Planning for hunting season should begin with a visit to your veterinarian. Ask for a basic health checkup for your dog and let him or her know you plan on stepping up an exercise program followed by long days afield bird hunting.
Plan An Exercise Program
Once your vet gives your dog a clear bill of health your next step should be setting aside time for exercise. In this case I'm referring to your dog's exercise, but maybe you could work on it together. In any case, I feel exercise should be separate and beyond the work achieved during training. In most cases the amount of exercise accomplished during obedience work isn't really sufficient.
Studies show it takes six to eight weeks of conditioning to build up muscle and cardiovascular systems and to generally "toughen" and prepare your dog for the rigors of hunting, so please take advantage of any time left before the season and do what you can to prepare your dog for the upcoming days afield.
WATCH FOR HEAT STRESS
Carrying water in the field is a good idea, as it's vital we keep our dogs hydrated. Even slight dehydration results in poor performance and problems with thermoregulation.
Give your dogs a little bit of water often during work, but don't let your dog gulp or drink too much at a time. Stopping work often and calling your dog in for a little shot of water provides you a chance to better monitor his body temp, respiration rate, etc., so you can stay ahead of any problems.
This break also provides an opportunity for flushing the dog's mouth, tongue and throat area of saliva for better heat transfer. The reason is this: as your dog's body temp increases blood flow through these areas is increased a great deal. Blood flowing from the brain, core, and extremities utilizes the mouth and throat area as a 'radiator' to transfer heat out, cooling the blood as it circulates.
Cooler blood then returns to help cool the body and brain and in turn picks up more heat to transfer out during circulation. So a clear, clean water flush of the mouth and throat benefits hydration, clears the 'radiator' and provides time to evaluate the dog's condition. Then once the day's work is done, be sure your dog is completely calm and rested before giving free access to water.
WATCH OUT FOR THE FOLLOWING
Early season with its higher temps and humidity is tough on all dogs so no matter what level your dog's readiness, pay close attention for signs of stress.
Early warning signs include a slowed gait, less tail action and other indicators of fatigue or stress as your dog begins to tire. You may also notice changes in your dog's facial expressions, best described as showing concern or apprehension as stress or overheating becomes a factor.
If the symptoms of heat stress progress to a wobbly gait or panting excessively or excitedly, or dry panting, the dog may be approaching real problems and all exercise should be stopped. Get him to a shady, well ventilated area. As mentioned earlier flush his mouth to clear the tongue and mouth area of saliva and allow for more efficient cooling.
If a dog shows signs of advanced overheating, immerse it in cool water or spray it with a hose. If cool water is not available, briefly apply ice packs to its head, neck and belly but do not immerse the dog in ice water.
Move the dog to a cool place as quickly as possible. Use squirt bottles of cool water to flush its mouth. Monitor rectal temperature, if possible, and consult a veterinarian quickly.
Note: Although a dog's normal rectal temp is 101 degrees, during exercise it's not uncommon to see 104 to 105. What is important is that temperature begins dropping after exercise. If it does not drop or begins to increase, get the dog to a veterinarian immediately!
When dogs are hunting, they are very focused and driven by a natural desire to find game. They often don't give any indication of injury.
It's a good idea to check your dog over at the end of the day or when changing fields. A tailgate inspection — putting a dog on the truck tailgate and giving it a thorough onceover — works well for field trial and hunting dogs. This brief physical examination should include the following:
- It's important for a handler to find any cuts or tears and treat them. Otherwise you may not find an injury until days later after it has become infected.
- Along with cuts and bruises we have to check for ticks and even dangerous grass awns. In the past grass awn problems were something only common to Western states, but now with prairie restoration programs comes Canada rye and other dangerous seeds throughout much of the country. Certain grass awns can penetrate skin and cause significant injury as they migrate internally, bringing with them bacterial infections, etc. A cough, draining wound or elevated temperature in any field dog, at any time of the year, requires a veterinarian's attention.
- Checking the eyes to make sure they are shiny and free of debris or awns and drainage.
- Checking the inside of the mouth and nose for puncture wounds or grass awns.
- Looking for cuts and tears on the body. These should be cleaned with soap and water. If a cut is deep or long, it may require veterinary attention.
- Closely inspecting footpads for problems, being sure to spread toes for clear view of all areas between toes.
- Checking the chest, underbelly, and flank for cuts, grass awns or punctures.
- Running your hands through the coat; you might follow with a fine tooth comb as well.
- Inspecting the ears, particularly if the dog has been in water. During the tailgate inspection, be mindful if your dog shows pain or tenderness by pulling away as this may indicate a soft tissue injury or a bruise or closed wound.
- Just because the skin and hair coat may be in intact, this type of wound can be deceiving. If your dog shows pain and swelling, along with a warm feel to the injured area, it warrants a veterinarian's examination. In the meantime, clean the area with cold water and apply ice packs.
I hope these suggestions encourage your planning for preseason exercise and remind you to spend a few extra minutes before closing the kennel door.