By Gary Koehler

Most retrievers aren't afraid of cold weather and will throw caution to the brisk wind when hunting waterfowl, fetching birds in icy water and braving even the harshest elements. Properly conditioned duck dogs are built for the cold.

Breeds such as Labs, goldens, and Chessies have thick double coats that repel water to help keep them warm. Nevertheless, retriever owners should recognize that they must take precautions to protect their canine partners as the temperature drops. Frigid weather requires special vigilance and care.

Proper nutrition is the key to keeping your retriever healthy in cold conditions. The more your dog hunts, the more calories he burns. Factor in extremely cold weather and his fuel consumption increases even further. To meet your retriever's energy needs you must feed him larger portions of high-energy, nutrient-rich dog food. This will help him retain body fat, which acts as insulation and reduces the rate of heat loss from his torso. At least one study suggests that gun dogs may need up to 80 percent more calories per pound to maintain a healthy weight during the hunting season than what they require during the off-season.

This does not mean that you should stuff your dog with a heavy meal just before heading to the duck blind or immediately upon returning home from a hunt. Feed him in the early evening, after he's had a chance to rest and recover from a long day in the marsh. If the increased rations are too much for him to handle in one meal, try feeding him in two installments, allowing him to sleep between meals. Keep in mind that your dog will also require ample water to stay properly hydrated. The more food he eats, the more water he needs for his digestive system, and the rigors of hunting only increase this demand. Always carry clean, fresh water with you on the hunt and give him a drink at regular intervals throughout the day.

The importance of maintaining a retriever's body weight in cold weather can't be overstated. If your dog is not properly nourished, prolonged exposure to the cold, wet conditions of waterfowling could result in a drop in body temperature. This burns up available energy and lowers blood sugar, which can lead to hypothermia. Signs of this serious condition include violent shivering, listlessness, and apathy. If you suspect that your dog has become hypothermic, rap him in a blanket and take him indoors. Give him a warm bath followed by a vigorous towel rub to dry his fur and skin. Hypothermia can be deadly. If you feel that your retriever might be in danger, don't hesitate to contact your veterinarian.

Frostbite is another concern in wintry weather. Pale skin is one telltale sign of this condition, which typically affects a dog's toes, ears, tail, and scrotum. To avoid frostbite, always be sure to remove any ice or caked mud from your retriever's feet. Paw pads that are severely cracked or bleeding should be examined by a veterinarian. Prevention is important because frostbitten tissues are more susceptible to repeated freezing.

Neoprene dog vests have become quite popular over the past several years. These vests not only provide insulation, but also serve to protect your dog from abrasions caused by ice shards or tree branches. Always make sure the vest fits snugly. A loose fit can allow moisture to get trapped between the vest and the dog, which is not a good thing when the thermometer bottoms out.

Ice holds its own inherent dangers. A slip on the ice can cause your retriever to sustain joint and ligament damage. Worse still is the prospect of your dog falling through the ice and becoming trapped beneath it. Don't take any chances.

Putting your retriever in jeopardy should not be an option. There may be days when it is best to leave him at home. Let common sense prevail. And be careful out there.

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