During the first half of the hunting season, at least when it comes to upland game, we often fret over conditions being too hot to safely hunt a dog. When the balance of the season tips to the back half, the concern tends to go the other way. This is true in specific upland hunting scenarios, but more so for the waterfowl crowd.
Near-freezing water and long bouts of sitting still can be a bad deal for a retriever if you’re not paying attention. When it comes to these conditions, my Labs are always fitted with a neoprene vest. This is the first step to keeping a dog warm and comfortable when both the arctic cold fronts and big greenheads blow in from Canada at the same time.
But, not all vests are created equal. I prefer neoprene vests that are 3mm thick instead of 5mm, because they seem to fit more snugly. This serves to keep air and water out, which also keeps warmth in. I also tend to outfit my dogs with a vest that is designed for a slightly smaller dog, again for the fit.
Now, here’s the rub —you can’t introduce a tightly fitting vest on the morning of your first snowy hunt. You’ve got to give your dog a chance to get used to the vest, and for you to see if it fits properly during training sessions. Keep an eye on the vest, and if it rubs anywhere on the dog, trim it up. You want your dog to have free range of motion at all times, and not develop any irritated or raw spots on its skin from working hard while being suited up.
A good way to determine if the vest is doing its job is to give your dog a good once-over immediately following some cold-water work. Look for any irritation, and then run your hand between his fur and the vest to feel beneath it. If it’s warm and dry, you’re doing good. If it’s wet or cold, the vest doesn’t fit properly.
During most duck hunts, you’ll probably experience some lulls in the action. I like to toss a dummy for my dog at these times if we’re in a blind on shore, so that the dog can move around and warm up a little bit. This isn’t always possible on every hunt, but if you can find the opportunity, give your dog the chance to warm up.
A pheasant flusher isn’t likely to get too cold while running roosters in the cattails. He might cut his feet on ice, or pile into a snow-covered barbed-wire fence. In either case, you might not know there is a cut or an injury until you check your dog over, which is something you should do throughout the day.
You should also understand that your dog might be dehydrated, even if the temps are in the single digits and the last thing on your mind is drinking a bottle of cold water. A good dog works hard enough to get dehydrated no matter how cold it is, and in fact, can require more water given the biological need to keep his temperature up.
Couple this with the fact that your dog might be working twice as hard to run through snow or frozen cover, and the need to rehydrate is real. Provide those opportunities multiple times throughout the day.
Both the late-season waterfowler and the upland dog need fuel to stoke the inner fire. I prefer a 30/20 formula like Purina’s Pro Plan Sport to give my dogs enough fat and protein to keep going throughout the day. During hunts where they’ll work extra hard, I tend to increase the amount of food they are given, but you have to be careful with that.
It’s easy to think that a dog will need extra food in the morning before a hunt to sustain throughout the day, but this can lead to gastric torsion—or twisted stomach. If you’re going to fully feed your dog, do it after the hunt, not before or during. A dog with a full stomach, especially one that results from an enhanced feeding, is at a greater risk of gastric torsion than at any other time, and if this occurs it’s bad news. Most people don’t spot the symptoms until it’s too late, and likely fatal. Give your hard-working, late-season dog some extra calories—just remember to do it at the right time of day.
And on that note, pay attention to your dog’s overall body condition. A retriever might start out the season with some extra meat on his bones, but by the end he will likely be as lean as he’s ever going to be. This means he’ll get colder quicker than at any other time of the year.
If you’ve wrapped up a cold-weather duck hunt, towel off your dog thoroughly before you throw him into his crate. If that crate is in the back of your truck, make sure you’re using a good kennel cover that is insulated, and has a front flap to fully enclose the crate. The same crate rules apply after an upland hunt as well.
I also like to take a piece of Styrofoam and lay it under the crate to provide an extra layer of insulation between the metal truck bed and the floor of the kennel. You can also put some bedding in the crate, but I don’t recommend this with a young dog because they might chew it up, and it could turn into a choking hazard.
If you’re on the road for your hunt and are staying in a motel, find one that allows pets and bring your dog’s crate into the room with you. Leaving a dog in the back of the truck overnight after a grueling hunt in cold temperatures can be trouble. Avoid it, and give your dog a chance to warm up and stay safe, just as you would prefer for yourself.
Some of the best upland and waterfowl hunting of the season comes during the back half, but it also brings with it a unique set of conditions. Handled correctly, they pose no threat to your dog whatsoever. But if you don’t appreciate the severity of cold-weather conditions the way you should, you can put your dog in unnecessary danger.
Be careful out there during—and after—each hunt.