by Seth Bynum, DVM
The sting of a strong prairie wind bored through heavy nylon, nipped across the tightly-woven fibers of merino wool and threatened to snuff out what little flame of enthusiasm I had left for this late-season upland hunt.
Like the pangs of childbirth or chukar hunting, the mind has a way of purging physically traumatic events from memory, and the gale whipping over crusty snow and across my face served as a harsh reminder of how the wind influences life on the American plains. I spent four long winters here, I should know. But when I moved away for more hospitable climes and opportunities, that fact stayed behind, rooted here under the open skies of Montana like a stalwart old juniper.
I turned to my dogs, hoping for a nod of acknowledgment from them that giving up under these inhospitable conditions could be justified as noble and prudent. Their hound-like ears aloft like wings in the steady blast of early arctic air, they ignored my groveling and turned back into the same wind that would carry the scent of three vulnerable roosters and a handful of sharp-tailed grouse we’d eventually bag that day.
If we stopped now, these two shorthairs would surely regard me as a quitter, and I’d spend the rest of the day enduring their judgment served with a repugnant feeling of betrayal more frigid than a hundred winters. In part, we pressed on out of my respect for their unwavering dedication to their craft, but mostly because – deep down in the last remaining warmth of my core – I knew we were adequately prepared for this type of weather.
Armed with common sense and a few cold-weather strategies, the dogs remained safe and comfortable, allowing us to create a memorable hunt from a nearly squandered opportunity in inhospitable conditions.
Mind the Feet
Dog boots have become synonymous with tender-footed pointers in chukar country, but the origin of their utility can be traced to the sled dog world. Unsurprisingly, even basic foot and pad coverings can make a significant difference in your bird dog’s ability to navigate frozen terrain, particularly if patches of ice and crust mar the landscape.
Not only can boots provide insulation from the heat-sucking loss to the frozen earth beneath, but they also serve to protect a dog’s pads from a potentially hunt-ending laceration from sharp crusts of snow and ice as well as potential hazards hidden underneath its surface.
Additionally, boots can prevent the accumulation of ice and snow in the interdigital spaces of the feet, a particularly vulnerable area among the scruffy-coated, bearded and feathery-legged varieties of bird dogs. While a dog’s nose finds the bird, it’s the feet that help pin it down; a task made more difficult when shored up by a nagging rock-in-the-shoe sensation.
No doubt, nail maintenance is already part of your husbandry routine, but you should strive for trim, yet functional, claws long enough for grip but svelte enough to prevent cracking or tearing by the increased shearing forces of snow and ice.
Pick the Right Vest for the Job
The need for core insulation or protection depends largely on habitat. I’ve discovered that hunter preference for dog vests as a shield against the jabs of sticks and debris remains mostly regional across the country.
Where warmth is concerned, I’d argue that the decision to reach for a neoprene vest depends on what type of game you plan on pursuing. Pass shooting ducks or working them from a blind in cold conditions where the dog will swim and endure some stationary duties will compromise all but the bristliest of drahthaars. Evaporative cooling is incredibly useful, as evidenced by the trembling, wet bird dog accompanying you in the blind.
In these conditions, I’ll subject my shorthairs to wearing a neoprene vest. Without custom tailoring, it fits great across a GSP’s deep chest with enough room to stash a full-size mallard decoy in the belly. I suppose there’s some utility in having your dog share in the burden of schlepping decoys into the field; still, I always resented having to buy an expensive dog accessory that requires my time and heavy mutilation to achieve a proper fit in a bird dog.
For fieldwork at running speeds, I believe most versatile breeds generate enough heat during this high-intensity activity to forego the vest in harsh weather. In fact, their use could contribute to overheating in more mild conditions, as the thermodynamics of that much working lean muscle lends to mind-blowing manufacturing of warmth.
If protection from field injuries is your only concern, opt for a skid plate or light nylon vest. But don’t get complacent with a sense of invincibility here, either. As a vet who has sutured hundreds of field lacerations, sticks, rebar and barbed wire have a knack for finding flesh, no matter how tough and extensive the armor.
Feed for Warmth
The idea that food is fuel holds especially true for the working bird dog. As complex metabolic machines, dogs can convert fats into ground-scorching energy rapidly and efficiently. Not surprisingly, they also rely on the metabolism of food to maintain warmth in cold conditions. Some dogs can burn through the calories of a day’s worth of kibble, just maintaining adequate body temperature when the mercury drops, even at rest.
In harsh conditions of cold weather and multiple-day hunts, don’t skimp at mealtime. A generous portion of high-quality, high-fat-and-protein commercial kibble should be in the dish immediately following the hunt, precisely when your bird dog’s body becomes primed to maximize the efficiency of those calories.
Well-timed food delivery will keep them warm while they recover and optimize the biochemical conversion of that energy in preparation for the next outing.
Protect your water
While it’s true that dogs don’t sweat (much), they’re still susceptible to rapid fluid loss through the respiratory tract.
In cold conditions, my dogs rarely hound me for a drink from the water bottle in the field and at least partially satisfy their urge for refreshment through nibbles of snow. Nonetheless, fresh and abundant water remains critical for muscle metabolism and recovery following the hunt.
When the weather turns south, focus on keeping your stash in liquid form. I trade in my freezing-prone hydration bladders and plastic tubing for a collection of pocket-friendly bottles that can be tucked relatively close to the warmth of my body.
On a particularly frigid multi-day October outing, we had to rely on a couple of expensive rotomolded coolers to keep the dogs’ weekly water supply from turning into a collection of useless 40-pound ice blocks.
Share the Pickup Cab
I’m thick-skinned enough to handle being labeled an elitist for my insistence on keeping dogs out of my truck. Perhaps the years of spending each working day covered in pet hair and fluids have potentiated my desire to maintain a small shelter free from the influence of other mammals.
In a pinch – particularly when my dogs get in a compromised situation – a blanketed sauna in the floorboard will not only win me adoration but may mitigate the risk of dangerous hypothermia.
When my youngest and smallest dog brought back the last of a limit of Canada geese from a partially frozen pond last season, we made a heated nest atop my hunting jacket in a direct line of the heater vent. There was no time to suit her up in a vest; we had to act quickly or forego an opportunity for a freezer full of goose pastrami.
I tolerated the hair and wafting aroma of wet dog for the peace of mind of knowing I could monitor her recovery following a frigid ice bath instead of worrying about her becoming hypothermic back in her kennel in the truck bed.
Just Get Out There
Allow a level head and sound judgment to guide you in these compromising circumstances. Keeping dogs safe in cold weather doesn’t require fancy gear or advanced degrees, simply an awareness of the risks, a little extra planning and a reasonable means of retreat. Harsh conditions can test your grit and your dogs’ drive, but the payoff for those that persevere comes in the form of some of the season’s best hunting.