This routine provides all the benefits hunting dogs need for better performance the next morning and over the course of the season.
Today's bird hunters are increasingly mobile, myself included. We hardly think twice about loading up our hunting dogs and taking to the road for a new and promising destination. Those extended trips are memory makers, but it's important to keep in mind that maintenance of your canine hunting companion becomes even more of a priority the farther from home we travel.
Given what's expected of our hunting dogs, it's best to think of them as highly tuned endurance athletes with a short amount of time to bounce back between getting kenneled at the end of the day and being let loose to hunt 'em up again in the morning.
Cutting my teeth as an upland-bird guide in central Montana, I learned quickly that if I wanted to maximize a dog's performance over extended trips, I had to be smart about how I structured the dog's evening regimen.
Following a specifically ordered post-hunt routine, I start the recuperation process early, giving each dog a better chance at recovery before the next day's adventure.
My routine primarily consists of HIPER -- hydrate, inspect, play, eat, rest.
Implementing the routine in this order provides several benefits for a hard-hunting dog and results in better performance the next morning and over the course of the season.
Hydration speeds recovery time perhaps more than any other factor. Like us, a dog's body is made up of at least 70 percent water, which is needed to perform specific functions like regulating body temperature, flushing toxins and delivering nutrients to fatigued muscles.
Unlike us, a dog's normal body temperature is 102 degrees, making hydration all the more important. When hunting new areas, it's crucial to keep extra water in the truck. Especially in unfamiliar country, you can't count on nature to provide water reliably.
To get the recovery process started as fast as possible, the first thing hunters should do upon returning to their rig is make water available. However, some dogs tend to go straight to the water dish and gulp until it's dry. In this case, avoid setting a water dish out right away.
Gulping a large amount of water may cause stomach distress and, like humans, if it's taken in all at one time they will pass most of it before it is absorbed. They can cool down and have a few squirts from a water bottle while you complete tailgate inspection. Afterward, they will be more reasonable with their intake.
Barbed wire and brush, thistles and cockleburs: Energetic hunting dogs see it all in a day, making "tailgate time" a crucial part of post-hunt care.
Spreading a familiar blanket on the tailgate gives a non-verbal cue that it's time for relaxation. Dogs usually welcome it if they were conditioned correctly.
A dog's fur can mask injuries, but our hands are surprisingly adept at feeling irregularities, so my goal is to touch and simultaneously look at every inch of my dog's body during inspection. I once missed a barbed wire laceration under the thick chest fur of my best dog.
The tough skin in that area doesn't bleed much, so I didn't notice it until later that evening. By then, the vet's emergency after-hours rate had kicked in, I paid double for skin stapling and antibiotics, but the injury was caught before infection set in. The worst part was the guilt I felt for not conducting a thorough check out in the field. She deserved better.
Especially when far from home, it's important to catch issues before they become severe. I start with the dog standing up on the tailgate, where I first check eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Lift up the gums, look at the roof of the mouth, then look close in the nose and eyes for seeds or other foreign bodies. The nictating membrane, or "third eyelid," is especially important to notice, since the soft tissue is sensitive but also crucial to the dog's eye health.
Next, feel the dog's neck and torso, while also being aware of how the dog is reacting. Are there any tender spots that warrant a closer look? Lay the dog down and check all four armpits, where cockleburs tend to gather and chafe.
Finally, the legs and paws should be closely inspected. Run your hands down each leg and around each joint, feeling for anything abnormal. Hot or swollen areas often signal some type of injury. Check between the toes, splaying out the webbing while looking on top and under; then, visually inspect the pads of each foot.
Even canines get mental fatigue. It can become a factor for working dogs that are asked to perform over long periods of time, leading to bad behaviors and impaired focus.
For dogs, think of play as any experience that involves positive stimulation with no stress. A bone or favorite chew toy can provide this while also priming the appetite. I make a point to rotate my dogs, so a different one rides home in the cab each evening. After tasting a morsel of my drive-through hamburger, they curl up next to me on the bench seat where I rest my arm on them for the ride back. This stress-free contact creates a stronger relationship that pays dividends in the field.
Some dogs need this type of attention more than others, and I've noticed that well into the season, what many dogs want most is a head start on the 10 to 12 hours of sleep their bodies and minds require. But just like us, they may need help keying down from an intense day at work. Whatever way we can accomplish this results in sharper, more well-rested dogs come morning.
Gun-dog owners are wise to work with a vet to develop a dietary plan for hunting season. That said, the generally accepted view is that a dog's body is designed to perform optimally with longer periods between eating than what would be normal for humans. Given this time frame, it makes sense to feed as soon as possible after the hunt is over.
Unlike humans, who rely on carbs during intense exercise, a dog's body is wired to utilize fat for energy. For this reason, most high-energy blends include at least 20 percent fat content and similar protein levels to encourage muscle maintenance. I start mixing in high-energy food a few weeks before ramping up training in late summer.
During hunting season, my feeding routine starts in the field at the end of the day, where I usually make a chew bone available for the ride back. This helps them relax and also stimulates their digestive process so they are ready to eat, drink and relieve themselves as fast as possible after arriving home. The quicker to bed, the more rest they'll have before doing it all over again in the morning.
Some dogs tend to develop sensitive digestion in reaction to changes in routine and the increased physical stresses of hunting season. To help stabilize their systems and maximize nutrient absorption, I mix a tablespoon of plain, canned pumpkin into their dry food. The fiber aids in water and nutrient absorption, and it also lowers the PH level of the large intestine, encouraging growth of beneficial bacteria.
Because they are denning animals, dogs prefer small enclosures where they can feel safe. To maximize potential for rest, a dog's shelter should be small enough to provide this feeling while still giving room to stand and stretch sore muscles. Crates or custom-built boxes should be sized with this in mind. If possible, avoid partnering dogs, as even the best mates can still interrupt each other's rest.
In addition to size, bedding is also a major concern. Padding should be thick enough to insulate your dog from the cold, while also durable and easy to clean. The best I've found is the K9 Ballistics TUFF Pad (online at K9ballistics.com). They are generously padded, almost indestructible, and the ballistic nylon repels dirt and moisture.
One final consideration: Canine metabolism works faster than our own. To help them get better rest, make it a point to let your hunting partners out sometime in the night so they can stretch and relieve themselves.
All of this is common sense, right? But it's easy to overlook these recommendations at the end of a long day of hard hunting. The critical thing is, get a routine established and stick to it. It's the least we can do for our four-pawed friends.