Keep Your Dog in the Game

    Many dog owners admit watching their dog work a field is one of their primary joys on a pheasant hunt. However, many take their dog’s physical health for granted. Learn how a little pre-planning and preventive care in the field can go a long way to keeping your dog in the game all fall long.


    — By Andrew Johnson

    When the first bird flushed, the familiar sound and rhythm of its wings caused my heart to skip a beat. I could tell it was an immature rooster that had not yet fully donned its rainbow of adult feathers, but I didn’t shoulder my gun.

    “Rooster!” I shouted more instructively than instinctively, as the bird rode the west wind toward my 13-year-old son, Gavin.

    He crumpled the bird with his first shot, and Gauge, our 2-year-old yellow Lab, made short work of the retrieve. Twenty steps later, two roosters broke to the left, and I notched my first double of the young season. Gauge retrieved one bird, while my 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, fulfilled her role as my backup bird dog and proudly held up the other.

    While I was fumbling with my smartphone’s camera to get a quick picture of the kids and their birds, a fourth rooster broke from the cover, flying straight away to the north. Gavin missed clean on the first shot, but pulled some feathers off the rooster’s backside with his follow-up shot, causing the bird to set its wings and sail 50 yards before awkwardly dropping into a swath of reed canary.

    We marked where the bird landed and pressed on through the tall, thick cover. It had been a wet year in this portion of South Dakota’s James River Valley, and the big bluestem and switchgrass on this particular 80-acre patch of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program ground had responded in kind. We were hunting during the state’s resident-only three-day pheasant season, when resident hunters get first crack at roosters on public lands a week before South Dakota’s traditional pheasant season opens.

    As we neared the downed bird’s location, Gauge’s pace quickened as his body faithfully followed his nose through the dense cover. The wounded bird soon jumped skyward but couldn’t maintain flight. It hit the ground running, and the chase was on. A minute later we had our fourth bird in hand.

    We finished our walk in clockwise fashion around the edge of the CREP ground, turning east and then south before pushing headfirst into the west wind along the backstretch toward our vehicle. The hunter in me wanted to take advantage of the last 45 minutes of daylight by giving another nearby CREP area a try, but the dad in me thought it best to end the hunt on a high note. So, after a few quick photos we cased our guns, loaded up the dog and pointed the car toward a nearby gas station with the best soft-serve ice cream this side of the Missouri River.

    The next morning I noticed Gauge had excess discharge in one eye — that yellowish brown eye-booger gunk — and a quick examination revealed a seed was trapped beneath the lower eyelid. A quick rinse with saline resolved the problem, and I felt pretty proud of myself.

    Two days later, both of my daughters asked what was wrong with one of Gauge’s paws.

    “His front paw is really red, and he keeps licking it,” noted Emma, my 11-year-old stepdaughter who doesn’t like hunting (yet), but loves her hunting dog.

    I was surprised to see the swollen red bulge between two of Gauge’s toes. I gently pressed on it, and a seed literally came shooting out along with some puss. I cleaned the wound, which had a conspicuous hole in it where the seed had entered (and exited), and then observed the dog and his wound closely for a few days until I was satisfied we were in the clear.

    Tailgate Exams

    While Gauge’s ailments were minor, they were also completely avoidable had I taken the necessary time to perform a proper tailgate exam instead of worrying about ice cream. It was a short, hour-long hunt, and in my haste to head for home I figured Gauge was no worse for the wear.

    Assuming the best and taking a dog’s health for granted is a mistake that’s all too common, said Dr. Joe Spoo, a veterinarian who is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. Spoo and his wife, Krista Hardy, who is also a veterinarian, own Best Care Pet Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D.

    “The most important thing you can do to keep your dog healthy and safe is a tailgate exam,” said Spoo, whose primary focus is hunting dogs. “Take the time at the end of each run, and definitely at the end of each day, to go over your dog from nose to tail, looking for any abnormality, injury or area of concern. It has to become habit that you look your dog over before it goes in the kennel, because if you don’t do it after the hunt, you’re not going to do it later.”

    Many people take time to snap a few photos at the end of the day, like the author did here after the hunt that opened the story. However, not enough hunters take time to thoroughly examine their dogs prior to heading for home. Photo by Andrew Johnson

    Although it’s called a tailgate exam, Spoo said the exam should start as you walk back to your vehicle.

    “Dog owners know their dogs, and something needs to be done if they don’t recognize their dog or how it’s acting,” he said. “Other than simply being tired, is the dog ok? Is this the same dog that got out of the truck in the morning, or is there more going on?”

    Once they’re at the vehicle, he thoroughly examines the dog’s nose, eyes and ears.

    “Basically, I’m going to look any place there’s an opening to see if something like a stem or stick got jammed in,” he said. “The next places I look are where dogs most often get cuts or where they can get into fences, so I check the armpits, chest and stomach.”

    If an injury is discovered, Spoo makes a levelheaded decision if it should be dealt with immediately or if it can wait till Monday at the vet’s office. However, this is when another all-too-common problem arises, as he said some hunters think a kennel is like a magic box that solves all their problems.

    “I think there are times when an owner puts a dog in its crate after a hunt knowing there’s a problem, and the owner just hopes it goes away on its own,” he said. “Address any issues right away, because they won’t magically disappear when you put your dog in the crate. Dealing with them in the moment can often mean the difference between days, weeks and months of recovery.”

    Dog Care in the Field

    Minor nicks and scratches are all part of a dog’s day of work in the field. However, if you run dogs long enough, you’re bound to encounter a few major problems ranging from cuts and bruises to penetrating, life-threatening injuries, said Spoo, who shared some in-the-field triage tips for basic injuries.

    “With cuts you have to understand if it’s superficial or if it went through the first layer of skin,” he said. “Was it just a little cut from barbed wire, or was it the fence post that got jammed in?”

    If it’s a minor cut, Spoo said dog owners should thoroughly clean the wound and use medical-grade tissue glue or, when warranted, a skin stapler to close it up.

    “For minor cuts, learning to properly use a stapler is the way to go, but we’re talking cuts that only take three to six staples at the most,” he said. “I’d say greater than 75 percent of those stapled cuts I don’t have to redo when they have me look at the dog a day or two later.”

    He also reminded hunters that deep cuts or punctures may not bleed that much, even if the wound is splayed open. It’s a misleading trait that can often cause dog owners to misunderstand the severity of an injury. For deeper, multi-layer cuts, Spoo said hunters should pull their dog from the field and immediately seek veterinary care.

    “The problems occur when an owner staples or closes something they shouldn’t have, where the wound was too big,” he said. “If the cut’s deep enough, it’s best to pull that dog out of the field, as then it’s probably time for anesthesia and a multi-layer closure.”

    Pheasant haunts with quality habitat that can wear through boot leather can turn dog paws into hamburger. For worn, cracked or split pads on a paw, Spoo recommends using a product like EMT Gel or spray, as long as it’s allowed to dry before the dog walks around.

    “Often, if we boot these dogs they are able to continue to hunt,” he said. “If it is a cut pad, depending on how deep, it can be a big problem and may require a couple of rounds of anesthesia to suture it back together — this is only for deep cuts to the pad.”

    When it comes to split or cracked nails, Spoo suggests hunters should manage them like they would with their own nails.

    “Try to trim the jagged portions to prevent further injury,” he said. “Be aware of the quick and avoid cutting it. If the cut or split goes all the way back to the nail bed/toe area, you should have it assessed by a veterinarian. Sometimes this is a simple fix with a quick removal of the outer shell. However, there are also cases where the nail will need to be cut all the way back to the nail bed, and that usually requires heavy sedation. I also have seen some toe fractures present as nail injuries, so it is important to be aware of the degree of lameness and difficulty your partner is having.”

    Dog vests were once unheard of, but more and more hunters are outfitting even thick-furred dogs such as Labs and springers with protective vests and skid plates. However, some vests seem to be counterproductive, as they can rub dogs raw in their armpits, chest and paunch — the very areas the vest was meant to protect.

    “Unfortunately, this is one of those trade-offs, and we often manage this irritation in exchange for prevention of an even worse injury,” he said. “Don’t slather the area with a triple antibiotic ointment, as this can cause even more issues. Just make sure the area stays clean and dry to prevent a secondary infection from taking hold.”

    A dog’s eyes take more of a beating than you think, said Spoo, who said it’s more than likely that a dog’s eyes receive tiny lacerations every time they take the field.

    “When we look for a cut in the eye, we put in a drop of fluorescent stain, rinse it out with saline and then examine it with a black light to see where there’s damage,” he said. “Any place where stain remains will glow under the light.

    “Early in my career I conducted my own little experiment with my own two dogs, where I would stain their eyes right after going through a field, and under the black light it looked like Freddie Kruger had got ahold of them,” he continued. “That told me there is more trauma to those eyes than we think, but in most dogs on most hunts it’s minimal enough where it doesn’t hold them back.”

    Spoo said if a dog appears to be squinting, the actual whites of the eyes are red and irritated, or the dog’s third eyelid is up, a trip to the vet is in order.

    For visible debris such as dirt, seeds, sticks or anything else that might lodge in a dog’s eye, Spoo said flushing it with saline is a quick, effective remedy, but he said there’s a right way — and a wrong way — to flush a dog’s eye.

    “You need to stay away from the cornea, or the surface of the eye,” he said. “Even saline won’t feel good to a dog if you quirt a stream of it directly on that cornea. Just think how it would feel in your own eye. But the pink, fleshy portion you can wash for days. You can even use a moistened cotton swab on rare occasions to clean that out. Always stay away from the surface of the eye, though, or you’ll do more damage or create a head-shy dog.”

    Think from the Dog’s Perspective

    One way to mitigate dangers to your dog is to simply avoid them, advised Spoo, who not only looks over a field for its hunting potential, but also for potential pitfalls it might present to his dogs.

    “A lot of guys look at it and say this is how we’re going to hunt it for birds without thinking what that means for their dogs,” he said. “Knowing what you’re turning your dog into, cover- and obstacle-wise, is important, but most hunters don’t think about it until it’s too late. They don’t see those hazards from the dog’s point of view.”

    And that’s the great irony of owning a gun dog, isn’t it? Many of us admit watching them work is one of the main reasons why we hunt in the first place, yet we often take them and their health for granted once we hit the field. In fact, we often pamper them nine months out of the year, but then hunting seasons arrive and we fail them by worrying more about guns, shells, snacks and everything else. With that in mind, putting ourselves in their paws from time to time and keeping their health a priority goes a long way to ensuring they’re able to spend even more days in the field with us each fall.

    About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Follow @OutdoorForumMag on Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Summer 2019 issue of Pheasants Forever Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.

    First-Aid Kits for Your Gun Dog

    In addition to a gun, shells, license, water and other pheasant hunting necessities, dog owners should always pack a first-aid kit whenever they head afield. “In my experience people typically fall into two categories,” Spoo said. “They either think they’re trauma surgeons and have a truck that looks like the back end of an ambulance that’s full of all kinds of crap they’ll never use, or they’re the hope-and-pray type that never takes a thing. My goal is to get people in between those two extremes.”

    With that in mind, Spoo recommends a simple first-aid kit that can easily be kept in a small Tupperware container under most truck seats or in most field bags. This is the same list he hands to dog owners at his clinic, Best Care Pet Hospital:

    • Digital thermometer

    • 4×4 gauze sponges

    • Surgical soap

    • 2-inch Vetrap, or another self-adhesive bandage like Coban

    • 1-inch tape

    • Triple antibiotic ointment

    • Cotton swabs

    • Staple gun

    • Tissue glue and EMT Gel

    • Needle-nose pliers

    • Hemostats

    • Clean white T-shirt

    • Saline eyewash

    • Ophthalmic ointment

    • 50% dextrose/sugar

    • Hydrogen Peroxide

    • Any prescribed medications

    In many cases, pheasant hunts are short enough ventures where packing a full-blown first-aid kit in your vest isn’t necessary. However, if you find yourself on a leg-stretcher of a hunt where you’ll be away from the truck for half the day, Spoo also recommends carrying along some dog care essentials in your vest. 

    “As far as what’s in my pack if I’m hunting grouse and pheasants in the Fort Pierre National Grassland, for example, I carry gauze squares, gauze wrap, Vetwrap, hemostats, scissors, saline and dextrose,” Spoo explained. “I also carry a Leatherman and a wire cutter in case of snares.” – AJ