10 Disasters to Avoid with your Gundog

By Kent Boucher

I remember as a kid thumbing through an outdoor magazine and noticing a striking advertisement- the product being advertised was evidently irrelevant to the function of my long term memory, but the message must have been worthy. In bold white lettering above a picture of a pointer blasting through a thorny thicket was this question: “How would you like to run through this naked?” The question was easy to answer, but the message carried enough meaning to ring clear for all these years- gun dogs are willing to endure nearly anything to fulfill their best friend’s mission. Dog handlers are delighted with this level of dedication to a task that they will never find within their own species, but the dog’s reckless abandonment of his own personal well-being to find birds can be deceptive to the dog’s handler, and the deception can lead to disaster. The only way to prevent this is by foreseeing the threats to the dog, and the only one who can do that is the handler. Here are ten real threats all gun dog handlers should consider.

1: Untrained Gun Dogs
A finished gun dog is truly a masterpiece in action. The hundreds of hours invested into training the dog has resulted in the highest level of canine conditioning. There is mutual trust reciprocated between the dog and his handler as they operate with a common goal. As beautiful as this display of teamwork is, the reality is many hunters do not reach this level of training with their dogs. If you are a handler in this situation, you need to ask yourself the most fundamental question of hunting with a gun dog: Do I have control of my dog? Your dog may lack some of the finesse skills of a finished dog such as holding a point or retrieving the bird to your hand, but for safe hunting your dog must at minimum respond to your call to return, your signal to slow down if he’s getting too far ahead and to “stay” if you need him hold his position. Gun dogs that operate for themselves not only ruin hunts, they also get lost, plunge into creeks in sub-freezing temperatures, cross busy roads, antagonize other dogs on the hunt, tangle with skunks or porcupines, and generally serve as a threat to their own safety. The foundation for gun dog safety is built upon the dog obeying his handler’s commands. If you cannot trust your dog in this manner, he isn’t ready to be included in the hunt.

2: Injuries in the Field
The threat of punctures, cuts and abrasions inflicted by thorns, barbed wire fences, cactus spines and any other sharp, cruel object that you might imagine exists on a field edge or in an overgrown fence row are always present. If you hunt enough, your dog will probably need attention for this type of injury at some point. Because of this unfortunate reality there are two things hunters should always take care of before their hunt: 1) Pack a medkit. Something small with the necessities for stopping any serious bleeding- this could save your pup (or you) long enough to get professional help. 2) Look up the nearest veterinarian with 24 hr emergency service when you are planning your hunt. Saturday stitches on an out of town hunt may be needed to repair any serious gashes or wounds on your dog.  Knowing who to call in a dire situation, before you need to call them, may save your best gun dog’s life.

3: Pet Podiatry
A related health consideration dog handlers need to take seriously is the condition of their dog’s feet. Of course the cuts and abrasions that were just mentioned fall into this category, but so do problems like frostbite, ice balls, burrs, raw pads from abrasive terrain or even hunting too much without adequate rest. A careful examination of your dog’s paws after each hunt should be done to prevent more serious damage that could sideline her for a significant portion of the already brief season.

4: Body Temperature
It’s foolish for dog handlers to overlook the fact that the same causes for hypothermia and hyperthermia that threaten us as hunters exist for our dogs. Knowing the weather conditions your breed is built to handle is critical information. Most waterfowl breeds can handle an icy plunge in January, whereas many upland breeds with lighter coats such as Brittanys or English Setters could become hypothermic within a few minutes if they were exposed to the same conditions. If the latter applies to your gun dog, keep him out of any water during late season hunts when the temperature dips below freezing. The inverse of this holds true during early season hunting. A gun dog with a heavy coat like a Drahthaar or Golden Retriever could overheat on a hot day with many miles of hunting, especially if that includes a few winged rooster chases. Having quick access to controlled warming or cooling conditions is always important for handlers to plan for.

5: Hydration
Along the same lines of maintaining a healthy body temperature for your hunting dog is the need for maintaining proper hydration. Dogs heat up quickly when they are hunting and panting is their only way of cooling themselves, which costs them a lot of water. Making the small adjustment to include a 32oz sized water bottle in your game vest and stopping for frequent hydration breaks will keep your dog safe from symptoms of dehydration, and will also keep her hunting longer and with better focus.

6: Tainted Water
Another hazard that proper hydration can save your gun dog from is drinking tainted water. Usually a few gulps of water from a creek running through a farmer’s pasture doesn’t cause your dog any trouble, but this presents more of a risk than you may think. You really don’t know what is upstream of where your dog is lapping water. There could be a decomposing cow or deer carcass laying in the stream, or maybe a slurry pond is spilling into the stream and these are only a few of the limitless unknowns that can lead to your pup taking in a smorgasbord of disease causing microscopic organisms. One particularly dangerous microorganism is cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. Taking in a high enough concentration of these microorganisms can lead to your dog dying from toxic poisoning.

7. Overexertion
Exhaustion is another real danger gun dogs face. Dogs travel at least 2 to 3 times as far as we do during a day’s worth of hunting. They zig and zag across the terrain, chase winged birds and retrieve the game for us- all the while running in a fur coat.  Because we handlers are walking, and for only a fraction of the distance our dog is covering, the dog will be the first to tire. If your dog overexerts herself and her energy levels are severely depleted not only do you risk harm to your dog, but you will most likely have to carry her back to your truck. It is critical that you plan hunts that match the conditioning of your dog. If you want longer hunts out of her, you need to be exercising her in the offseason. During the season, be sure that your hunts include a few breaks in the shade with a quick refueling snack and drink. For long hunting road trips consider hunting with multiple dogs so you can alternate them throughout the days of your trip.

8. Dangerous Retrieves
Possibly the most challenging situation for a handler and his gun dog occurs when the bird goes down in a dangerous area. Perhaps a wounded duck swims far from the safety of the blind into deep water, or a winged rooster charges into a steep ravine shrouded in thick thorns, or more dangerous yet- there is an active beehive or hornet nest very close to the downed bird. Whatever the threat is you may have to give up on your quarry for the safety of your dog. Your dog’s training will be put to the test now more than ever before. They are wired to pursue that bird, and you must take control of the situation immediately to save them from a serious fall, drowning or being injured. E-collars are generally not used for such matters, but outfitting your dogs with them could be your last line of defense for preventing such a situation from unraveling into disaster.

9: Other Predators
A popular brand of dog stories you may hear is the threat of the hunting dog becoming the hunted dog. I myself had a scenario that came a little too close for comfort several seasons ago, and I have heard stories of other gun dogs being unwittingly caught in similar situations. Wildlife documentaries have conditioned us to pity the non-predatory species, but in reality nature’s rules are much less favorable for the meat-eaters. It’s a hard life for predators. Killing for their food requires the correct opportunity and a whole lot of energy. When a small breed gun dog is in the field they may unknowingly solve the opportunity side of the equation for a nearby predator. This is when the stakes for training your dog to maintain the proper proximity to you during the hunt escalate from better hunting to the safety and wellbeing of your dog. This isn’t as common of a threat as many others on this list, but certainly one that every handler needs to store in the back of their mind.

10: Gun Safety
One thing that always makes me nervous is when someone I’ve never hunted with is joining me on a hunt with my dogs. Will they wait long enough to verify that the dog is out of the path of the pellets? If we are hunting in tall grass will they wait to see if the movement in the grass is a flushing rooster or one of my dogs pushing through the brush? There are a couple of ways to deal with these concerns. First dress your dog with a blaze orange collar, or even a vest. If blaze orange benefits your wellbeing, it will do the same for your dog. Second, explain to your new hunting partner the additional safety considerations they will need to process before they squeeze the trigger on a flushing bird.

Having a successful hunt with your gun dog is one of the most rewarding experiences for a hunter. Unfortunately, there are some real dangers that must be acknowledged. Being aware of these hazards when taking our dogs in the field will help prevent a disastrous event for our dogs that could require expensive emergency treatment, or worse. With their complete devotion to the task of finding birds they have no thought for their own safety. That responsibility falls in the hands of their best friend.