Field Care for Retrievers

Prevention and preparation are the keys to keeping your duck dog healthy and safe in the great outdoors

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to caring for your retriever.

Photo © Dusty Simmons

By Gary Koehler

Bad things can happen to good retrievers. The list of potential dangers afield extends far beyond the obvious shotgunning mishaps. For that reason, Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, says it's imperative for retriever owners to keep a first-aid kit on hand during hunting and training outings. "Retriever owners should prepare in advance for health emergencies that might arise while hunting," Stewart says. "They should also possess the basic knowledge to address field emergencies when a veterinarian is not at hand." 

Commercial first-aid kits for sporting dogs are readily available, but some retriever owners choose to compile their own cache of canine medical supplies. For the do-it-yourselfer, emergency dog care provisions should include self-adhesive bandages, gauze sponges and pads, alcohol, antiseptic ointment, iodine solution, buffered aspirin, tweezers, a folding lock-blade knife, nail clippers, saline solution, hydrogen peroxide, a clean hand towel, a book that covers canine first-aid procedures, and more. If this list seems extreme, consider that being prepared for a variety of contingencies could save your dog's life. 

When traveling, you should always have the phone number of your dog's veterinarian handy in case of emergency. As an added precaution, take along the numbers of a couple of veterinarians practicing in the region where you'll be hunting. A little advance planning can save you precious minutes in the event that your dog runs into trouble in the field.

Other basic precautions include bringing along a container of water and a bowl for your retriever. The necessity of keeping your dog hydrated can't be overstated. This point was driven home to me several years ago while hunting spring snow geese in northwest Missouri. The weather was mild—in the mid-50s—but the geese cooperated, and the lone Lab handling the retrieving duties was kept extremely busy. After an hour of dedicated work, the handler called for a brief halt. "Water time," he said. "In this kind of weather, it's easy for dogs to get dehydrated. Heat exhaustion can put dogs down for good." 

Dehydration has led to the demise of many hunting dogs. "Dogs are athletes," Stewart explains. "They work hard, and some just do not know when to quit. When a dog's body temperature rises to the point of danger, it is difficult to get it down quickly." 

Keeping a supply of clean water on hand is important even when you're hunting waterfowl in marshes or on lakes. Natural water sources are often teeming with harmful bacteria and parasites like giardia, the ingestion of which can make your dog sick. 

Cold weather presents a different kind of danger for retrievers. Hypothermia, or reduction of a dog's body temperature to below 99 degrees, can also be fatal without first aid or medical attention. Retrievers hunting in extremely cold weather need high-calorie food, which is converted to energy that helps keep the dog warm. You can also help safeguard your dog from the cold by keeping him in the blind or on a stand—but out of the water—when he's not retrieving. If your dog shows any signs of hypothermia, take him indoors where it's warm. In addition, always be careful around ice, and keep in mind that dogs can suffer frostbite.

Cuts and puncture wounds are relatively common mishaps for hunting dogs. My late German shorthaired pointer once suffered a nasty gash on a paw pad, an injury sustained when he stepped on the remains of a broken glass bottle. When hunting or training in an unfamiliar place, be sure to check the terrain for hazards such as barbed-wire fences. And if your dog does suffer a serious cut or wound, tend to the bleeding in the field and then seek professional care from a veterinarian. 

After every hunt, inspect your dog thoroughly for ticks, cuts, scrapes, and damaged toenails. Pull down his eyelids and check them for debris such as seeds, thorns, or twigs. Check his ears for cuts, as well as burrs and other objects. Post-hunt checkups are important, so be sure to examine your dog from head to toe.