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Preparing for Field Trial Season.

This article, an interview with Jack Sharkey ( by Jacqueline O'Neil, appeared in the February 1997 AKC Gazette. It is reprinted with her permission.

Snow may still be blanketing field trial grounds, but it won't be long before we see the welcome signs of spring. Is your dog in shape for the spring trials? Are you?

One man whose dogs are always in prime condition, even for the season's earliest trials, is Jack Sharkey of Alexandria, Va., a field trial and hunting test judge and avid competitor. Sharkey is the owner-trainer handler of the versatile Vizslas NFC, DC, AFC Hodag's Hunter, MH, UDX, and TC, AFC Legacy's De Chartay, MH, UDX. When I asked him what he does to get Hunter and Char primed for the spring trials, he described a simple training regimen that conditions his dogs and himself physically and mentally. Best of all, it works when the ground is too slick or soggy to safely ride your horse, and it can be used anywhere-even in the city.

The only equipment you need are a well-padded pulling harness with a D ring on each side, two bungee cords (for ease of adjustment) and two lengths of heavy, large-link chains that together weigh about 25 percent of your dog's weight. For example, Hunter weighs 60 pounds, so his chain eventually weighs 15 pounds; but during the first several sessions he pulls only 10 pounds.

Put the harness on your dog and adjust it for a comfortable fit, attach the bungee cords to the D ring on each side and modify their length so they end 12 to 18 inches behind your dog's back legs and are identical, and attach the chains to the bungee cords.

When just coming out of the winter season, Sharkey takes Hunter and Char to an area with a level surface, such as grass (if you don't have access to a large yard or field, use a park or an empty schoolyard or parking lot). Then he attaches a long lead to one dog at a time and walks behind the dog while it pulls the chain for approximately 15 minutes. "Read your dog while it exercises," he says. "Don't overdo the workouts in length or frequency. Take an occasional day off to give the muscles time to rejuvenate. When you stress muscles, they need time to build up stronger than before." Sharkey works his dogs approximately five days a week.

He gradually works his dogs up to pulling 25 percent of their weight for 30 minutes. When Hunter and Char perform it easily on a relatively level surface, he continues their conditioning on regular field trial grounds, with all its holes and bumps. Soon they are free of the lead and out hunting birds for 30 minutes while still pulling their chains.
When Hunter and Char move across the field trial grounds just as if the chains weren't on them, Sharkey starts alternating his conditioning sessions. One day he'll have them hunt while pulling chains, and the next day they hunt wearing nothing but their collars. Occasionally, he has them hunt while pulling for 30 minutes, rests them, and then lets them run in the field without chains for another 30 minutes.

Sharkey almost always works his dogs for 30-minute intervals. "If 30 minutes is good, an hour won't be better," he says. "In fact, it may be harmful rather than helpful. Almost all the trials I enter are 30-minute runs, so I want Hunter and Char to run full bore for 30 minutes. If I worked them for an hour, they would learn to pace themselves. Instead of demonstrating 30 minutes of maximum performance, they would take it easier, saving themselves for a long haul that won't occur in competition."

When Sharkey is satisfied that Hunter and Char are in prime condition, he puts the chains away. They aren't necessary during the field trial season because dogs maintain condition when they compete almost every weekend and practice during the week. Of course, if you miss a few weeks of trialing and practice, you can speed up reconditioning by digging out your chains.

Sharkey always trains as if the practice sessions were a real field trial. To simulate the breakaway, he puts a fluorescent collar around his dogs' necks just before giving the signal to start. He never saves time by attaching their collar early, and he always does it exactly the same way at practice and also during competition.

Sharkey has always known good nutrition is a crucial part of conditioning, but over the past few years he has discovered that varying his dogs' food with the season makes them easier to condition in the spring. He still feeds a high-protein diet during field trial season but now uses quality maintenance diet during the winter. Dogs and people both get out of shape during the winter, Sharkey says, but keeping excess weight off gives you a head start on spring training.

How does Sharkey get in shape for the trials? "By hoofing it," he says. "When the dogs work in chains, I'm right behind them on foot, not on horseback." In fact, Sharkey, who works his dogs in obedience and hunting tests as well as field trials, attributes his good health to dog sports. "I had serious health problems when I retired," he admits, "but all of them went away when I started working dogs. Now I weigh the same as I did right after getting out of West Point. Without my dogs, I'd probably have become a couch potato."

-- this article was copyrighted by the author 6/10/97, reprint by permission

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