Three Hot-Weather Horror Stories

Situations best avoided while afield or on the road.

Duffy holds a fat drake mallard.

Perhaps I should sub-title this piece, "as told by the culprit," for I am indeed solely responsible for these three serious misfortunes. In the first, I narrowly avoided a tragedy.


In the second, I caused long-term, but not fatal damage. In the third, I killed one of the best retrievers I've ever had. If, by telling you about the mistakes I made--mindless, stupid mistakes--I can help you avoid similar horror stories, it will be worth whatever humiliation the telling may cause me.

Dogs suffer more, and more rapidly, from heat than do human beings. In hot weather, humans automatically control their body temperature by sweating, but dogs can't sweat; they can only pant.


Panting is a far less efficient way to eliminate body heat than sweating. Thus an overheated dog can die very quickly, sometimes before his owner notices the symptoms. The symptoms, incidentally, are heavy panting; loss of control of the tongue, which hangs from the side of the mouth; staggering; collapse; and unconsciousness.


All this can happen in a very few minutes, and if nothing is done, death follows.

Dove Hunting With Duffy
In September 1972, I took my two sons, 13-year-old Bob and 10-year-old Pat, and my four-year-old Golden, Duffy (Duncan Dell's MacDuff** CD VC) dove hunting along the Arkansas River. We spread out in a line and ambled along to flush birds from the trees that line the river, with Duffy romping back and forth among us between retrieves. It was quite hot and almost windless. I blush to admit that I missed Duffy's early signs of heat stroke and noticed nothing wrong until he began weaving and staggering as if on a serious bender.

Realizing that he could die within minutes, I picked him up, carried him to the river, and laid him down in shallow water. He lay there for perhaps half an hour before making any effort to get up. I kept him down awhile longer and then took him back to the car on lead.

He acted like he wanted to start hunting again, but I took him straight home instead.

The message here, of course, is that whether you're hunting or training in hot weather, you should never be far from a pond, lake, or stream in which you can wet your dog down when he gets too warm. At field trials and hunting tests in warm weather, before each land series you should wet your dog thoroughly with a short retrieve in some unused nearby pond. These are usually available at retriever and spaniel events, because they include water tests.

Such water may not be easy to find at pointing dog events, however. Happily, most clubs sponsoring pointing dog events in warm weather place a stock tank full of water between the back course and the bird field, where handlers can soak their dogs on the course. And, of course, whether training, hunting, or running in a trial or test, you should carry plenty of drinking water with you.

An August Field Trial
In August 1975 I loaded my wife and three of our children into our mini-motorhome, put our four trial dogs into our little dog trailer, and headed for a field trial near Spirit Lake, Iowa. In addition to Duffy, we had three derby dogs of our own breeding: my Rumrunner's Mickey Finn; Bob's Rumrunner's Brandy; and Sheila's Rumrunner's Pirate.

Here's Duffy retrieving a just-shot duck.

It was a long and hot trip, but we stopped often to exercise the kids and air the dogs. On the way there, I noticed that my Mickey was a bit sluggish, but thought nothing of it. He also stopped eating, but I thought maybe it was just the long trip and extended inactivity.

The other three dogs were all perfectly normal and ate well. Then, too, I was quite busy as paterfamilias, tour guide, driver, and co-referee.

All the way there, Mickey continued to act sluggishly, but he wasn't wobbly, and he continued to refuse all food. When I took him to the line for the first series, he seemed okay, except that he lacked his usual eagerness and enthusiasm. Even so, I was stunned when he walked instead of running to both marks. Then, given his lackluster performance, I was even more stunned when they called him back for the second series.

Again he walked all the way out and all the way back; except that on the memory bird, he stopped 10 yards short of the line, laid down, and began to eat the pheasant he was retrieving! I could hardly blame him since he hadn't had a bite for two days. Needless to say, he wasn't called back again.

He was sluggish and ate very little on the way home, but he never showed any further symptoms. Back home, he revived and, in training sessions, became his old stylish self again.

Funny thing: Thereafter, every time I took him to a field trial, he shifted into "sluggish mode" again and walked instead of running for his birds. I had to wash him out as a field trial dog, but he remained a wonderfully stylish hunter.

The message here, of course, is that, as soon as I noticed him acting sluggishly, I should have moved him up into the motorhome where I could watch him. However, the fact that the other three dogs acted normally misled me into underestimating Mickey's problem and not associating it with heat. Heat may not have been the only factor working here, but it was definitely part of the problem, and I should have noticed.

Brandy's Trip To The Vet
Now we come to the horror story I've never before been able to discuss, let alone write about. About 23 years ago, on August 7, 1984, I had to take Brandy (Rumrunner's Brandy***) to the vet for shots and, while out, I had another errand to run. After lunch, I loaded him into the dog box on the back of my small pickup and took off. He was fine at the vet's.

Next, I drove about halfway across town to pick something up at a dog supply store; so far, so good. On the way home, we were stopped by what seemed like the longest and slowest train in the history or railroading. We sat there in a line of traffic, waiting, waiting, and waiting in the stifling heat for perhaps half an hour.

Our three derby dogs with some of their awards; left to right: Mickey, Brandy, and Pirate.

When I arrived home and opened the door of the dog box, Brandy's unconscious head flopped out onto the tailgate! I rushed him back to the vet's, but it was too late.

Back at home, I blubbered to my wife what had happened. She called Bob, but she was weeping so heavily that she garbled the message, making Bob think that I, not Brandy, had died. Bob rushed home immediately and was relieved to find me sitting there in the living room, sobbing uncontrollably. Only later did he share our grief.

That was 23 years ago and I am only now becoming able to tell of this tragedy.

Heretofore, I've never mentioned it outside of the immediate family, and seldom even there. Even now, after all these years, I'm still ashamed of my negligence.

Granted, the dog box, which we had used for years without incidents, was adequately ventilated for all normal conditions. It was an unusual condition, namely that long wait in the August heat at the railroad crossing, that killed Brandy. However, in such extreme heat, I should have had him up in the cab with me, where he occasionally sat, crowding against me, looking out as if trying to help me drive.

Brandy had been Bob's dog through his derby career. Then Bob found other interests, so I started training and handling him. He won a licensed qualifying; thereby becoming a qualified all age dog, before I retired him. Thereafter, along with Duffy, he was a regular in our duck blind and on our upland bird hunts. What's more, like Duffy, he was family.

He was then 11 years old, but he still ran like a derby dog, and would have done well in hunting tests, which started shortly after his untimely death.

If reading about this tragedy makes you extra careful about transporting your own dog during warm weather, the shame I feel in telling about it will be a small price.

I only wish I had been able to tell it years ago, when doing so might have saved other Brandys from such a horrible death.

Jim Spencer's books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows, Retriever Training Tests, Retriever Training Drills for Marking, Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way, POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog, and the Gun Dog video, Duck Dog.

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