By Gary Koehler
Dove season marks the opening of bird hunting in many states, and retriever owners often use this time to help prepare their dogs for the upcoming waterfowl season. But hunters should take precautions before turning their dogs loose in a dove field. Opening-day temperatures in some parts of the country can push well into the 90s, making it easy for gung-ho retrievers to quickly fall victim to heat stroke and related maladies.
"Unfortunately, the weather doesn't have to be all that hot to cause a dog problems," says Dr. Cary Ledbury, a veterinarian practicing in Bartlett, Tenn. "Dogs have such a desire to please that they will keep going when you or I would quit. That drive is what gets them in trouble because they keep pushing. The older and heavier the animal, the more likely it is to get into trouble.
"Dogs don't sweat the way we do," Ledbury adds. "They cool off by panting, so it can be harder for them to keep cool. Drinking water will help, but they can only drink so much before they bloat."
Most retrievers are relatively large, long-haired dogs. Those with dark-colored coats are likely to feel the heat even more than their lighter-colored counterparts do. But the shade of a retriever's coat matters little when the dog overexerts itself.
"The thing about hunting doves is that most hunters are so excited about getting out there again and shooting, they don't think enough about their dogs," says Gary Current of Wheaton, Ill., who has trained dogs for the past 30 years.
"A lot of guys don't condition their dogs during the summer. It's okay to give your dog a layoff after hunting season, but you should be doing periodic drills and training sessions during the summer to keep the dog's conditioning up," Current adds.
Out-of-shape retrievers and handlers who are revved up over the first birds of a new hunting season can make for a dangerous mix. Dog performance may suffer, and bad habits could perpetuate well into the fall. "Unconditioned dogs are not likely to handle well," Current says. "And guys who don't diligently train are inclined to let things slide during dove season. By the end of dove season, your dog may become sloppy and exhibit bad behavior like breaking at the gun. Then you have to start over with steadiness training."