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Bird hunters with very sharp dogs have been working them all year:

On obedience, steadying them to wing and shot, practicing blind retrieves; and, when it's legal, letting them course the woods and fields seeking bird smell and practicing points or flushes, according to breed.

Then there's the rest of us.

For us, Phideaux is more pet and companion afield than hunting machine.

Not the dog's fault, of course, but that of the owner -- a generally affable fellow who likes dogs and is content with a canine companion who begs half his lunch and fetches the two or three birds he might shoot more or less by accident of a morning's outing.

Given that the pooch comes back when called and has half-way decent genes, it usually performs adequately for that. It also usually sleeps on the front seat on the way home and, as it gets older, kind of stiffens up the way Master does. This is a picture of man-dog bonding, all right, but it's not so good for the dog when it gets arthritic. Which brings us to the point, an interesting article on canine feeding and fitness that appears in the September issue of Progressive Farmer magazine, of all places.

For the last five years Progressive Farmer (aimed at agribusiness practitioners) has run an insert called the "Rural Sportsman" tucked between discussions of such things as cleaner cotton crops and maximizing cattle profit. The "Sportsman" deals with how to manage for wildlife, and this month on "Golden Years for Gun Dogs."

In the piece Kansas State veterinary professor William Fortney notes that, at about 9 years old, most breeds are into the aging process. Larger breeds, like Labs, start a bit sooner, smaller breeds like Brittanies a bit later.

As they age, dogs cannot tolerate "excesses or deficiencies" in their diet. That means, as Cornell University animal nutritionist Francis Kallfelz says, they need the right amount of calories and protein. Regular kibble (with about 14 percent protein) is fine, even for older, active dogs, and the higher protein (and fat) "performance" diets might also have their place.

"But older, less active dogs don't need those diets at all, and a few, who may have liver problems, can be harmed by them."

There are, of course "senior" diets that have less fat, fewer calories and more fiber; and those, Kallfelz says, might be fine for a house pet as age slows metabolism and obesity becomes a problem. Senior diets have less protein than "normal" kibbles, are easier to digest, easier to chew and have more additives that the older dog needs.

Trainers who work their dogs a lot will tell you differently because, I repeat, they work their dogs a lot!

"That's true," Kallfelz said, "but I think for an older gun dog a regular feed, perhaps supplemented during the hunting season with some additional fat, is all that you need. If the dog has gained weight, cut back the amount you feed."

The article also discusses medications for arthritis, but suggests what any older dog needs to keep from stiffening up is losing weight and more exercise -- a lot more, and at regular intervals.

Given little buffered aspirin (fed at meals) and a lot of walking, training, and, of course, hunting, a dog can be active and capable until he or she is 12 or even older.

Instead of hopping in the car to get a bottle of milk, slip a leash on Phideaux and walk the four blocks to the store.

Instead of going to the gym and working out on a treadmill, put in an hour walking in the woods (if you can let your pooch loose in them, somewhere) or along country roads or paved village streets.

Backyard retrieving drills help, too, and also help focus a dog on the work to be done once the season starts.

Like all dog work, this should be fun even for the older dog. My own starting-to-age dog has become a Frisbee nut.

Now, I fear, she'll be leaping after flushing birds come October.

Of course, if she's as good on low-flushing birds as she's become at Frisbee, I might not have to shoot at all, thus saving money on shells. Of course, the embarrassment factor will mean hunting alone.

In truth, a pre-hunting-season physical showed that Master is also overfed and under-exercised.

"Cut back on fats and proteins, walk briskly for between 30 and 60 minutes daily and get more fresh air," was the doctor's advice.

Happily, the pooch has just brought me her leash. Must be time to get off the couch!

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