To be honest, it’s amazing that more upland dogs don’t get injured in the field. When I watch a good dog bust through cattails for pheasants or tear through the northwoods in search of a grouse, I’m in awe. They go full bore through a world full of potentially dangerous critters and inanimate objects, and almost always come out unscathed.
Unfortunately, every once in a while your dog is going to tangle with a raccoon or a porcupine or run head-long into a barbed-wire fence. An injury might even occur from a tiny weed seed that finds its way into your dog’s eye. Or maybe someone is running a few leg-hold or conibear traps on the public ground you’re hunting?
Then there is the reality of nearby traffic, irresponsible hunting partners ground-pounding birds, and the sheer randomness of the world at large. One of the worst injuries I’ve ever personally witnessed was when a cattail stem broke off inside my dog’s nose. The blood loss during that event was staggering, and I nearly lost that dog over a five-inch piece of plant stem.
If this all seems too doom-and-gloom, just remember—most of these incidents are entirely avoidable or preventable.
The Best Medicine
While some dog injuries can be chalked up to pure bad luck, most of them are preventable. That means we, as handlers and owners, need to be vigilant. This starts with paying attention throughout the day and periodically reining in your dog to give him a good once-over. Checking for cuts, abrasions and eye irritation only takes a minute, and is always worth it.
Naturally, you’ve got to be able to control your dog and set the precedent that you can fiddle with his eyes, paws, and underbelly any time you want. This starts with easy training at home to get him used to the idea of a quick health check, whether he’s into it or not (he won’t be at first).
One thing to remember about checking your dog over for any injuries, or precursors to injuries, is that if you don’t have a comprehensive first-aid kit and the knowledge of how to use it, you’re not doing much good. A quality kit, among many obvious tools, should always have a disposable skin stapler as well as a surgical scrub so you can clean any wounds ahead of time.
In addition to a good first-aid kit, you’ve got to have two other things that aren’t material—situational awareness and the knowledge of where the nearest veterinarian clinic is located. By situational awareness, I mean understanding where the nearest roads are and how to keep your dog from crossing them.
I can’t prove this, but I’d bet the biggest threat to hunting dogs is traffic. I don’t know how often I’ve watched hunters pull up to a spot and let their dogs out while they load their guns and get ready for the hunt. This is a bad idea.
The dogs should be the last out at the beginning of a hunt. Keep them kenneled until you’re 100 percent ready to hunt. At that point, leash the dogs and lead them into the start of the cover. At the back end of the hunt, reverse this order so the dog is the first thing that is put away. Any dog spending time on a road is a gamble with that dog’s life, so cut it down to as close to zero as possible.
Now, if something should go wrong and you do need a vet, you’d better know where to go. Most normal clinics have office hours that end long before a day in the field will. This means that unless you can get to a 24-hour emergency vet, you might not be able to get your dog help.
Normally, this is something we’d quickly search for on our phones if the need should arise. The problem with this is that it’s already wasting time when you might not have any time to waste. No matter where I hunt, I figure out ahead of time where the nearest emergency vet is and I have that information saved on my phone so that even if I don’t have service where an accident happens, I know where to go.
Some hunters think nothing of blasting a ruffed grouse on the ground or a rooster as it sprints down a row of milo. Those are the kind of hunters who don’t spend much time in my camp. Even in a wide-open plowed field, I don’t permit anyone in my hunting party to ground-pound a bird. It’s a bad habit to get into and can’t be a grey-area situation.
The same goes for my duck-hunting partners when a cripple hits the water. I’m the one who decides on what shot is taken for a wounded duck, so I can control the entire situation. Establish these rules ahead of the hunt and make them very clear that they need to be followed in order to keep all of the dogs (and people) in your hunting party safe.
Another way that injuries can quickly arise is when strange dogs meet each other because you might suddenly have a teeth-baring, all-out fight on your hands. To avoid this, make sure all dogs are leashed when they meet for the first time so they can easily be separated.
If they show signs of aggression like raised hackles or growling, correct immediately but beware, this is not the time to give your dog some volts through his e-collar. Two dogs that are clearly squaring off in aggression or dominance are one short step away from fighting. A dog that gets zapped will almost always interpret that as an attack and start fighting.
And if you do have a fight to deal with, please don’t stick your hand into the fray. If you grab a dog that is in a fight, it’s going to try to bite you out of panic and instinct. The best bet in this situation is to get a big stick or a board and force the dogs apart however you safely can.
Bad stuff happens, but it certainly doesn’t need to happen with any level of frequency. As this season gets rolling, work on preventing in-field injuries and developing a plan for what to do if they occur. That’s the best way to keep your dog in tip-top shape and avoid anything truly devastating.