Protecting Your Hunting Partners

There is no more reliable companion in the field than your hunting dog. Here's how to make sure he stays safe during those hunts. ( May 2007)

Vests can provide protection to hunting dogs from briars and barbed wire, as well as keeping them warm.

Photo by Carolee Boyles.

Take Max, for example. Max was a great retriever. The yellow Lab was passionate about the water and would retrieve ducks under the worst of conditions. On a cold morning in January, Max's owner downed two canvasbacks, just on the other side of his decoy spread.

Max made a typical Lab leap into the water, and retrieved the first duck flawlessly. Then he went back for the other one.

On his way back to the boat, the Lab became entangled in the lines on three of the decoys. All three lines wrapped around the rabies tag on his collar as he struggled through the frigid water. From the boat, Max's owner could only watch helplessly and call encouragement to the dog.

At last, Max reached the boat and delivered the canvasback. His owner untangled him from the lines and helped the exhausted dog into the boat.

Max was a lucky dog. Had the lines wrapped around his legs, or had the distance to the boat been just a tad farther, he would have undoubtedly perished in the cold January water.

Of course, a dog doesn't have to be hunting -- or to even be a hunting dog -- to meet catastrophe in the woods.

Brutus was a giant of a German shepherd. When Brutus stood up on his hind legs and put his feet on his owner's shoulders, the dog was fully 6 feet tall.

Larry Reese was his owner and a passionate hunter of deer, turkeys and waterfowl, but on this particular day, he wasn't hunting. Reese, his 2-year-old daughter, Stacey, and Brutus were walking along a wooded creek bank. Brutus was at heel at Reese's left side, just as he had been taught, and his owner could feel the dog's cool nose now and then when Brutus nuzzled his fingers. Stacey was toddling along just ahead of the two of them.

Then Reese realized that Brutus was no longer at his side. He looked behind, but the dog had disappeared. Suddenly, he saw Brutus -- now 10 feet out in front of Stacey -- rear up to his full height, with a huge Eastern diamondback rattlesnake firmly clamped onto the end of his muzzle.

Reese grabbed his daughter and called Brutus. The dog shook the snake loose and trotted to his owner's side. Reese frantically raced Brutus to the vet, but to no avail. Several hours, and four vials of antivenin later, the big shepherd succumbed to the rattlesnake's poison. Thirty-three years have gone by, since that day when Brutus died saving Stacey's life.

Sometimes there's not a thing you can do to prevent injury to your canine hunting partner. But with some protective gear and the right first aid kit, you can go a long way toward preventing, or at least minimizing, such injuries to your dog.

Safety Gear

Terry Wilson is President of Ugly Dog Hunting Company, a manufacturer of hunting dog gear whose line includes both safety items and first aid kits for dogs. He said there are several sub-categories of canine safety gear.

First is gear that provides little or no protection from the environment, but that makes the dog clearly visible to hunters. We're talking here about orange vests sized for dogs. Some of them are safety orange with no other embellishments; others have reflective tape applied to make the dog even more visible.

"We bird hunt locally when deer season is also in," Wilson noted. "It's ultra important for other hunters to be able to see our dog. Also, an orange vest helps us locate our dog in thick cover. Even though you might have a beeper or a bell on the dog, in thick cover an orange vest will allow you to see the direction the dog is pointing, or if it's a flushing dog, the exact area that he's in."

Vests of this type aren't designed to provide much in the way of physical protection for the dog, but under certain conditions they can still prevent scrapes.

First of all, if your dog is injured, don't try to move him without a muzzle.

"A vest like this can protect the dog's back from barbed wire," Wilson said. "Not too long ago, we were out hunting and my little German wire-haired pointer came cruising through some barbed wire. He hit it going full steam, but fortunately, he saw it and ducked his head. He tore the vest from end to end, but there wasn't a scratch on him. Most dogs see barbed wire and go under it, but many times they'll catch their back on it."

Although most hunters think of this kind of visibility vest as being primarily for upland game work, it's useful any time you have a dog in the field on dry land.

"We sell vests to some hunters who have hog dogs," Wilson explained. "We don't track those sales, so it's hard to tell, but sometimes we can tell from the address that someone is in a part of the country where they do more hog hunting than upland bird hunting."

Next, there is gear that provides a measure of protection from the surrounding environment. The most common piece of gear for this is a vest that wraps around to provide protection for the chest and belly of the dog. These vests are usually safety orange as well, and give the dog some visibility.

"This kind of a vest also gives the dog some chest and stomach protection," Wilson said. "That's critical if you're hunting in real brushy areas, and it's great for females to protect the underbelly, especially if you have a dog that's recently had a litter of pups."

Then there are vests specifically for waterfowl retrievers. In the story recounted earlier about Max, his owner had to strong-arm him by the collar to get him up over the side of the boat. However, today's neoprene dog vests serve as insulation from the cold, and offer convenient "handholds" for helping a tired and wet dog into the boat. Some vests offer both flotation and warmth, while others offer only flotation. In colder climes, you obviously want a vest that offers both, and be sure you get one that is cut to provide "handles" to help lift the dog into the boat.

Some vests have a heavy "skid plate" in the chest area of the dog for protection.

"This is especially good if you have a hard-driving retriever that charges into the water," Wilson offered. "If you're hunting an area such as a beaver pond, you have no idea what's under the water. A vest with a heavy skid plate offers protection for the dog and adds the warm

th of the neoprene."

The key to a good vest for a waterfowl dog is warmth, particularly when you get into the middle of winter.

"I shudder when I see people out with their Labs in the winter and they don't even give them a vest," he said. "Dogs can get hypothermia, and they can't tell you they're cold. It's hard to tell when a dog is really cold, because some of them shiver with excitement."

When it comes to waterfowl hunting, some of the most basic protective gear is a piece of wood and a couple of wool blankets.

"We hunt from an aluminum boat, and aluminum conducts cold," Wilson pointed out. "So I built a wooden box for my dog to keep him off the aluminum. I put a wool blanket on the box for him to sit on, and after he shakes off, he gets up on the blanket and I throw another blanket over him. He stays there until it's time for him to go out again."

One thing to look for in a kit for dogs is a card with some basic canine first aid instructions.

Depending on where you're hunting, you might want to consider "boots" for your dog.

"For the most part, dogs don't need boots," Wilson said. "But when we hunt in some places in the middle of the winter, snow is a problem for the dogs, particularly the bigger-footed dogs. In some cases, if you don't boot the dogs, they get giant ice balls between their toes, and their feet crack and start to bleed. When I'm going to be hunting in 3 or 4 inches of snow, the boots go on."

Another place where you might want to consider boots is in dry or rocky areas where there are numerous sandspurs and other thorny or prickly vegetation.

"Sand burrs aren't going to ruin your hunt, but they're going to make it unpleasant for you and the dog," Wilson suggested. "It's hard to have a dog running on two legs or limping because of burrs."

Many boots don't stay on a dog's feet, but Wilson said he chose a style for his Ugly Dog Hunting Company to carry that he uses personally and that stays on the feet.

First Aid

First aid kits for humans and those for dogs are similar. The biggest difference, according to Wilson, is that a first aid kit for dogs never contains Tylenol or Ibuprofen.

"A lot of people don't know that you don't give dogs Ibuprofen or Tylenol," he said. "The only thing you can give them is buffered aspirin. Never give them anything else."

One thing to look for in a kit for dogs is a card with some basic canine first aid instructions. It should cover treatment for the things you run into most often, such as gunshot wounds, snakebites, or a tangle with barbed wire.

"The other thing I like to carry is a field first aid book," Wilson added. "It's a quick reference, and hopefully, you have time to look up whatever is going on."

The book he prefers is Dog First Aid: A Field Guide to Emergency Care for the Outdoor Dog, which was written by veterinarian Dr. Randy Acker.

Another thing to avoid with dogs in the field is letting them get dehydrated.

"The main thing is how do you get a dog to drink." Wilson said. "A lot of dogs won't drink in the field. They want to go, go, go, and they're really reluctant to stop and drink."

Wilson uses a product called Rehydrate, which was developed by a veterinarian at the University of Minnesota.

"It's a kind of beef flavor that dogs love," he said. "I've tried drinking it, and it's not great, but dogs really lap it up."

Rehydrate comes in tablets that dissolve when dropped into clean water, so you don't have to carry a separate supply of liquid for your dog.

Another product Wilson likes is an "energy" bar called XtremFuel Booster Bar. Although he never feeds his dogs a full meal in the field, he does give them a Booster Bar when they're working hard.

"It gives them some extra energy," Wilson said. "We typically give the dog a quarter of a bar before he starts, another quarter of a bar maybe half an hour to 45 minutes into the hunt, and the other half of the bar later. They seem to recover from what they're doing quicker when they have it."

Never, Ever Do This

We've already covered one "never do," which was giving your hunting buddy either Tylenol or Ibuprofen. But there are some others that also are important.

First of all, if your dog is injured, don't try to move him without a muzzle. Even the most loving, even-tempered dog can snap or bite when in pain. It's just a basic dog reflex that can make a bad situation worse.

"I wouldn't move a dog without having some way of controlling that," Wilson agreed. "And it's easily done with a first aid kit. You can wrap gauze from the kit around the dog's mouth to keep him from biting."

Another thing to avoid is trying to substitute your expertise for that of your vet.

"It's a decision you have to make at the time," Wilson conceded.

Depending on where you are and what the situation is, you may have to patch a dog up temporarily the best you can. But if it's more than just a thorn or a scratch, get your dog to a vet as quickly as you can as soon as you're able.

A Word About Bloat

Bloat is not technically a "field" problem. However, it is a problem of large, deep-chested dogs, and most hunting breeds fit that description.

Briefly put, bloat is a synonym for the veterinary term "Gastric Dilatation." What it means in real terms is that the dog's stomach has become distended with air, and has twisted so that the flow of blood to the stomach is cut off. The dog goes into shock, and if it's not treated quickly, dies in very short time.

This is a condition that is never treatable in the field or at home. There are a couple of first aid procedures you can try if you can't get the dog to the vet in the next few minutes, but they are strictly short-term and do not solve the problem!

"There's no way to prevent bloat," Wilson cautioned. "Deep-chested dogs are just prone to it sometimes. And there are probably a lot more dogs that die from it that people realize."

No one knows what causes bloat, but one theory is that heavy exercise just before or just after a big meal contributes to the likelihood of a bloat event occurring. There are several signs you should look for that indicate bloat is taking place.

"One of the signs is unproductive vomiting or attempting to vomit," Wilson described. "The dog will arch his back, and sometimes will cry out in pain. They can't sit still

. They pace and pace. They try to defecate and can't do that. The big thing is to feel the stomach. If it's distended, it's time to get the dog to the vet."

There's plenty of information about bloat on the Internet, and instructions for creating a "bloat kit" to have at home for emergencies. Just remember that all you're doing for your dog is a quick fix that gives you time to get to the vet. You are not solving the problem, and if you don't treat bloat as a life-threatening emergency, your dog will die.

The younger the dog, and the faster you get the animal to the vet, the more likely it is to survive. In the operating room, the vet straightens out the stomach and sutures it to the abdominal wall in a procedure called a gastropexy, which prevents the stomach from twisting if bloat occurs again at a later time.

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