Typically, most of the advice shared in this column has come via the courtesy of professional retriever trainers, who have far more expertise than I will ever be able to match. But on this issue — dealing with altercations between dogs and skunks, snakes and porcupines — I will match my credentials with anyone.
Call me lucky. My dogs have been skunked and quilled by porcupines more times than I can count, and although my experience with snakes has been limited to one prairie rattler, once was enough.
The best defense is to avoid these animals completely. The unfortunate truth is that you can't control a dog you can't see, and your good intentions will last just about as long as it takes your pooch to disappear from sight on a training run. Once your dog has been bitten, sprayed or quilled, however, your actions will help determine whether that run-in becomes an unpleasant learning experience or a far more serious, and possibly deadly, accident.
Early this summer, one of my dogs, a young setter, came to a wavering, half-serious point in an alfalfa field. About the time it dawned on me she was not pointing a pheasant, she jumped in and tried to toss the skunk she had cornered into the air — not once, but twice. When I finally got hold of her, her face and chest were coated with a god-awful yellow slime. Since this had happened to me many times before (I once owned a springer that got skunked twice in 45 minutes), I knew what to do.
Back home, I mixed up my never-fail skunk deodorant: one quart of hydrogen peroxide, one-quarter cup of baking soda and a squirt of liquid dish soap. I sponged it on the dog and let it soak in for a few minutes, then rinsed it off. By the time she had dried, 95 percent of the odor was gone.
I would like to take credit for the recipe, but the truth is I discovered it in my hometown newspaper. Remember those proportions: quart, quarter, squirt. This concoction works much better than tomato juice or anything else I have tried. For really tough spots, a bit of Massengill dabbed on the area and allowed to dry kills most persistent odors for a day or two. Still, no matter what you use, skunk scent will often lingers for quite some time on a wet dog.
It is hard to imagine that any animal could be such a shuffling, pigeon-toed disaster, but porcupines most assuredly are. In my experience, pointing dogs have the most run-ins with porkies, but in the West, where Labs are used for upland bird hunting as much or more than they're used for waterfowl, hundreds of retrievers get a face full of quills every year. Some dogs never learn. I recently saw an Associated Press photo of a boxer with 800 quills in his mug. Figure out the vet bill for that one.
The veterinarian is where you should end up, though, if your dog gets stuck with more than a couple dozen quills. So far, I've been able to yank quills out of my dogs by myself with forceps or a Leatherman tool, the dog wedged between or under my knees to minimize squirming. I've also begun carrying a dowel and tape in my first aid kit, so that I can insert the dowel and tape it in the dog's mouth in order to keep its mouth open when I am removing quills from its tongue or gums. Then, I simply get a good grip on a quill and pull it out, one quill at a time.
However, a dog that has taken a serious hit, or that has quills embedded in his throat or in or around his eyes, needs a vet. En route to the clinic, try not to let the dog paw at his face. The dog could break off quills and make extraction more difficult.
And do not count on your pup learning his lesson. Some do, but many do not.
Of all the plagues that can befall hunting dogs, snakes scare me the most. True, virtually every dog I know that has been bit by a rattler (including mine) survived, but it's not a fun experience — for the dog or for the owner.
The best way to avoid having your dog bitten by a snake is to avoid the places snakes live. Unlike skunks and porcupines, which can be almost anywhere, rattlesnakes, at least in the West, typically live on rocky, south- and west-facing hillsides — but not always.
If your dog gets bitten, take him straight to a vet. Some vets recommend applying a loose tourniquet above the wound; others recommend giving the dog antihistamines (Benadryl). My discussions with several vets on the subject do not give me much faith in the cut-and-suck or applied-ice treatments. Instead, the conservative approach is to limit your dog's movement (to keep from circulating the venom), and get him to a vet as quickly as possible.
But that calls for advance preparation on your part. It is not practical to carry antivenom in your truck — it is very expensive and must be kept on ice — but you can carry a list of local vets you can call on a moment's notice, which is particularly important if you are hunting in an unfamiliar area. As soon as you get to your truck and/or phone, call your vet and let him know you are coming in. The vet will take it from there. If you get to the vet quickly, most dogs seem to pull through without lasting damage.
Avoiding these scourges completely is probably impossible. But, with just a little preparation, diminishing the damage they inflict on your dog — not to mention your heart rate — becomes much easier.
by Dave Carty