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Dog Days of Summer

How to safely beat the heat during training season.

Dog Days of Summer

Water is a key element in helping to keep your dog both cool and hydrated during the hottest days of the year. (Seth Bynum photo)

The summer weather forecasts generally call for hazy, hot, and humid days. The July, August, and early September weather can put a kink in preseason training plans. We want to kick off the season opener in style which is why we are careful, if not obsessed, with avoiding hyperthermia and dehydration. Both conditions can be life-threatening to your gun dog, but can be avoided when you know the signs and how to quickly cool your dog down. Here’s what you need to know


Hyperthermia  

As hyper is the Latinate for ‘over,’ and thermia means ‘temperature,’ hyperthermia refers to above normal core body temperatures. Late season waterfowlers encounter hypothermia, or the lowering of normal core body temperatures. Gun dogs don’t stop when they’re tired, they stop when they’re done which is why savvy handlers pay close attention to both extremes.

Hyperthermia has three phases. Phase one is heat stress, with a dog’s symptoms being excessive panting, rounded tongue tips, and cheeks that are pulled back showing their full arcade of teeth. Phase two is heat exhaustion where a dog’s panting becomes uncontrollable. They may vomit, show signs of weakness, disorientation, and a lack of coordination that leads to stumbling or collapse. Phase three is heat stroke, where dogs show signs of stupor, seizures, or fall into a coma.

The key to safe preseason training in the heat is to know your dog’s core body temperature. According to Russ Kelley, Science Lead/Service and Working Dog Research Manager at Eukanuba’s Pet Health and Nutrition Center, a sporting dog’s normal core body temperature varies between 101 and 102.5 degrees. That range accounts for different factors such as breed, coat, fitness level, body condition score, and other variables. Kelley states that if your dog’s temperature approaches 104 degrees, look for signs of heat stress or heat exhaustion. If its core body temperature is over 104-degrees, then be aware of heat stroke. A good way to know your dog’s core body temperature is to take its temperature with a rectal thermometer. If you’re concerned, check with your vet.

Pointing dog with its tongue hanging out
Learn to recognize the signs of overheating in your dog to prevent heat-related illness. (Tom Keer photo)

Conditioning 

Conditioning plays an important role in how dogs handle the heat. “Highly-trained and well-conditioned field trial and working dogs, often show no evidence of heat-related issues, even when their core body temperatures approach or exceed 104 degrees,” Kelley said. “I’ve seen dogs perform at high levels with core body temperatures above 106 degrees. The lack of obvious signs does not mean there are no issues. It just means the signs are not visible.”

There is a strong connection between hyperthermia and a dog’s physical condition. The better shape your dog is in, the better equipped he is to handle the heat. “Most dogs that suffer from heat stroke are ones in poor-to-average condition,” Kelley said. “Dogs that have been sedentary in the offseason and are then called to work in the summer heat are most affected. Dogs that are regularly conditioned in April, May and June, are in better shape to handle the hot weather. They’ve worked in temperatures that have gradually increased, their muscles, respiratory, digestive, circulatory and other systems are strong, so the warmer heat is the natural next step. Still, heat and humidity are not something to take lightly, so pay close attention even to dogs that are in good physical condition.”

Pointing dogs in the grass
There is a strong connection between hyperthermia & a dog’s physical condition; the better shape your dog is in, the better equipped they are to handle the heat. (Tom Keer photo)

Overweight dogs suffer the most because their body systems work much harder, and that raises internal temperatures. Changing your dog’s off-season feeding regimes is helpful, so when your season ends, shift to a feed that isn’t as calorically dense. If you’re feeding a performance food with a 30/20 fat-to-protein ratio in-season, back off to a 26/16 fat-to-protein ratio in the offseason. Transition back to the 30/20 performance blend as training ramps up. Remember that while it only takes a week to change foods it takes between 8 to 12 weeks for the nutrition to impact the dog’s systems. Feeding smaller portions in the offseason helps keep the weight off, too.

Before you start pre-season training, reference the Body Condition Score to determine your dog’s correct weight. Scores vary by breed, and a Lab’s correct weight is different from that of an all-age pointer. Once you know your dog’s body condition score, feed him correctly. Start by calculating his daily caloric needs. Scientists use a simple two-step process. First, divide a dog’s body weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert it to kilograms. Then, raise the dog’s weight in kilograms to the ¾ power and multiply by 70.

Here's an example:

• A 44-pound dog’s weight divided by 2.2 means he weighs 20 kilograms.

• 70 (20kg) raised to the ¾ power is 662 kilocalories. Your dog needs to eat 662 kilocalories every day to survive.

But you’re training, and that means you’ll need to know how much extra kilocalories to feed your dog. For light workloads, increase kilocalories by three times his daily needs. For moderate work, increase his kilocalories four times and for heavy work, increase by five times. Feed more if your dogs aren’t keeping weight on and less if they’re too heavy. Maintaining the dog’s correct weight is healthy and helps transition from spring sessions to summer heat.


Hydration   

All dogs need to drink lots of water, but gun dogs require even more. According to Kelley, “a dog’s body is approximately 70 percent water. About two thirds of that water is intracellular meaning ‘inside the cell.’ Intracellular water is critical for the functioning of cellular activities that involve all systems in the body. Regardless of the cell type (muscle, respiratory, etc.), water is needed for those cells to function and thrive. The remaining water (1/3 of the total) is what is called extracellular or ‘outside of the cell.’ This extracellular water is divided among three compartments: interstitial, plasma, and transcellular. Interstitial water moves into cells when needed, plasma is the liquid that remains after red and white blood cells and platelets are removed, and transcellular is the fluid of the spinal column, in the eyes, and other organs. When dehydrated, extracellular water can reduce bodily functions which is why a dog’s hydration status is so important to their health and performance.

So how much water should dogs drink? “A minimum amount of at least half-a-gallon to 1.5 gallons per dog per day,” says Kelley. “That’s based on a statement from a recent working dog summary that concluded that dogs are capable of recovering after losing the majority of their fat and half of their muscle tissue…while the loss of only 10 percent of their body’s water can result in death. Daily water losses for a 20 kg. (44 lb.) dog can range from 1400-5400 ml. (0.5 -1.5 US gallons) depending upon their activity and environmental setting. Half-a-gallon to 1.5 gallons is a wide range, and that’s the least amount they should drink. Give them more water if they’re working for longer periods of time.”

Pointing dogs drinking from water bowl
Gun dogs should drink a minimum of half-a-gallon to 1.5 gallons every day in warm conditions. (Tom Keer photo)

Measuring water amounts increases accuracy, but it’s not always practical. There is another way to determine their water intake and it’s based on their food consumption. “To determine the minimum amount of water your dog should drink, simply multiply the number of cups of dry food offered daily by three cups,” Kelley said. “Two cups of food equals six cups of water, and so on. Keep in mind that this target is the minimum amount of water your dog should be drinking every day when working under hot or adverse conditions. That amount or more can help reduce the risk of dehydration.”

Not all water is good for dogs to drink, though. Standing water in puddles near a farm field may contain fertilizers or pesticides and are nice environments for parasites and protozoa. Don’t depend on finding a suitable water source, even if you are familiar with the location. Be prepared, pack plenty of water for you and the dog(s).  

One way to maximize water intake comes by adding water to kibble in a :1 ratio. Some dogs reject mushy kibble so feed them immediately. A second way is called water baiting. Place a tablespoon or two of wet, high-fat content dog food in a water bucket or bowl. Dogs trying to get the food end up drinking more water. Both methods can be used daily.

Read the Signs of Heat Stress:  

1.  Excessive panting

One of the first signs of heat stress is excessive panting. The solution is to take a break from training or hunting. Sit in a shady area with a cool breeze and provide dogs with lots of water. Resume training when the dog is breathing normally.

2.  Saliva sticking to gums or teeth during panting

Dogs dissipate heat through their mouths. Thick saliva in their mouth, gums, and tongue reduces the air that contacts with the numerous blood vessels found in a dog’s mouth. Carry a water bottle and periodically rinse pasty saliva from the dog’s mouth. Pasty saliva is an early sign of heat stress, so check their temperature. If their temperature is over 104 degrees, consider applying alcohol-soaked pads to the pinnae of the ears, in the armpits and in the groin area. The alcohol placed in those areas will help cool the surface blood immediately. Do not start working the dog until he’s fully recovered, but even then, it might be best to rest the dog until the next day.

3.  Attitude change

When a dog's snappy points, vigorous flushes, and sharp retrieves become sloppy or if he's not crisply responding to commands then he may be dehydrated. Find a cool spot, rinse out his mouth, water him, and rest.  If he is super-hot, apply cool water to his paw pads and underbelly, both of which reduce core body temperature.

4.  Dry Gums and Sunken Eyes

Dry gums usually accompany sunken eyes. Either is an indication for a handler to get his dog immediately to the vet. Before heading to the vet, place a cool, wet towel on the bottom of his kennel. Be sure he's in a crate large enough for him to lay on his side. It's important that the dog stretches out so there is maximum heat dissipation. Apply cool water to his paws and place alcohol-soaked pads to the pinnae of ears, armpits, and groin area. If you have a fan on the cage door then turn it on. Absolutely do not put the dog in extremely cold water and never put ice on the dog's skin. That extreme cold causes surface blood vessels to shrink and increases the risk of both dehydration and heatstroke.

5.  Significant slowness or lack of coordination

When normally fast dogs run slowly or when they exhibit a lack of coordination, disorientation, or collapse, get your dog immediately to a vet. Follow the above-mentioned guidelines before you begin your drive and make every effort to get to the clinic as quickly as possible.

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