Our bird dogs are nothing less than family. In our lives, they're a trusted confidant, a stalwart companion. We call them our best friends, for more reason than one. At every opportunity, we aim to afford them as much thought and care, if not more than, we would ourselves.
But upland hunting is a tough business. With every trip afield, every day spent with them doing what they love—what they were born to do—we place them in uncertain scenarios and increase the likelihood something could go wrong. But how wrong? We take safety measures against traps, wild animal encounters, heat stroke, among others hazards, but, statistically, what are the real risks a bird dog faces on a day-to-day basis? Answers vary from dog to dog, as well as region to region. Still, avid bird dog hunters and experts agree: ensuring the well-being of your canine is a matter of preparation rather than a check-list of precautions.
Dr. Shawn Wayment, bird dog owner since the age of six and veterinarian for 19 years, operates a small animal practice near Denver, Colorado. The most common issue he treats every fall season: what he refers to as “Monday morning disease.”
“Dogs that didn’t get properly conditioned,” he said. “I see that commonly with guys that go out on pheasant opener.”
Dogs that aren’t adequately exercised year-round and in proper physical condition once the season opens can suffer from muscle stiffness and breakdown, according to Dr. Wayment, which is called Rhabdomyolysis and can lead to myogoblin in the urine, causing kidney failure.
“Get them out and exercise them,” Dr. Wayment advised. “Don’t leave them sitting on the couch.”
Lack of exercise can also lead to heat stroke, especially early in the season when the weather is warmer. An out-of-shape dog, if pushed too far, is more susceptible to higher temperatures. Physical conditioning also toughens the pads on a dog’s feet. A bird hunter who fails to work his dog ahead of season runs the risk of tearing the dog’s feet apart if he works the dog too hard, advised Dr. Wayment.
Dr. Wayment suggests double-checking to make sure your dogs have the proper vaccinations to help prevent Lyme disease and Leptospirosis, a bacteria disease caused by drinking dirty water. In regard to training, Dr. Wayment believes snake-breaking clinics are essential for any bird dog covering terrain that could potentially contain venomous, slithering hazards.
Bird hunters with dogs should carry a very good first aid kit, because accidents are going to happen in the field. “Have knowledge on how to put on a good bulky bandage,” he said. “Know how to put in a few stitches, pull out porcupine quills, what constitutes an emergency vet visit and what means they can stay.”
Above all else, Dr. Wayment believes it is the duty of a bird hunter, when an emergency arises, to possess the skill set and knowledge to facilitate safe transportation of an injured dog to the vet. “Best thing you can do is not delay the time it takes to get professional help,” he said. Whether that means suturing a life-threatening wound immediately or simply fastening a muzzle so a dog won’t rip off a bandage with its teeth, every bird dog owner should be prepared to serve as a canine Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
Steven Snell, owner of Gun Dog Supply, knows well the importance of determining the nearest vet, regardless of where he is hunting. Prior to every hunting trip, amid other field preparations, Snell locates the closest veterinary clinic—as well as a backup should the first be closed or vet out on assignment.
“You need to know options when you have a problem,” Snell said, “because if you do it long enough, you will have a problem. At some point, you are going to have to find a vet. I don’t hesitate to call my vet in middle of night. I want a relationship with a vet so when I have a problem, he knows my dog and he knows me. It helps to know who your vet is.”
As a kid, Snell worked for a vet and possesses some basic knowledge, which has proven useful for an owner of 13 English pointers and a handful of other hunting breeds. Like Dr. Wayment, Snell places a great amount of stock in a good first aid kit. “A lot of stuff afield is minor,” Snell said. “Barbed wire fences have cost me insane amounts of money.”
During one incident, Snell was within 10 feet of his dog when the dog ran through a barbed wire fence and sliced the front vein in his leg wide open. “If I were any further,” Snell said, “he would have bled out. I saved him because of a good first aid kit. I used forceps and got the vein clamped down, everything clipped off.”
Snell carried the dog for a mile, and, luckily, was only a 10-mile drive from the nearest vet. “I have heard a couple stories of dogs getting impaled on stuff,” Snell said. “I don’t think there is any way you can stop stuff like that. We are putting them into dangerous situations; freak accidents are going to happen. Close to 40 years I have been chasing bird dogs. It is amazing to me—when you factor in situations I’ve put dogs into—more accidents don’t happen.
“You just got to be responsible and that is hard to do when you’re excited,” he said. “You got to make sure you’re looking for them, because most of them won’t look out for themselves. If it means cutting the hunt short, that isn’t a big deal. They work pretty hard for us; we should do the most we can for them.”
Gun Dog Supply sells various first aid kits, but Snell recommends the following essentials:
- A good muzzle—comes in handy when a dog doesn’t want to be messed with.
- A solid Leatherman—always carry in your vest.
- Forceps—locking forceps are also useful in certain scenarios.
- Vet wrap to stop any bleeding
- Saline or other solution to clean out eyes, ears.
- Antibiotics, Neosporin, antiseptics, items to get dog through until they can visit a vet.
- A good pair of wire cutters should a dog encounter a snare or trap.
Another integral component of a first aid kit isn’t an item at all—it is the handling of a dog when it’s a puppy, getting that dog used to having hands in its ears, mouth, on its feet and all over. “I physically put my hands on her everywhere I can to get her used to being handled,” Snell said. “I do this on a table, which makes it easier to work plus a vet will have them on a table. Most dogs don’t initially love it, but they get used to it. There is going to come a time when I am going to have to pull out thorn or something else. It also makes cutting toenails so much easier.
“I’ve seen dogs that don’t like you touching their feet so that makes it hard to boot them when necessary,” Snell said. “Handling a puppy helps so a dog doesn’t freak out at a vet.”
It is important to remain ready for any mishap afield, but it is also imperative to stay cognizant of dangers at home. John Larson, owner of Larson Field Labs out of Arizona, worked as a law enforcement detection canine handler and understands what constitutes complete care for a dog.
“If your dog is left outdoor in kennels, not getting exercise they need, they can become a hazard,” he said. “They have to burn that energy somewhere or they are going to get into trouble.” Trouble could mean jumping fences and chasing cars, or hunting small livestock or other animals and pets, resulting in fines or other legal action.
“If you’re going to have any holding kennel outside, auto-waters and misters are important,” Larson advised. “They need a cool place. We do inside and outside—that gets them conditioned to weather, ground, gets the feet hard. Having human interactions keeps them used to commands because you are always communicating with them.
“You have to spend money on good solid enclosures to keep them safe,” Larson said. “Never tie up a dog. If a handler were to tie up a dog, they would face serious disciplinary action.”
Bird dogs want nothing more than to make us happy, so it only makes sense we want nothing more than to keep them safe. Every bird dog owner is diligent about post-hunt tailgate checks of a dog’s body, eyes, nose and mouth, but mishaps can still occur.
Pheasants Forever’s Director of Public Relations, Anthony Hauck, experienced two separate incidents last year that cost his English cocker spaniel “Sprig” more than half the hunting season during her prime fourth year. The first was a small stick—so minute it wasn’t visible during tailgate check—which poked into her paw and became infected. The second involved a piece of cattail that had pierced the dog’s mouth and broken off. Cattail fragments migrated down the inside of Sprig’s neck and caused a massive infection.
“Her neck had swollen where it looked like she had an orange stuck in it,” Hauck said.
Sprig underwent surgery and required medication and time to heal afterward, but she’s doing well and enjoying her fifth season afield. “Even though my dog wears a vest and I perform tailgate checks, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t be too thorough with checking your dogs after a hunt,” Hauck said. “Sure, I’ll continue to worry about traps, scary animals and the other big things that can go bump in the night, but sticks, cattails and seeds await your dog on any pheasant hunt, and statistically, I have to think that’s where the real danger lies.”
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Facebook: Facebook.com/braisingthewild and Twitter and Instragram: @WildGameJack.
Photo credits: Pheasants Forever Staff