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How Cold are Your Puppies?
written by Paul & Julie Knutson

There are a few things to keep in mind to make sure your dog returns home from the cold weather with smiles.
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Hunting dogs work hard; it's up to you to protect them from the elements.

Most dogs love doing anything outdoors -- hot or cold.  It's not uncommon for an enthusiastic dog to be too excited about the business at hand and ignore the cold and snow. Dogs can wind up with frostbite before they are aware anything is wrong.  You cannot always use the animal to gauge if things are going all right.  There are some common-sense guidelines in doing anything with your dog outdoors.

Make sure your dog has the coat and the feet for what you are planning to do.  Dogs kept indoors do not have a coat that will insulate well enough to withstand icy water or much exposure to cold wind or moisture.  Even with one of the neoprene coats available, the dogs legs, stomach, head, etc. are not protected and they'll get very cold.  Feet that are used to carpet or a well-sodded back yard will get cut to ribbons on ice, frozen branches and hard snow.  Boots can work, but they have to be comfortable and stay on, and not enchant the dog so that is spends all its time thinking about its shoes instead of the job at hand.

Dogs to be used for hunting should start the day well prepared, just as you would.  They should be well hydrated and have a light breakfast.  They should have water and food available throughout the day.  A bite of your ham sandwich does not count here.  The energy and nutrition makeup of a good-quality performance food has the best balance of what the dog needs. Carry some dry food with you in a plastic bag. A handful of kibbles every hour or two will keep the dog's body chemistry fit for action or cold.

Shivering can mean the dog is cold, or that the dog is anticipating the action.  It can be a little of both.  Make sure you know your dog well enough to know why the dog is shivering.  Shivering is a way to generate body heat in a dog, so a little shivering may not mean anything is wrong.  Nonstop shivering means the dog is cold, so put yourself in your dogs shoes.  If you were sitting in a blind shivering for an hour, odds are you wouldn't be enjoying yourself.

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Dog boots should not distract the animal. If they do, the dog forgets its job.

Keep dogs warm first and foremost by keeping them dry.  Dampness is a good conduit for removing heat from the body.  Dry a dog by removing the water from the coat top layer, avoid if possible rubbing the dog so hard you kill the air insulation layer next to the skin.  Minimize their time in the water.  If you have trained your dog to take a straight line in the water, then move so your dog takes the shortest reasonable water route to the bird.  A 50 yard swim in icy water can teach a dog to hate retrieving in the water, where a shorter, quick retrieve still lets them have fun without freezing.

Keep duck dogs out of the water in between retrieves.  Keep them out of the wind and out of the moisture.  A neoprene coat can be very helpful in keeping the dog warm between innings.

Upland hunting dogs do not tend to get wet so much as they get hurt.  Snowdrift-covered barbed wire, heavy cover and deadfall can be deadly to a dog, or at the very least, extremely abrasive to the face, front and underside of a dog.  A protective chest and stomach vest is a must for the upland hunter, particularly in cover of any significance.  Boots may or may not be necessary to protect the feet form the same hazards, including stickers, broken rocks or ice, and abrasive vegetation.  If the ground is not so harsh, the boots are not necessary, but the vest can only be a benefit to the ardent upland hunter.   Orange vests can also make it easier to spot your dog bobbing through the cover.

Upland hunting dogs need water just as much in the cold as they do in the heat.  Always carry a container of water, and even if it's cold, watch for signs of overheating.  Because you are not in danger of overheating does not mean the track star in front of you is not generating a great deal of body heat.

Rest your dog as often as the dog needs it, not as often as it's convenient to your hunting group.  Because a dog will hunt for 3 hours does not mean it should hunt for 3 hours.  Rotating dogs usually handles this issue, but if you are hunting with only one, plan on resting the dog before it desperately needs it.  Fatigue, cold and injury will take a dog completely out of action, and none of those are necessary if you keep a close enough eye on the situation.

Traveling in Cold Weather

We have all seen the airline crate sitting in the back of the pickup truck heading down the interstate at 75 miles per hour.  Calculate the wind chill of 75-mph winds.  It is a big drop in the temperature.  Even if it's in the forties outdoors, a speed like that in the back of the truck drops the temperature to below zero.  If you are going to carry your dog outside the vehicle, then do several things:

  • Keep the wind out of the dog box.  If you use an airline crate, buy one of the insulated covers for it so the wind does not freeze your dog.  At the same time, make sure there is a source of fresh air for the dog.
  • Give the dog some form of bedding, just like the doghouse, so it can nest up and use its body heat to stay warm in the very frigid temperatures to which it is being exposed.  Again, grass hay is a good one and if it blows out into the bed of the truck, no one will care.
  • Keep the box located close to the cab of the truck, where the wind effects are the least.  Make sure and secure the box so that an accident or quick braking action will not send the dog and its box out onto the highway.
  • Don't put a bowl of water in the box.  Give your dog water before it travels and on breaks.  Water in a bowl, even one secured to the box will spill and get the bedding wet.  It's not necessary to have water at all times during travel.
  • Always be sure and travel with a dry dog; not a soaking wet one.  It is very hard to dry and warm up in a little box when the dog is wet.
  • Many times people put more than one dog into a box so they can keep each other warm.  This can be a good idea if the dogs like to keep each other warm.  If you and your hunting buddy each have a big macho male, putting them together for a night or a long trip might result in one and half dogs coming out at the end of the trip.  Think about things like that before putting any dog at risk.  

Safety Concerns

As with any hunting or outdoor activity, there are a few things to keep in the back of your mind to make sure you and your dog return home with the smiles from a good trip:

  • Do not put your dog into water that is covered with ice.  Ice can break on a dog, and it will fall into water and come up under the ice.  There are many sad stories about someone losing a great hunting buddy under a partial cover of ice.  Avoid the risk entirely.  No matter how willing your dog may be, the risk is too high.  Losing one duck is preferable to losing a great dog.
  • Watch for frostbite on toes, noses, bellies and undercarriages.  The skin does not turn blue like ours, and might not change appearance at all until it's too late.  Minimize skin exposure to harsh elements.
  • Feet can be a real problem, especially for those dogs with hair between their pads.  This hair is a site for ice ball formation, and huge ice balls can form under dog's feet.  This is painful and can really limit the dog's mobility. Trim foot hair under toes and keep a close eye on ice formation under the feet.
  • Check your dog routinely for punctures, scrapes and any damage to the nose, eye and face area.  Enthusiastic hunters will not show signs of being hurt, and the cold tends to make the human hunters pay less attention to the details of their dog.  Hazards under snow banks, in the water or even in brush piles take only a second to hurt an animal.  Check your dog anytime they have been out of sight for very long or have been in circumstances that may hold hazards you cannot see.  A routine and cursory check may save you from large problem down the line.
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