Winter Hazards For Gundogs: Considerations for hunting with your dog in cold temperatures

By: Ryan Eder – UGA President, Avery Outdoors Pro Staff

Not everyone is cut out of the right cloth to be a successful bird hunter in the Midwest.  Some of our best hunting comes during our worst weather, and by “worst”, I mean cold, windy and miserable.  Something we all have to do is consider our hunting partners in these conditions and do everything we can, both preseason and in-season to help them be safe, healthy and successful in the field. Cold temperatures snow and ice and of course water can collectively present hazards to our dogs. I’d like to take a look at some of the key concerns we should have for our hunting dogs during the winter months of hunting season, as well as discuss preventative measures and specific products that can be extremely beneficial.

The first area of concern I’d like to start with is our dogs’ paws and pads.  Continuous exposure to cold temperatures, snow and ice has a tendency to dry out the pads on a dog’s feet (similar to why we get dry skin in the winter).  This can cause them to split or crack, as well as be more susceptible to cuts or tears, as well as frostbite.  There are several products on the market you can apply to your dog’s pads regularly to keep them moisturized and healthy.  I do this with my dogs every so often (1-2 times per month).  During the winter months, one or two times per week is probably more appropriate.  People who hunt their dogs daily during the season, such as outfitters and guides use tricks like PAM cooking spray to deter ice build-up on the paws and pads of their dogs.  For any of the longer-coated breeds, pay attention to the fur on the paws of the dog.  It is important to keep that fir trimmed between the toes and around the pads to minimalize the potential for ice balls and other build-up around the paws. 

Another solution that is becoming more and more popular is the use of boots or foot covers for hunting dogs.  These items are canvas material with some kind of rubber padding on the bottom, keeping the dogs feet better protected and not exposed to the elements.  This is something you would have to socialize your dog to, and over time get them comfortable to wearing them, but they do serve as a great preventative product for the field.  Regardless of what measures you take to protect your dog’s paws in the field, when it comes to extreme cold and harsh winter conditions you should always try to reasonably limit your dog’s time in the field.  Sub-zero temps are not ideal for any of us to be outside for extended periods of time, so be mindful of the conditions and always have a place for the dog to get out of the wind and warm up (lodge, truck, etc.).

The biggest concern anyone should have about their hunting dog in winter conditions is hypothermia.  Of course, these risks are higher in dogs that are in the water during the cold conditions.  While waterfowl dogs are the most frequent case, it is entirely possible for upland bird dogs to retrieve shot birds in water.  One misconception about hypothermia is that it only occurs in water.  The truth of the matter is that hypothermia can occur in any activity involving wind, water and low temperatures.  Extreme cold is not the only instance that a dog can become hypothermic either; light wind, 55 degree water and 40 degree air temperature can cause hypothermic reactions in our dogs.

Dogs are not affected by “colds” like we are as humans.  Being wet in the cold is not something that will always cause issues in our dogs’ health; however their immune systems are affected by things like drastic weather changes.  Prevention of hypothermia can be difficult, but knowing the signs is a great advantage.  The normal body temperature of a dog is between 99.50 and 102.50F.  Between 95 and 99 the dog will start to shiver, which is your first sign of hypothermic response.  Shivering is a dog’s way of creating body heat, so it is a natural response but no matter what, it is the first stage of hypothermia and we need to keep a close eye.  Have a microfiber cloth, or towel with you to dry and dry your dog as best as possible each time they get wet (microfiber clothes can be rung out and dried quickly for repeated use.  Towels stay wet, and can freeze making them difficult to use more than once or twice).  Having a neoprene vest on your dog when hunting in wet conditions (wet conditions, doesn’t necessarily have to be swimming water) is a great idea.  The vest must fit properly to work properly.  Imagine a wet suit; it must fit snug to truly keep water off of your skin.  The vest should not be incredibly tight either.  Once my dog is wet, I will remove the vest, wipe the dog off with the microfiber cloth, and then put the vest back on (only after retrieves where the dog is completely soaked).  This way, any water that got under the vest is not being held against the dog’s body causing lower body temperature.

The second stage of hypothermia is when the dog’s body temperature drops to 90 - 95.  At this stage, the dog is very lethargic, almost acting drunk and clumsy.  They are unable to shiver, and could potentially lose consciousness.  At this point the dog needs to get dry, taken to a warm place and have heat packs applied under their bellies, arm pits, etc.  Meanwhile, be taken to the vet immediately as the risks are high for further issues.  Again, once you see your dog shivering (stage 1), start taking measures to dry them off and warm them up.  A quick towel dry can be very effective (not only for being dry, but the friction can cause body temp to rise), especially for dogs sitting still in a duck or goose blind not able to run or create much body heat.  Do everything you can to prevent stage 2, as it can be life threatening if not corrected.  Once a dog’s body temp reaches 90 or below, they can (and probably will) lose consciousness, have difficulty breathing, go into a coma and possible death.  Once again, when you notice stage 1, you can make sure to try and prevent further issue with the use of a good neoprene vest, towel/cloth and trying to minimalize their exposure to wind (more pertaining to waterfowl dogs in a blind of some sort).

Do your best to transport your dog out of the wind entirely, both too and from the hunt.  If possible, riding in the heated vehicle is obviously best.  If that is not feasible, other options include pickup truck with a topper that blocks the wind, insulated jackets for crates or an insulated dog box or dog trailer can be great as well.  I recommend trying to have your vehicle nearby your hunting spot should you need the heater in an emergency.  A few regular maintenance steps, preventative products and attention to your dog in the field can prevent some very serious risks associated with the harsh winter conditions afield.  I hope some of these tips are useful and that you keep them in mind when hunting with your dogs this season.  Good luck and happy hunting!  A very special thank you to Lisa A. Boyer, DVM for helping me put together this information.