Hunting Dog Care in the Field

By author of The Duck Blog

Keep your best partner in good shape this season

Hunting dogs face many potential dangers afield. Learn how to keep your best buddy healthy and happy. Photo © Bill Konway

My buddies and I have a running joke that, through various misadventures, we’ve acquired the name and number of every veterinarian in the Dakotas.

That’s a stretch, of course, but it has some basis in truth. After almost 20 years of hard-hunting prairie waterfowl and upland-bird trips, our dogs have been sewn up and cared for by uncountable Dakota animal doctors. Infections, punctures from thorns and barbed-wire cuts were the main culprits, but other dangers lurk, too.

Our experience isn’t uncommon. Injuries and illness are simply part of the hunting-dog game. Hunting pooches charge hard to flush and retrieve birds, and chase down cripples, often enduring rough cover, dangerously cold water and even aggressive wildlife. If you hunt your dog enough, it will eventually get injured — no exceptions. Sometimes, you can avoid these incidents. Other times, stuff happens. Regardless of the circumstances, you must be prepared to take good care of your pup while in the field.

What follows is not a complete field-care guide, but it will at least get you thinking about the proper steps to canine care while hunting. Always consult a veterinarian or more experienced dog handler for in-depth advice.

Identify and Avoid Trouble

Education and experience can help you avoid many dangerous situations. Namely, learn to identify various injuries and the circumstances that cause them, and then try to avoid those scenarios.

Barbed wire might be the No. 1 foe for hunting dogs, especially upland varieties. Always keep your dog under control, and watch for gates, fence lines and even loose barbed wire. Help your dog safely cross wire barriers, and, above all, don’t let it roam too far in areas where you’ve seen stray or discarded wire.

Wire can also present big problems for water dogs, especially at spots where high water has submerged fence lines. Note such areas, and keep your dog away from them. It’s usually wise to avoid hunting them altogether.

In addition, thorns and briars can injure dogs. Usually, you won’t learn of a thorn puncture until after the fact. Watch your dog to see if it’s favoring a paw or leg, and check its pads often. These areas can get infected easily, and it’s no fun to care for such a wound while on a trip.

We don’t think of it often, but seeds and tiny bits of vegetation can harm the eyes of dogs, especially in upland hunting. I’ve seen some pooches with eyelids packed full of irritating seeds or grass fragments. Remember, your canine buddy can’t wipe its eyes clean, so you’ll have to do it.

Hypothermia also poses big potential trouble for water dogs. We typically think of retrievers as being invincible in cold water, but that’s not true. Yes, they’re amazingly tough and resilient, but you have to help them. A retriever’s coat insulates its skin and body wonderfully, but the dog must dry out. If it’s standing or, worse, belly deep in dangerously cold water, the pup can be in danger of going hypothermic. Likewise, if you leave your dog in frigid water too long during a retrieve, the consequences can be grave. Don’t believe it? Every retriever I’ve owned and several of those belonging to friends have suffered hypothermia while hunting. Usually, the culprit was having its paws and legs in 30-some degree water for long periods. Keep your buddies high and dry. Hunt them on a boat platform or even a muskrat hut if you have to. If they begin to act sluggish or disoriented, get them to a warm area immediately. Petmd.com provides this advice for hypothermic dogs: Wrap the pup in warm blankets, and keep a hot water bottle in a towel against the pooch’s stomach. Provide some warm fluids for the dog to drink. If possible, check the dog’s temperature about every 10 minutes. If it’s below 98 degrees, seek immediate veterinary attention. After it’s above 100 degrees, remove the water bottle to avoid overheating.

Likewise, contrary to popular belief, dogs can get frostbite during bitterly cold, windy conditions — especially around their noses and ears. Hunt during subzero days if you like, but give your dogs a break for their skin to warm up.

Conversely, remember that dogs are also extremely susceptible to overheating. Canines can’t perspire like humans do, and must pant to shed excess heat. Don’t overwork your pups when it’s warm. Run them in brief spurts broken up by long breaks. If a dog is panting wildly and its tongue seems disproportionately large, it’s time to stop. Always have a portable bowl or hydration vest ready to give your dog water. And always carry plenty of water — more than you think you’ll need.

Those represent only a few of the potential dangers afield. Dogs can also pull muscles, wreck joints or ligaments, become ill after drinking tainted water, become severely fatigued because of poor conditioning or get injured after encountering porcupines or even stray farm dogs. Always look for any sign of trouble, and avoid it.

Prepare and React

Hope for the best by steering clear of potential danger, but prepare for the worst. It’ll happen at some point, even to the best-trained hunting dog.

The first key is to constantly monitor your dog while it’s afield. It’s very easy to get caught up in a great pheasant shoot or mallard flight and not notice that your pup is limping or acting sluggish. Always put your dog ahead of your fun, and check it often to make sure it’s functioning at 100 percent. If you notice anything unusual, stop hunting, and examine your buddy. If the dog’s odd behavior persists, have it sit out the rest of the hunt, and then clean it up and examine it more carefully indoors. The dog won’t like it, but it’s for its welfare.

Consider outfitting your pup with a protective vest; Kevlar models for upland dogs and neoprene outfits for retrievers. I won’t hunt pheasants unless my Lab wears her Kevlar vest. It’s protected her from uncountable gashes and cuts. The value of neoprene vests for keeping retrievers warm during waterfowl hunts is somewhat dubious, but I’ll still use one on my pooch if she’ll be breaking ice or busting through thick cover.

Always carry a canine first-aid kit afield. Many such packages are available commercially. Most include gauze, disinfectant, medical tape, eye wash and other common first-aid items. It’s never a bad idea to take EMT gel along, too. It protects wounds, helps them heal faster, helps prevent infection and deters dogs from irritating wounds more. A skin stapler can also be handy, if you’re comfortable with that; otherwise, see a vet.

After hunting, conduct a thorough check of your dog. Examine its eyes, nose and even teeth. Look at its legs, pads, belly and chest. Search for cuts, scrapes, abrasions, punctures or other abnormalities, including the aforementioned seeds in the eyes. Sometimes, even large cuts aren’t apparent at first, as dried blood and matted hair easily obscure them. And as always, monitor your pup’s behavior to see that it’s eating normally and maintains a typical disposition.

Finally, remember that list of Dakota vets? Before any hunting adventure, research several veterinarians in your hunting area, and add their telephone numbers to your contacts. Hopefully, you’ll never need them, but odds are you will at some point.

Keep Your Dog No. 1

Your dog can’t decide if he’s too injured to hunt. That burden falls on you, and it’s almost always best to err on the side of caution. I’ve seen guys run a retriever for a week after the poor pup received multiple stitches in its leg and stomach, but that’s sure not ideal.

Small nicks and scrapes are usually no big deal, and eye irritation often subsides after proper care. But any open wound or gash that required stitches should keep your dog out of the water for a while. Likewise, if the pooch limps or seems sluggish, give it a break. Always keep watch on your buddy, and put its care and health ahead of hunting concerns. Consult a vet, and heed his advice.

Your dog will thank you. And, when you look back on the memories you and your healthy pup shared during its lifetime, you’ll be thankful, too.

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