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Extreme Conditions Dog Tips

Todd J. Helms – Extreme Conditions Dog Tips

As I’ve expressed in an earlier article, we at Wingmen have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of winter’s cold clutches not because we are sadists but because for us that means birds! However, along with the quickened pulse that frigid temps bring come very real dangers; frostbite, hypothermia and drowning. All Wingmen are cognizant of and guard against these but what I’m really talking about are the often-overlooked dangers to our closest companions, our retrievers.

Now I know that we all want to think our dogs can handle whatever situation we cast them into but the truth is, the extreme temps and conditions of both water and field hunts during the late season in many parts of the country present very real and unfortunately, dire consequences for both canine and human hunters. No matter how tough they seem, our duck and goose dogs are not bulletproof. Too often I’ve seen the hubris of men cost them the lives of their cherished retrievers. It seems that every year in the West I hear of a hunter whose dog was sent on a retrieve that did not have a happy ending. It is my hope that the tips and reminders peppered throughout the following stories give us all an added degree of awareness and preparation as we head into the teeth of the late waterfowl seasons.


Ice of any kind is tough on a dog. Shelf ice, slush ice, flowing ice chunks and anchor ice (found on the bottom of a river in slushy globs) all present our dogs with more than just obstacles.

Shelf ice, which every western waterfowler knows well, often lines the edges of rivers, marshes, ponds and lakes during the late season. While it often presents the birds with a resting platform, when combined with the strong current of a river or deep water, it can spell quick exhaustion for a struggling dog trying to climb out of the water. Quite often this form of ice extends out over water too deep for a dog to be able to push off the bottom and onto the surface of the ice. What I’ve seen many times are dogs sent on a retrieve off the ice and who upon their return are unable to scramble back onto the surface of the ice. This leaves the dog clinging to the edge of the ice shelf struggling while the cold water saps their strength and energy. A dog in this situation does not have long and will succumb to exhaustion surprisingly quickly. When river current is added into the equation the results can be catastrophic. It would seem that an owner would only have to walk out and grab the dog’s scruff, vest or collar to aid the dog but quite often ice that will support a dog is not thick enough or solid enough to support a man.

A few years back I was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of an avid and seasoned western waterfowler. What I learned from him about shelf ice was driven home in a vivid lesson involving my own dog.

He had invited me along on a hunt late in the season and promised fast action of the cupped wing and smoking barrel variety. I was excited and the night before barely slept. The morning dawned bright and cold and the spot he had chosen did not disappoint. Upon our arrival, much later than I deemed prudent but more on this later, waves of ducks and geese lifted off the water and shelf ice of the chosen honey hole for the day.

Needless to say, it did not take long and we were killing birds. He had chosen the spot of our setup wisely as the river was heavily iced up. The kill hole was situated just upstream from a long shallow riffle that allowed our dogs plenty of room to work and easy entry and exit from the water. Most of the time the dogs never had to swim only run out in the shallow water and snag the downed birds. The foresight of this was not wasted on me, as I was nervous about sending my dog off all that ice.

The day went on and as we approached our limit, it happened… I crippled a large drake mallard and he sailed downstream toward the river bend, before he made the bend he crashed into the shallow water and I sent my dog. We had walked the riverbank downstream upon our arrival to check for ice dams and knowing that we had about a half mile of open river to work with I wasn’t worried. That is until my lab began having difficulty corralling the wounded drake and the chase took him out of sight around the riverbend. I began running to catch up and do what I could to help. After a couple hundred-yard sprint I rounded the bend and found my dog clinging to the shelf ice with the very much alive mallard in his mouth. My lab was struggling to crawl out onto the ice and hanging on for all he was worth as the water was too deep for him to touch bottom and the current was pulling him along the edge of the ice. Without thinking I began out onto the ice to grab the handles on my dog’s vest when I was brought up short by my companion’s voice, “WAIT!”

“Don’t be stupid, he said. If that ice breaks you’ll both be in there.”

With that he produced a lariat. Now I’m not much of a hand with a rope but I know the basics and he instructed me to just underhand toss the loop over my dog and pull it tight. Then he told me not to pull hard on the rope but provide tension for the dog to work against and therefore gain some leverage to enable himself to get his hind feet onto the ice. I did as instructed and my dog crawled onto the ice and delivered the drake to my shaking hand. It was a lesson I have never forgotten!

The very next day I went down to the feed and tack store and purchased a used lariat and I would recommend you do the same. Almost all feed and tack stores have used ropes for sale at very reasonable prices, much cheaper than the nightmares of losing a cherished dog will cost.

As I said, you’ll never see me in Vegas competing in the NFR in tie-down roping but I can toss a good stiff open loop eight or ten feet over my dog’s head and neck any day. After purchasing my rope, I went home and began practicing throwing underhanded loops over a five-gallon bucket in my backyard. It did not take me long to be able to confidently rope the bucket and with practice it won’t take you long either.

Now what if your dog gets stuck on the ice farther out than the ice conditions and or your ability allow you to lasso him? Then I’d find a boat, I’ll often lash my canoe to the truck during the late season so it’s always handy or use boards to spread out your weight so you can shimmy within reach. In a pinch even lying down and crawling forward will often spread out your weight enough to keep you from breaking through. While a stranded dog doesn’t have all day to cling to the ice, in most situations if you calm down and use your head there will be enough time to put together a rescue.

On a more somber note, no dog is worth your life. While heartbreaking, sometimes knowing when a situation is too dangerous to act is the most prudent decision. Nobody wants to acknowledge this but at the end of the day your family will be distraught at the loss of a cherished pet but pets can be replaced, you cannot! With that said, knowing the limits of your dog and the lurking dangers surrounding any retrieve are essential and sometimes simply not taking the shot, not sending the dog or even staying home are the best choices.

As for the other types of ice mentioned, their danger varies by degree. My rule of thumb involving slush ice and floating ice chunks is if it’s pushing me around while trying to set dekes or snagging my decoys then it’ll do the same to my dog to an even greater degree. Most times these types of ice dissipate as the day’s temps climb and the water gets incrementally warmer so I wait.

This takes us back to what I formerly stated about being dubious of our late start the morning of the lab roping. My more seasoned companion knew better than to venture out early and had long before instituted a rule, a rule I now adhere to as well. I simply will not hunt my dog over water when the ambient temp is below zero (Fahrenheit) and unless the water is clear of ice, the retrieves straight-forward and easy, I don’t hunt my dog in temps lower than 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Do I lose hunting days because of this rule? Yup. Have I had “friends” question me on this? Yup. However, I will not break this rule, I’ve seen what can happen. Besides, during the late season ducks and geese will often fly and decoy better later in the day resulting in a more pleasurable and safer hunt for you and your furry friend. This brings me to my next topic, Hypothermia. Stay tuned for part two as I delve into the dangers of this silent killer.


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