October 19, 2010
What's the optimum temperature range in which to work your dog?
Temperatures hotter than 65 degrees and cooler than 35 result in a less-than-sharp field performance.
(Question) Recently I've seen several references in Gun Dog to dogs becoming overheated, and I'd like to get some specific guidelines. So please tell me if there are times when the weather is so hot or so cold that you hold back or refuse to run your hunting dogs. While you're at it, what temperature is "ideal" to give a bird dog the chance to do his best work and absorb training? (Iowa)
(Answer) I'll be as unequivocal as I'm able. The answer to your first request is: Yes, definitely. To answer your second question: halfway between 35 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Work is likely to be better, and there is much less risk to the dog at a few degrees under the freezing mark than approaching-comfortable-for-humans summer readings. But allow me a bit of wiggle room, please.
Don't use heat or cold as an excuse for not doing needed training or getting in some hunting, whether locally or on a trip. Just use good judgment about how long and how hard you hunt, as well as obviously extenuating circumstances: availability of wallowing and drinking water, exposure to chilling winds, humidity and so on.
Generally, when you can tough it out, your gun dog will be able to handle it, too. But if you're uncomfortable enough to complain, chances are your dog is more than mildly miserable and won't be as sharp as he is in the 40- to 60-degree range. He should be given consideration, picked up and transported on dry bedding to avoid discomfort, illness or death.
Although too much muggy heat disables and kills more gun dogs than chill and cold, let's use some actual examples to explain why I don't go out in temperature extremes and refuse to expose dogs to deleterious conditions that could contribute to a disappointing hunt or endanger their welfare.
When I was taking out customers on released bird hunts, I was adamant about one thing: My dogs were not used if the temperature dropped below -10 degrees. I'd tell clients, "I'll take you out if you just have to do some shooting--but without dogs."
During the good ol' days when I was young, a personal string of eight to 10 dogs was required because I took out paying hunting parties. Released and wild game on personal hunts had my dogs into birds virtually daily from September to March. I was concerned with them, and still am, but at 83, I'm now even more concerned with my personal welfare.
One day the snow was deep, the sun was bright and the temperature was 20-something below zero. I decided a young black Lab needed some brushing up on something or other; 20 to 30 minutes wasn't going to cause any difficulty. And it didn't, at least not for Connemara Maggie. But it culminated in my hurting for several months with a dry cough, like I had frosted lungs from running her down--a strenuous activity under those conditions, and perhaps contributing to a later open-heart surgery.
Given to speculative anthropomorphism, I wondered if a low-headed spaniel or retriever, snuffling for hours at a time in crystalline snow, not only suffers from loss of scenting ability but might come up with debilitating consequences.
In mid-January, a pilot and his wife flew from California to look over a beautiful and field-capable Irish setter bitch, Torchie. Togged out in Wisconsin-winter gear, the pilot gamely slogged through the 20 mph "breeze," which considerably chilled the well-below-zero thermometer reading. We spent about 10 minutes in the bitter wind, more or less steering Torchie into a planted pheasant. My customer, following the point, shot and retrieve, chattered though his teeth, "Dave, I actually hurt! This is painful. Let's get back to the house, please. Charge me twice what you asked and I won't argue. I want the dog."
As with the Labrador, the Irish setter didn't suffer any ill effects from the brief exposure to brutal weather, lending credence to my suggestion that, within reason, anything a hunter can put up with is an assurance that a bird dog should come through it OK.
Tolerance for both cold and wet (which differs among breeds) is another of the myriad factors that contribute to gun dog breed popularity in some regions but not in others, hence northern hunters favor setters, flushers and retrievers that withstand and ignore chill but are wiped out by excessive heat. Conversely, those in the southern climes, whether humid in the Southeast or arid in the Southwest, tend to place their money on English (American) pointers.
Individual dogs can become acclimated to some degree, just as can human individuals. But response to adverse conditions, like switches back and forth between heat and cold, can take a toll.
During the past winter, freaky weather interrupted many pointing dog field trials, causing fog, snow, alternating soft and frozen ground and standing water. In its 111th historic renewal, even the vaunted National Championship on the University of Tennessee's Ames Plantation near Grand Junction suffered days of delay in February 2010.
The second Drahthaar I owned, Briar, would have done fine in conditions similar to those. But he literally and figuratively fell on his face during a prairie grouse hunt in Nebraska decades before. Briar had trouble with the dry heat, having been trained and conditioned in the North, where he had ready access to wet stuff that was cool even when air temp was high. In Nebraska, he'd duck into a strip of shelterbelt or circle the haystacks to get out of the sun, sprawling on his belly, tongue lolling, expression apologetic. He began plodding, and it certainly could not have been claimed he was pointing when I searched a brushy belt for him and found him flat on his belly, head twixt his front paws, ignoring me and staring out to the cover's edge.
As I stomped in, grumbling at him and kneeling to check if he was all right, five birds croaked into flight, their silvery flash identifying them as sharptails. I believe to this day that this canine malingerer stumbled onto bird scent, made himself comfortable and waited for me to find him.
Western states open their bird seasons when the weather is hot and dry, and many hunters head for the wide-open spaces for the first time from the Great Lakes and northeastern states not realizing the importance of carrying water. But you must bring as much as you can, in your vehicle and when afoot, primarily for your dogs but for yourself as well.
When accustomed to hunting and training where there's natural water or quick and easy access to a faucet, hose or dug ponds, hunters venturing into new territory must count on the water they furnish as the primary, not supplement
ary, stream of life for a hard-working gun dog.
In wet country, the heat is less likely to disable or kill a dog while afield. But quick temperature changes can wipe out dogs in poorly ventilated, close confinement. Such temperature changes can be sudden and severe in early autumn. And death doesn't happen just on the road. It can occur at the kennel, in your garage or in your driveway--any time you put up your dog but become distracted enough to forget about him.
Retrievers designed for water work probably can take almost anything except heat with little effect, as long as they can keep moving. But less naturally equipped spaniels and bird dogs will suffer unless they are on the run--and, as mentioned, easily chilled, thin-coated pointers can be immobilized.
But your Lab or Chessie shouldn't be ridiculed as a sissy if you choose to put a buoyant camouflage vest on him for long periods of inactivity in boat or blind. Similarly, those protective vests that cover brisket and belly of an in-the-field bird dog, like the skid plate on an off-road vehicle, are in order.
Readily available water is especially critical if you choose to hunt outside the perimeters of the 35- to 65-degree range suggested. In the North, there may not always be snow to assuage thirst, and the ground water can be too iced over to break through. So don't forget water and risk dehydration.
Vigorously drying off a wet retriever is a conscience balm, but may not be worth the effort; duck dog coats are designed to shed water. Still, it won't do any harm to blot off the excess on the outside of the coat with a towel.
A rub one way with the grain of the hair is acceptable. Just don't work the water down to the skin by scrubbing both ways; you'll defeat the purpose of a good coat. Upland breeds, particularly pointers with their thin, hot-weather coats, can be rubbed down and then one-way polished off. Otherwise, the cold and wet quickly reach skin and contribute to discomfort and shivering.
It's impossible to make hard, fast rules of when to hunt based on temperature alone. I watch over the dogs closely and pick up early when temps get into the 70s, which seems to be the consensus figure for good "people" weather. Anything much above that should be very abbreviated or avoided.