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."
Ledbury suggests easing your retriever into hunting season—not simply loading the dog into your vehicle, taking it into the field on opening day, and hoping for the best. "The biggest thing is preparation on the front end, slowly increasing the dog's activity level several weeks or a month before hunting," he says.
Besides heat stroke, retrievers working in warm weather can suffer from other problems. Even slight dehydration can diminish a dog's sense of smell, impairing its ability to find downed birds.
Current recommends taking along plenty of water to refresh the dog between retrieves. Then, too, it can be beneficial simply not to send the dog after every downed bird. "By not sending your dog, you're doing two good things," Current says. "You are teaching him to remain steady, and you're not going to wear him out and put him at risk."
Ledbury recommends closely monitoring your dog's behavior when handling the animal in warm weather. Trouble signs should be obvious. "If you are in tune with your dog, you can see it in his eyes," he says. "The dog starts to slow down, usually has dilated eyes, pants heavily, and its breathing may become labored. The dog's gums may not be bright pink but a darker color because the dog is not getting the oxygen it needs and the extremities are starting to contract. The important thing is to stop working the dog before you get to a critical point."
If you suspect your dog is beginning to have problems, stop hunting immediately, and move your retriever into the shade. Spray the dog with water. Ice packs can be placed between the dog's legs and body, over the jugular veins, or in the groin area—all regions where there are large blood supplies. If at all in doubt, take the dog to a veterinarian.
"A dog can easily overheat on a day in the low 70s," Ledbury says. "Keep an eye on your dog. You don't want to take a great day of hunting and turn it into a nightmare."