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Desert Dangers for Gun Dogs

The mountain west yields a bounty of birds for those who plan and adapt to the challenging conditions.

Desert Dangers for Gun Dogs

Overcoming the various dangers of the dry desert uplands makes every bird contact that much more rewarding. (Nathaniel Akey photo)

My brother Shawn K. Wayment, DVM, always says: “God made bird dogs tough!” They have to be tough to survive the harsh environs of western bird covers, especially the high plains desert where we live and hunt. Over my twenty plus years of bird hunting, I have experienced numerous desert dangers that bird-dog owners should be aware of and plan for when hunting in western states.

Desert upland landscape
Having a proper game plan and supplies can mean all the difference when entering into the formidable desert uplands. (Nathaniel Akey photo)

Snake Danger

In the south, numerous trainers provide snake aversion training for bird dogs. Knock on wood, but in all my years of bird hunting, my dogs and I have never come across a rattlesnake in the desert uplands. I’m sure it is just a matter of time, but the cooler fall weather tends to make the snakes sparse during the hunting season.  

Once, while hunting for quail in a creek bottom, my Brittany, Misty, came upon a five-foot long blow snake hissing like a deflating tire. Fortunately, Misty recognized the panic in my voice and retreated as I called her away from danger. Although not poisonous, I’m sure that a tangle with that big snake would have been a terrible experience for us both and could have ruined our hunt. Under such circumstances, an e-collar may be just the ticket to get your dog’s attention and quickly out of harm’s way.  

Porcupine Danger

One may assume that no porcupines live in the desert, but I am here to tell you they do. Back in early November of 2004, my dogs—an Elhew Pointer, Dusty, and a French Brittany, Sunny—and I were hunting Hungarian partridge in southern Idaho. Dusty was coursing through the sagebrush cover and suddenly locked up on point, although his tail flagged a little.  


As I approached, Dusty suddenly broke point, jumped behind the tall sage, and savagely attacked whatever was on the other side and yelped in pain with each bite. Sunny went to his defense, took one bite of the porcupine, yelped in pain, and wisely retreated. When Dusty finally backed off, he was covered from head to toe in porcupine quills. Of course, this abruptly ended our hunt. I did not have any pliers or hemostats to pull the quills and Dusty would not hold still. I rushed him to my in-laws home nearby and my father-in-law painstakingly plucked all the quills from Dusty with pliers while I pinned him down. To say this was not fun is an understatement. It was a bloody mess.  

Brittany on point in sage brush
A point in the sage could harbor any number of desert critters, not just the birds we hope to find. (Photo courtesy of Andrew M. Wayment)

The problem with quills, is that they can migrate under the dog’s skin toward vital organs and could potentially threaten the dog’s life. The moral of the story is to always carry pliers or hemostats in the field and make sure you get the whole quill out. If you cannot, immediately take the dog to a vet.

If you are fortunate enough to see the porcupine before the dogs do, call them in and quickly get them out of the area. Use the e-collar if you have to, because an encounter with a porcupine can literally become a matter of life or death for your dog.    

Plant Danger

Although not always an issue, while hunting the high desert plain, hunters should watch out for dangers that can tear up a dog’s feet. In late November of 2004, I was hunting a covert I call “Grouse Rock,” which is a big alpine canyon with numerous side draws filled with quaking aspens and Douglas fir up at higher elevations. The benches surrounding the treed draws are covered in sagebrush and some cacti.  In years past, we have found forest grouse in the draws, but on this day we were not having any luck.  On a whim, I started hunting the sagebrush benches. I heard Dusty yelp and start limping. I called him in and found numerous cactus spines protruding from his pads. I carefully pulled them out by hand, but a pair of pliers would have been better.  


As we worked across the bench, Dusty went on point in the sage near a head-high serviceberry tree. Remembering the prickly fiasco a few weeks earlier, I questioned whether my dog was pointing another porcupine. When the blue grouse got up and dove downhill, I wasn’t ready and missed the shot. Trust your bird dog—even if he sometimes steps on cacti and tries to eat porcupines!     

Checking dog over for injury
Keep your dog comfortable by checking them over for cactus spines, cut pads, and other injuries. (Nathaniel Akey photo)

A few years ago, my brother Shawn and I hunted some BLM ground rumored to hold Huns. While we found a covey, our hunt was cut short as the dogs could not take more than a few steps without stepping on goat heads. For those who do not know, goat heads, are literally the spawn of Satan. They are spiky stickers that easily puncture skin and dog pads and have to be painfully removed one by one. Because of the unavoidable goat heads, Shawn’s setter, Cinder, just stopped in her tracks and refused to go any further in such hellish conditions. Shawn had to pick her up and carry her back to the truck.  

Terrain Danger

Every time I take my dogs chukar hunting the rugged terrain, especially the sharp talus on the steep slopes, tears up their pads. More than once, I have noticed blood in the dog’s footprints in the snow. Some kind of foot protection is advisable, especially if you plan to hunt chukar for multiple days in a row.          

Setter with booties
Store-bought or homemade booties can help protect your dogs feet from a number of desert dangers. (Photo courtesy of Andrew M. Wayment)

While my dogs and I do not run into these hazards every day, I can see the wisdom in pad toughener products and dog boots. A search online quickly shows products such as Pad Tough and Tuf-Foot, which are reported to toughen a dog’s pads. As for dog boots, you can buy these online from various companies. My brother Shawn, a dedicated scaled quail hunter of the southwest who deals with Satan’s other seed, Cholla cactus, recommends making your own dog boots with a cut bike tire inner tube and electrical tape and claims these works just as well.

Hunting the mountain west presents a multitude of challenges and the desert does not give up its bounty easily. Plan ahead. Take precautions. Carry necessary supplies and equipment to handle any emergencies and adversities that may arise. There is a higher level of risk, but with it comes incredible rewards for those who learn how to adapt.

Hunter and dog in desert holding bird
The key to success in the desert is going in prepared and being ready to adapt to adversities. (Photo courtesy of Andrew M. Wayment)
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