I knew what would happen, and I hunted her anyway. This would be a good dozen years ago, when my setter Rabbit was in her prime. I’d driven to Oregon for a week of chukar hunting, and if I was hurting after three days of marching up rocky, cheat-grass covered hills, my poor dog was worse.
When I turned her loose that morning to air out, she tip-toed to the edge of the parking lot behind the motel I was staying in, squatted, and then tip-toed back to the door of the room. I picked her up and examined her feet. Surprisingly, they looked fine—no cuts, no abrasions. That she was sore was obvious. But I figured she’d gimp around for the first half hour and loosen up.
Yet, in the back of my head, a little voice was screaming. Don’t do it! Give her a rest! I’d brought just two dogs, and it was Rabbit’s turn to hunt, and…there were a lot of other pointless reasons that ultimately made no difference. I went ahead and hunted her anyway, and as I should have known it would be, it was a huge mistake. The next morning she could barely walk to the door of my hotel room, and I had to pick her up and take her outside. Her feet were shredded, and she was done for the rest of the trip.
If your dog’s feet aren’t working, nothing upstream is going to work, either. It doesn’t matter how many miles you ran her on training runs during the off season, or how fit she may well be. If your dog’s feet hurt, it will drastically slow her down. If they hurt enough, she’ll quit. So the best solution is always to avoid the problem in the first place.
Let’s revisit my faux pas. Dogs will telegraph when their feet are sore in exactly the same way Rabbit did, by pussy-footing around when they’re given a break from hunting. Usually, this happens the morning after a hard hunt on rocky ground, although it can also happen later in the same day. That’s when you pick up your dog, put him on the tailgate, and examine his foot pads.
Are they abrasion free? No bloody or worn spots? Good, you still have time. Give the dog a rest for at least a day, more if you can. Better yet, rest him and boot him when he resumes his duties. Don’t do what I did, and ignore the signs and hunt him anyway. If, on the other hand, your dog has already torn up his feet, your decision has been made for you: quit. Hunting a dog with ruined feet will make things much worse.
Let’s talk about dog boots for a bit. Which brand is best? Time was there were only half a dozen brands on the market and I’d tried them all. No more. There are far too many good boots out there for any kind of thorough evaluation on my part. Some work well on some dogs and not so well on others. For the record, I still use Lewis dog boots, but I’ve also had good success with simple bicycle innertubes cut to fit and taped around the dog’s ankle.
Regardless of which brand you settle on, it’s never a bad idea to tape them in place. My dogs—especially my English pointers—have narrow feet, and no matter how secure the various Velcro contraptions on some of the modern brands of boots seem to be, my dogs still throw untaped boots within an hour.
Long, expensive experience has convinced me that nothing is as secure as good old duct tape or black plumber’s tape, wrapping the upper half of the boot securely (but not too tightly) around the narrow part of the dog’s leg just above his foot. To be fair, though, dogs with wide feet—griffons, wirehairs, Ryman setters and the like—may do just fine with a Velcro hold-down strap. Test them out, but bring extras just in case.
Do concrete kennel runs toughen a dog’s feet? Probably, but my own experience is inconclusive. My dogs spend their summers and fall on a concrete-floored kennel, and as feet go, my three pointers and one setter have, I would say, feet that are average on the toughness scale—perhaps not as tough as I’d like, but tough enough to get them through two- and three-hour hunts in most parts of the country. Incidentally, all my current dogs have pink pads, and I can see no difference in toughness between their pads and the black pads of several other dogs I’ve owned. Nor can most of the breeders and trainers I know.
But while pad color doesn’t seem to matter, a dog’s gait does. Fast, quick dogs, dogs that make sharp, quick changes of direction while they’re hunting, invariably seem to tear up their pads more quickly than slower, more methodical animals. A dog’s weight, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to matter as much as I used to assume, all other things being equal.
A fast, quick turning, large dog would, theoretically, tear up his pads more quickly than a small, quick dog, simply because more weight would be brought to bear on his feet. But I don’t usually find that to be the case. The reason: large, heavy dogs are rarely fast, quick-turning runners. Yeah, I know there are exceptions; I’ve seen them too. I’m talking in generalities here.
Do any of the commercial liquid pad tougheners work? Surprisingly, I think they do—a little. I wouldn’t, for instance, douse my dog’s feet with a pad toughener one day and take him on a rock-strewn chukar or Mearns quail hunt the next. Pad tougheners take time to build up a tough layer of skin, usually on the order of a couple weeks of daily applications. But when used in conjunction with dog boots, they do seem to add a small extra measure of protection.
When it comes to toughening your dog’s pads, you may well get the most bang for your buck if you run your dog on training runs during the off season. I wouldn’t worry too much about the kind of ground your pup is running on; if you’re like all the rest of us, you’ll take what you can get. Besides toughening up your dog’s pads, daily runs will go a long way towards keeping him in top condition for the upcoming season, as well.
Full disclosure: I rarely exercise my dogs every day. Since I run my dogs in harnesses connected to logging chains—a very intense form of exercise, similar to circuit training for humans—I run them every other day, two to three days per week max, since they need time to recover between sessions. So, while my dogs may not be getting maximum pad-toughening on that schedule, they’re getting some pad conditioning and a great muscular and aerobic workout.
Finally, keep your pup at the right weight. A dog who is carrying around an extra 10 pounds is far more prone to sore feet (and a host of other weight-related ailments), than a dog who’s in fighting trim, and since you’re in control of his food, you’re in control of his weight, too.
Now, if I can just find the guy who’s in charge of my food intake…