How to Help Hunting Dogs Enjoy a Life Without Hunting

Physical as well as mental exercise can satisfy dogs who are programmed to hunt.

dogedit  |  Sep 25th 2012

Duck season or wabbit season? Neither, Elmer: It’s hunting-dog season.

Along with taxes and the 47 percent, another polarizing issue of this presidential campaign season is the hunt, with pet lovers on Facebook outraged at images of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan posing for photographs with dead animals. Of course, dogs evolved from wolves to assist Homo sapiens in performing various duties, chief among them the hunt for wild game. And many of the most charming and attractive canine breeds do, let’s face it, belong to the sporting group. These include hounds, spaniels, and other dogs hard-wired for hunting.

But many contemporary dog lovers want the companionship of a hunting dog without having to shoot the dog’s natural prey. Is it fair, or even possible, to expect a dog that’s genetically programmed for hunting to be happy and fulfilled living a hunt-free lifestyle?

Absolutely, experts say.

“Hunting dogs hunt, whether or not a human is nearby with a weapon,” explains master dog-trainer Sarah Wilson, author of Dogology: What Your Relationship With Your Dog Reveals About You. “Backyard or park, they run around nose down, chasing anything that moves.”

Here’s great news for fans of hunting breeds who don’t hunt: It’s easy and fun to provide these dogs with outlets for their instinctive drives by substituting fun recreational activities that spare other animals.

“Fetch is the classic for the retrievers,” Wilson says. “Any kind, anywhere, and often almost anything. Also, consider dock diving and disc catching, if the dogs are physically sound enough to do it safely. Water-loving dogs can enjoy swimming, and it is excellent exercise for most dogs.”

For any of the sporting breeds, tracking and nose work are a blast, she adds.

“Anything that engages the nose and mind will engage a sporting breed,” Wilson explains. “Less formally, you can put a treat somewhere in the house or yard and teach your dog to ‘find it.'”

In the winter, she says, use a tool or broom handle to make holes in snow banks, then drop treats into those.

“That can be hours of digging fun for restless, snow-bound dogs,” Wilson says.

Additionally, she says, “remember that many of these dogs are supreme athletes created to run miles a day, so dog parks, jogging, skijoring, dog carting, and scootering can all help burn off that genetic steam.”

If that level of physical activity is out, then tire them out mentally with self-control games such as space activities on My Smart Puppy.

“Mental focus and self-control can tire out high-octane dogs as fast as — or faster than — physical activity,” she says.

David Frei of Westminster Kennel Club fame is a big fan of the Brittany, a gun dog traditionally used to hunt fowl, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a toy breed that’s also adept at chasing birds. Frei lives in New York City, which is not exactly a mecca for hunters, and yet, he says, “My Brittany and my Cavalier show off their ‘birdie instinct’ every day in the city, stopping and intensely pointing that omnipresent game bird, the pigeon, every time they see one. As people stop and look and smile at the event, I tell them, ‘Just staying in practice — it might be a pheasant next time!'”

One of the reasons that sporting dogs are good at assisting the hunter is their temperament, he adds. “Doing things with their people is what they live for. Chasing a ball, running in the park, other fairly simple activities that include just being with their people.”

As the founder of the famed nonprofit Angel on a Leash, Frei happens to be very active in the therapy-dog field, so he speaks from personal and professional experience when he explains that therapy work is an excellent outlet for a non-hunting hound’s innate talent. “Again, that wonderful, ‘I want to be with you’ happy attitude makes most of them good candidates for therapy dog work,” Frei says.

“We have a number of sporting dogs that are doing wonderful things as therapy dogs for people in need,” he says, including a textbook gun-dog, Ch. Felicity’s Diamond Jim, aka James, the English Springer Spaniel who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2007 (and, in Frei’s estimation, “the best working therapy dog I have ever been around”) as well as Frei’s own beloved Brittany, Grace.

“Grace loves being at the Ronald McDonald House [where Frei’s wife Cherilyn is the chaplain] and does not flinch from all the poking and prodding and body slams that come with that ‘kid duty,'” Frei says. “There are some breeds that just do their own thing. I describe it as, ‘It’s their world and we’re just living in it to serve their needs.’ But with most sporting dogs, they want to be in our world, with us, pleasing us. And their athleticism makes them good candidates for things like agility, while their intelligence makes them good candidates for obedience.”

Do you have a hunting dog? Do you consider the breed’s history when engaging the dog? Let us know in the comments!