to do during the week of the event itself.
Some of the specific things I will discuss are physical and mental conditioning, nutrition, training fundamentals, achieving balance, dealing with injuries, game time adjustments and the Handler Factor.
A balanced, consistent training program is critical in preparing any dog for competition. In the six months prior to such an event, I expose my dogs to as many different scenarios as possible. I cover the fundamental issues a field trial dog must learn to master and I continually practice executing them. Some of these fundamentals would include: water entries and re-entries, crosswind work, secondary selection, (long, short and medium distance) retired guns, head swinging, etc. A good balance between marks and blinds, easy and difficult tests, short and long, land and water are all critical in maintaining a well-rounded training program. A consistent standard and a patient objective attitude are essential. A dog that is a relaxed free thinker will be most effective. He cannot be afraid of making a decision. I try to put my dogs in situations where they are encouraged to sort things out for themselves, rather then me making all their decisions for them. I do things, especially on marked retrieves, that encourage them to sort things out on their own. For example, I might have the gunner subtly assist him or seed an area with extra birds. I want my dogs to think they can figure anything out, no matter how complex it might seem. The last thing I want is them worrying about the consequences of making a mistake.
In the sport of retriever field trialing, there is a tremendous amount of effort put into training technique and very little energy spent toward conditioning and nutrition. After training professionally for 15 years, I was embarrassed how little I knew about these subjects. I decided to put forth some effort to learn more about conditioning and nutrition. What better sport to look towards than sled dogs? Their sport is based almost totally on conditioning and nutrition. I had the opportunity to get to know and work with Dr. Arleigh Reynolds. Arleigh was a musher and highly respected nutritionist. He was a senior nutritional research scientist for Nestle Purina and the dean of the veterinary school at The University of Alaska. In those early days, Arleigh guided me in the development of a conditioning program and helped me better understand the nutritional needs of our canine athletes. Several years later, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Jennell Appel. Dr. Appel is a Certified Canine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Specialist. With the guidance of Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Appel, I gained a much greater understanding of how to properly care for a modern canine athlete.
It is impossible to achieve top physical condition through normal training alone. I incorporated long slow distance, interval and resistance training, as well as swimming. After joining Handjem Retrievers, I further refined my conditioning efforts. Dr. Appel has helped me design a system that is attached to my Polaris Ranger. It incorporates two booms with drop chains that attach to harnesses. I maintain a speed of about 5-10 mph. Depending on the weather, I will start with 15–20-minute sessions two to three times a week. They quickly build to 30-minute sessions. My goal is to get them comfortable running twice as long as any test they are likely to encounter. I like to also combine some swimming as well. For example, I might start with a five-minute warm up, then ten minutes of roading at 5-6 mph, then 15 minutes of swimming next to a boat, followed by 15 minutes of additional running and then a 5-minute cool off. The dogs learn to love it. This not only physical conditions them; it is also a great relief of stress. It helps form a deeper bond between us. You interact with the dogs not as a trainer but more as a pack member. A well-conditioned athlete is less apt to get injured. He will fatigue less, recover quicker, think clearer and handle heat better.
Thanks to Dr. Reynolds & Dr. Appel, I now combine a more specialized diet and a conditioning program to my routine. It has become obvious to me the importance of this in achieving a balanced, well-rounded canine athlete.
If I have done my homework, the dogs are in their best physical condition. They are on a premium performance diet, have had a broad array of training scenarios, and they are relaxed and confident going into the two weeks prior to the national.
In the two weeks prior to the competition, there are many things that need to be addressed. First is adjusting after a long trip and acclimating to new surroundings. In many instances, the dogs have traveled cross country. Adjusting to a change in climate and altitude may also be necessary. In most instances, true pre-national training starts about 7-14 days before the trial. I must consider the difference in terrain, cover, climate, and altitude the dog is adjusting to. I like to start the week fairly easy and get an early read on their attitude. I am more apt to start with singles and high success rate tests. It is important to establish some training momentum early in the week to build on. The dogs need to be exposed to a lot of pheasant flyers. They are always difficult at nationals. The dogs don’t see them most of the year and don’t get enough practice finding them. I do my most challenging training in the middle part of the week. I don’t try to guess what the judges are likely to do. I try to cover the fundamentals again. We are shooting a lot of birds and the overall excitement level of training is high. The dog’s excitement level is likely to encourage them to abandon their manners. Executing fundamental training tasks will remind him of the rules. An equal share of marks and control issues will help maintain a balanced approach. Balance cannot be stressed enough! A lesson it took me a while to learn is: don’t try to accomplish too much, don’t over react, and don’t point your finger at any one issue.
In many nationals, I have the owner/handler as well to deal with. This is always a complicating factor. Preparing the dogs is the easy part. Dealing with people of varying temperaments, egos and skill levels can be very challenging all by itself. You are forced to consider the handlers training attitude as well. They are out of their element and typically insecure about it. If the dog is prepared, but the handler is a wreck, you have a problem. Often, I am forced to adjust my training efforts in order to keep the handler/dog in a positive state. Putting the team together is the ultimate challenge for any trainer.
Dealing with injuries is inevitable. First, you must evaluate the severity and, in some cases, seek medical assistance. Foot conditions are very common. Minor cuts, sore pads, cracked toenails are almost always an issue. Paying attention to details is critical in preparation. Diagnosing a cracked nail and removing it ahead of time can be the difference between winning and losing a national. I remember a national in Oakdale, California and a dog named “Asia”. She kept developing an abscess on one of her front legs. With the help of Dr. Cal Cadmus, we were able to treat the condition. We kept the wound open and soaked it 3-4 times daily. We would wrap it when she ran and then soak it afterwards. She ran a fabulous national. Two weeks after the national, we discovered a 2-inch stick that was the cause of the abscess. Without constant attention she would have not been able to compete. Today, Dr. Appel attends all of the nationals and plays the role of team physician. She has a state-of-the-art mobile clinic. She spends much of her time during these events diagnosing and caring for the competitors. I know for a fact that many of the recent National Champions were able to perform at their best because of Dr. Appel’s attention and therapy.
In your attempt to cover everything you hoped, you must decide when enough is enough. I believe that if you have addressed executing fundamentals, you achieve a carry over to all aspects. In other words, you can’t cover everything, and you shouldn’t try. At this point you are as ready as you can be.
Now let’s talk about the week of the event. The National Championship is typically comprised of ten separate tests. They are divided equally between land and water. Usually there are six sets of marks and four sets of blind retrieves. All nationals start slow. Early in the competition, you have an abundant amount of time to train. I like to pay extra close attention early in the event to each dog’s attitude. I don’t want to be so concerned how they might have scored on some of the early series. I am more concerned with their overall demeanor. What telltale signs of unraveling are subtly evident? For example, how were their line manners? How pliable were they being on line? Did they avoid a small piece of water in route to a retrieve? Now is the time to make some game time adjustments! You might not have time later. One thing I do a lot during the national is indirect training. What I mean by that is I don’t train on what I expect to see next. For example, if I were expecting a challenging water blind, I might do a disciplined crosswind set of marks. You will get a carryover without the risk of sending the wrong message.
It is sometimes more important to know when not to train. Often the training might be more for the handler’s nerves than to benefit the dog. Energy conservation becomes important later in the competition. The duration between tests becomes shorter and shorter. I clearly remember one national handling a dog named “Chic” in Statesboro, GA. She ran the first four series in four days. On Friday and Saturday, she ran the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th series. She and I both were exhausted. It was critical that we managed the week properly and kept plenty in reserves for the last two days.
In recent years, I do a few things to help manage the dogs during such events. In cases where high temperatures are an issue, I use a product called Elements H. This product helps to hyper hydrate the dogs before an extra strenuous bout of exercise. It has been shown that dogs run cooler and with more endurance when they are well hydrated. This can make the difference between a dog collapsing or not. I also use a muscle glycogen replenishment product after bouts of intense exercise. This aids in the recovery and can help them be prepared for the next test. The Elements Company has a product called R for recovery. Here is the link to their website www.elements.dog.
Todd Scheuble is the owner and is happy to talk to you regarding the use of his products. I have learned to adjust my feeding routines to enhance maximum energy. I feed once a day. I try feed as close to the last test as possible and as far away from the next test as possible. Studies have shown that dogs that have been fasted for sixteen hours have greater energy and endurance than ones recently feed.
There comes a time during a national when you need to quit micromanaging. You need to let go of the reins and let the dog’s own abilities build. Nationals are won and lost on marks. Usually, these are the big sets you see in the 5th through the 10th series. Sometimes, it is best to cut them loose and hang on. They can do their most extraordinary work at this time. The excitement builds through the entire trial. You can feel it. What an experience! It is like none other.
Preparing a crew of dogs and handlers for such an event is quite a challenge. It is not unlike preparing a team of athletes for a big game. I can’t stress enough the importance of the whole process. Every aspect of preparation is dependent on the other.
A well-conditioned athlete is not possible without proper nutrition. A well-trained retriever is not possible without having a healthy animal to begin with. It is impossible to be competitive in any sport without paying attention to all the details. It is the culmination of months of hard work. I hope I have been able to give you a better understanding of what I do in an effort to prepare for such an event. I hope you come away with an idea of what it takes to prepare your elite canine athletes for the ultimate challenge.