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Learn to Recognize the Most Common Field Injuries for Gun Dogs

With no quit in them, it's our responsibility to keep a close eye on our canines to catch any field injuries early.

Learn to Recognize the Most Common Field Injuries for Gun Dogs

Stopping for a few seconds during the hunt to spot an injury could end up saving the rest of the season. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

On a high desert peak in another time zone, my dog stumbled, stopped, then laid down and pawed at his cheek. That’s when I knew something was wrong.

Ultimate stoics, gun dogs seldom show you they hurt. Only when you take the lead can you save the day—or perhaps, the entire season. Let’s break it down into the stuff you should keep an eye out for before, during, and after the hunt.


Where and What to Look For

Eyes: Pawing at an eye usually indicates something lodged in there. Get a close, careful look by pulling the lids up and down; you’ll probably find a seed of some type. Wash it out with distilled water if you have it or tease it out with a cotton swab. If you got everything out and your dog is still pawing at it, something may be lodged under the third inner eyelid or their cornea may be scratched. Don’t put any ointment in it and head for the vet.

Ears: A shaking head means something in one or both ears—seed, stick, or bug. If you can see the offender, use your fingers to yank it out if possible. If you can’t, get to a veterinarian.

Feet: Limping, lifting a paw, and licking, all mean something’s wrong. Seeds between toes, just pull. Ditto dried mud that can cause an ulcer. A layer or two of peeled pad (nice, flat, obvious patch) you can probably hunt on with a booted dog. (For a laugh and story everyone will tell for weeks, wait until that day to introduce boots to your dog.) A cut that’s deeper needs a thorough cleaning with long soaks in water and Epsom salt, possible stitches and bandaging, plus rest. Depending on how bad a toenail tear is, you may be able to repair it. A nail that’s come out needs healing and rest; treat it as an open wound.

looking at a dog's foot pad
Your dog's pads may take a beating on a hunt; keep a close eye on them for those injuries you can work through, and those when a visit to the vet is warranted. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Body and Legs: Your dog’s tongue will show you where it hurts. It’s a good reason to let him ride in the cab after a hunt. Shallow abrasions, cuts, and scratches can be cleaned, disinfected, and covered with a non-stick bandage. Soft tissue might be the culprit: Bruise, strain, or pulled muscle. Rest is your best medicine; ice packs reduce inflammation. Touch the suspect area. If it “feels funny,” or a dog howls, bites, or pulls away, it might be a broken bone—immobilize your dog and pay the vet a visit.

Weakness, wobbling, or “fainting” could indicate hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. Honey on the tongue or fruit leather, if he’ll eat it, can bring him back. Just avoid anything containing chocolate or grapes. I watched a Golden Retriever totter down a ranch driveway, then keel over, his owner freaking out at the sight (wouldn’t you?). I dug deep into my vest for last year’s Jolly Rancher—not the best as it had to liquefy—but better than nothing.

Catch It Early

A tailgate exam after each hunt (and before every happy hour) should be habit. Most problems are easier to see and treat when the dog is at eye level. Start at the nose tip and go to the tail, look in those private spots and poke and prod. Probe the deep cleft between the two middle toes—I found a cheatgrass seed in three of four just this morning. This is also a good time to dig deep into fur to find ticks and “mean seeds.”

Be sure to watch the author’s three-part tailgate exam!

Code Blue

There’s a very fine line in knowing when to field triage your dog and when to rush him to the nearest vet, but generally speaking, if you observe any of the following, you need to high tail it to the closest clinic. 

Shaking: A trembling, confused, or disoriented dog may have heat-related, spinal, or head/brain injury, hypothermia, blue green algae poisoning, or something else. Weakness in the back end may be Exercise-Induced Collapse (EIC).

Heat and Cold Stress: These can cause serious “injuries,” too, often life-threatening. A shivering dog that’s not watching mallards cup their wings is cold, not excited. Get him warm. If a dog seeks shade, digs shallow holes to lie in, won’t stop panting, or has pale gums, stop your hunt, and help him cool down.

bird hunter giving a dog water from a bottle
Keeping your dog properly hydrated is critical to avoiding heat stress. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Swelling: Snake or insect bites could cause anaphylactic shock, blocking a dog’s windpipe. Give an antihistamine and get to a vet. Broken bones often present as a lump. A stomach that expands could mean bloat.

Cuts and Bleeding: Stop it with direct pressure and have someone drive you to town while you maintain that pressure. Ditto gunshot and deep puncture wounds. I once lifted my dog off a barbed-wire fence hidden in a blackberry thicket, gave him a too-quick once-over, and put him back in front of the TV camera. Only at the end of the day did his licking alert me to a two-inch gash on his inner thigh. That night, I learned how to operate a surgical stapler thanks to a kind veterinarian.


Poisoning: Our dogs will put virtually anything in their mouth that will fit. Poisons, from antifreeze to rat killer, don’t delay. I once bivouacked in an old cowboy line shack. Only the next morning did I find the rat poison under the bed. Yet another good reason to crate a dog at night. Be aware of blue green algae (cyanobacteria), know what it looks like, check locally, and stay far from it. If you suspect your dog has drunk or even waded in it, take action.

Porcupine Quills: I always presume I didn’t get them all. In the mouth, between toes, broken at skin level; all could migrate deeper, into a vital organ or worse. I once hunted with a pointer named One-Eyed Molly. Yep, that’s where the quill came out months later. The definition of a good friend? He’ll hold your dog while you pull quills.

Be Prepared, Be Proactive

We’re lucky these days. Cell phone towers are ubiquitous. If you’re at all concerned (and you should be—he’s your most important hunting partner) call a veterinarian from the field for a quick first-aid consultation. Know which nearby vet can be there in the middle of the night if necessary. Know what your dog’s uninjured joints, ears, feet, and eyes look like up close. Assemble a compact-but-comprehensive emergency kit for your vest.

I hunt up to a dozen miles from my truck, and hundreds of miles from a veterinarian. My dog is a poor planner, so it’s up to me to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

canine field first aid kit
Carrying a field first aid kit can help in the event of an emergency. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

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