In what has been an historically hot summer across much of the country, and certainly the upper Midwest, it’s easy to assume those temperatures will stick around into fall. As the old saying goes, when in a drought, don’t predict rain. But even in those average years over the past few decades, September and October have not been without their surges into the upper 80- and low 90-degree range, making many afternoons more suitable for backyard football games in shorts and T-shirts, following a morning chasing birds in the field. When it comes to hunting dogs, it’s better to have them join the pass rush in those warmer stretches than to push their boundaries in the field and keeping an eye on their condition during the hunt as things warm up is key to continued success in years to come.
The greatest tool at keeping dogs cool and safe in warmer weather is having ample water on hand and dispensing it liberally. Carrying a large jug, preferably something insulated that can retain low temperatures and ice in the truck and having a hip bottle that can easily dispense a quick shot of water in the field allows dogs to hydrate after each walk and throughout their adventure. If you’re feeling thirsty on a hike after grouse or pheasants, it’s likely your dog is as well. Remember too that their miles covered may exceed three times as many as yours, and they don’t have the evolutionary luxury of sweating to naturally cool off. Keep the water coming and watch for heavy panting from your four-legged field companion as a sign to wrap things up, or at least take a break.
On warmer walks, consider targeting lighter cover. First, it’s not only easier for a dog to plow through knee-high field grass on rolling hills than it is the cover of a tangled cattail slough, but it is also more likely that birds will be located in those sparser loafing areas in warmer weather. By reducing the dog’s efforts on more navigable terrain and through lighter cover, they’ll likely last longer on slightly warmer mornings, and in many cases, there will still be birds in those stretches as well, as the temperatures are more conducive to their mobility. Plus, it’s easier to pick up any warning signs that dogs are overheating when their moves can be tracked clearly through the lighter cover.
Keeping tabs on air temperature and the condition of a field dog during a hunt are the best ways to prevent heat-related illness. Most everyone these days has a watch or a phone that has a temperature display or a reading from a local weather source that shows along with the time and date. Even better, hour-by-hour forecasts from many weather services can provide some insight into how hot it will get, and how fast, for a given trip. Plan accordingly and adjust those destinations based on difficulty of cover or move up those prime locations into the cooler hours of a morning hunt, to be assured you get them in.
While watching the mercury rise, keep an eye out for signs from your dog to wrap things up.
Heavy or excessive panting is the first warning sign that a dog is getting too hot in the field and is a precursor to overheating or heat exhaustion. Lack of urination also suggests that there is limited water in a dog’s system and they are at risk of dehydrating, so if a dog hits a dry stretch while trying to relieve him or herself, make note of that and get them more water. If these factors are coupled with labored or very audible breathing, or the dog seems out of sorts, things have progressed into the danger zone and heat stroke can be a likely outcome.
If things have gotten out of hand in the heat, end the hunt and get a dog into a cool space. If clean water is available in a nearby pond or stream along the walk back, stop and let the dog step in; otherwise get them to shade as soon as possible. Give them plenty of cool water to drink and look for advanced warning signs such as a dry nose or sunken eyes hinting at advanced dehydration. Symptoms such as muscle tremors, an inability to stand up or falling after standing should trigger a call to a nearby vet and a visit for emergency care. For the latter, especially on those hunts away from home, find a local veterinarian’s contact information and program it into your phone before heading out in case of heat-related emergency or other mishap in the field.
Without a dog, a hunt is often just a nature walk with a shotgun in hand. For all the work they do, it’s incumbent on us to make sure they do it safely and stay healthy for years to come. While hunting may be easier and even more enjoyable in warm conditions, hotter temperatures bring with them some risks. Put these factors and your experience in the field together to know when to say when … in our outdoors.