Going hand in mitten with ice, cold water and frigid temps is Hypothermia. It’s the silent killer of the outdoorsman and some say takes more people to the happy hunting ground every year than grizzlies, sharks and lightning combined. I would have to agree and while staying dry and warm gets easier every year for hunters, thanks to never ending advancements in equipment, the same cannot be said for our dogs.
Waterfowling involves water, or snow or extreme temps or all three combined during the late season and retrievers take on these conditions in the only clothing God gave them, their coats. While conditioning your dog to cold temps is fairly easy, leaving them outside to grow a winter coat, some situations don’t accommodate this conditioning. Say you live in an apartment and have no yard to leave your dog in for an extended period. For example, while my dog has the run of a large fenced yard all year long that allows him to grow out his coat, several of my hunting partners do not have that luxury and so their dogs do not grow winter coats.
In the old days growing a winter coat was the only option for water dogs to help them battle the elements. Now we have neoprene vests. While these are a tremendous help to any dog working in frigid temps and water they are not a stopgap measure and common sense along with awareness to conditions and temps are a must. My dog doesn’t hunt without his vest during the late season, except on warmer days hunting dry land where a vest can be an encumbrance or get snagged on fences and brush. If I am not worried about him getting cold or wet, the vest stays home or in the truck. I know that some still cling to the idea that a vest is for weak inside dogs but I also don’t personally know anyone who hunts the bitter late season that doesn’t use a dog vest for their retriever.
Again, vests don’t prevent Hypothermia but they help tremendously. As can letting your duck dog carry a little extra weight. This may be controversial but many hunters swear by keeping their dogs a little fatter during the late season. I personally cannot do this as my current lab tips the scales at a very lean 65lbs. and only eats when he is hungry making weight gain difficult. I do up his calorie intake as much as possible during the late season by adding some fat to his bowl each day and feeding a premium dry food. Animal fats seem to work best for me and I save the fat from my deer and elk for this purpose, keeping it in the freezer. Fat can be purchased from your grocer or butcher cheaply as well. I would recommend consulting your veterinarian for suggestions on this topic.
Being aware of your dog while in the field is the most important aspect of Hypothermia prevention. While this may seem like a no-brainer it is very easy to get lost in the action of a hunt and forget to monitor your dog. After all, scanning the skies for incoming birds it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget about your hopefully shivering dog. I say hopefully because a shivering attentive dog is a healthy dog. Shivering is her natural defense against Hypothermia as it helps warm the dog. I also said attentive. This is because the first signs of Hypothermia in a dog are lack of shivering and listlessness though not necessarily in that order. If your retriever stops shivering and or continues to shiver and grows inattentive then you need to get them warm immediately. Drop everything, leave the decoys, they’ll be there later, and get your dog into a warm vehicle and dry them thoroughly. Most of us have the luxury of being fairly close to home when we hunt; go home, get your dog dry and begin warming them by vigorous rubbing, warm liquids, even a hot shower. The important thing is getting the dog’s core temperature back to normal as quickly as possible. For the traveling hunter this may be tougher to accomplish but a warm vehicle helps tremendously.
While I am not a veterinarian and methods and advice for rewarming vary greatly I have had to help two of my labs stave off Hypothermia over the years. The first was back in college on a cold November Michigan morning. The temps were hovering around freezing that day and the water was in the forties, no cause for alarm right? Wrong… the action was fast and furious that morning and a light rain snow mix was falling, driving the mallards and geese into our spread. There were four of us gunning that day and my dog was spread thin. I thought she could handle it, as she was a seasoned vet of the marshes and fields. I was ignorant and arrogant in my use of her.
Each time a flock decoyed a volley would ensue and she would plunge forth bringing back birds flawlessly. When she had finished mopping up the downed birds she’d climb into my canoe for a perch. The water was about waist deep in the marsh we were hunting that day and the canoe made for a handy spot for her to sit, presumably dry and warm out of the water, remember the rain and snow? Well, that coupled with the accumulation of water in the bottom of the canoe created the perfect recipe for Hypothermia.
I almost noticed too late that Josie had gone from sitting up shivering and scanning the horizon to lying down curled up in the bottom of the canoe listless and not shivering! I bagged the hunt immediately and left my buddies and brother to finish out and pick up the spread while I paddled for all I was worth back to the truck and made a mad dash home to get my failing dog warm.
We made it home and I put her in a hot shower, dried her off, fed her warm chicken broth, wrapped her in a blanket and placed her next to a heat vent. She recovered rapidly and I returned to the marsh to pick up my comrades who had filled limits, picked up and hiked out through the woods to the access and were waiting for me to come get them. All understood and the first question from each was, “how’s Josie?”
I got lucky that day as my arrogance and ignorance almost cost me one of the best dogs I’ve ever had the pleasure of being owned by. The point is, it happens fast and being attentive to your dog’s condition is imperative to prevention and early identification.
If you find yourself in question of exactly what to do in case of this emergency or feel you may not be able to recognize the tiered descent to death of this condition, contact a vet immediately. Better yet, do the due diligence and find out how to recognize Hypothermia and what to do for treatment from a vet before the hunt begins. I’m sure I didn’t do it right that day but Josie lived to retrieve many more birds after that scary event. The most important thing with Hypothermia is to act!
In part III of this series I will discuss Canine Hypoglycemia, yet another cold weather danger to our favorite hunting partners.