Are dogs athletes? According to the dictionary, they most certainly are. In fact, in the second definition of the word athlete, Webster specifies dogs and horses. I have been a firm believer of that for a long time. Not just because I hunt with them, but I physically train alongside them.
I would consider myself an athlete of sorts. Wrestled and played football in high school, and while on active duty dabbled in Vale Tudo and played rugby. After 6 years in the military moved back to Georgia and began training and competing in OCR's. Now, at 31, I've found my way back onto the rugby pitch. Partner that with a family history of heart issues, and staying in shape is easily one of the more important things in my life. This bleeds into my dog training.
A dog showing a lot of intensity is a very desirable trait. You see it in their eyes. When you can capture that look in a picture, it's a stunning image. You see it in every sport. The same look in a pro's eyes. The step back jumper; a linebacker squaring up a back coming off the edge; or the slugger putting the barrel on the ball. I see it in my shorthair constantly. On point, or watching the sky in the duck blind. The eyes are always intense!
I have a strong belief in being reverent when taking from the earth. You always owe it to your quarry to produce the cleanest, most ethical harvest possible. Respiration and heart rate go hand in hand when relaxing on the squeeze of the trigger. If you're not in shape, you're not slowing that heart rate any time soon. Your hunting partner requires the same. An unconditioned dog won't be able to scent as well with that tongue hanging out, and you may be going on that 100+ yard blind retrieve alone. Good luck.
High level athletes train to be versatile, we hunt versatile, so we train that way. We may be backpacking into the Appalachians for grouse, or chasing wood ducks in east Georgia swamps. Either way, we need to cover ground in a timely manner. These places don't spoil you with the paved walkways of suburban parks. A dog and handler that are prepared for these tasks will find the greatest adventure because they are able to dig deeper and further.
Some will disagree, but I prefer to cover ground rather than sit and wait. Some situations call for patience, but I think that's different than waiting for something to happen. We constantly leg out 8-10 mile runs. If it's shorter, we're both carrying weight. Getting leash time on long runs and walks/hikes unrelated to hunting will do a lot for the confidence of your partnership. Working dogs perform best when they can operate with confidence in themselves. They channel that through you. When a dog keys in on your lack of confidence in success, it can lead to a lack of weight in the bird bag. Don't ever let that come from an inability to cover the terrain you're hunting.
With a background in emergency medicine and wound care, physical examination and palpation came as habit. After any training, exercise, or hunt, I sit down with my dog and feel every muscle and bone. Thankfully the examination has only revealed ticks, spurs, and thorns; but I know without a doubt what my dog's anatomy is supposed to feel like. Hopefully that day never comes when a situation appears, but if it does, it'll allow me to take corrective action ASAP.
These examinations are also very therapeutic for the dogs. After a physically exhausting evolution, palpation can be a light massage.
A dog that will allow you to touch them like that has a lot of confidence in you. Return the favor and have confidence in them. They are and can be very high level athletes. If you want that full potential from your dog, you must be able to match that intensity! Give yourself and your K9 athlete high expectations and hold yourselves to them.
Be prepared to put in the work!
If nothing else is gained, at the end of the day, a tired dog is a good dog.