Tips for waterfowling with your retriever during the late season. As avid waterfowl hunters, we’re surrounded with an onslaught of information on how to keep safe and warm in the nastiest, late-season conditions. But what about our number one hunting companion: our retrievers? What special considerations must be made for them?
By Sammy Bruce To understand the concerns faced when hunting with retrievers in the harshest of weather, we need to first learn about the differences between dog and man, and then face off against the challenges presented by icy waters.
For starters, consider the anatomy of retriever breeds. These dogs, bred for a life in and out of water, have thick, tough coats on top, but relatively little hair on their undersides. The purpose of this is simple: offer protection from above, while transferring heat from below. Retrievers use their bare undersides to cool off in warm conditions; this is the reason your lab often lays down in the mud on a warm fall day. But this same anatomy allows massive amounts of heat to transfer out of the body at times it’s needed most. For that reason, it’s important to keep your dog up out of the water late in the season. By all means offer your dog a platform to hunt from, and increase the insulating value of the floor with a rubber mat or thick, outdoor carpeting that drains easily.
Dog vests also do a great job at keeping your animal’s core temperature elevated. Never hunt your dog without one once the temperatures dip into the freezing range. Stick to heavy, thick neoprene coats; their insulting value holds up even when wet. Research and purchase a vest the same way you would your own waders – the thicker, the better. Be sure to trim your dog’s vest to a custom fit, scrutinizing the armpit areas the most.
As temperatures continue to plummet through the late season, carry two vests into the field and change them out during a lunch break. Plano’s gasket lined 171960 Marine Trunk offers a water-resistant seal to ensure both you and your dog have a dry change of clothes in the boat at all times.
When possible, keep your dog dry, and offer him additional cover with an extra hunting jacket or, better yet, a dog blind. Many blinds, like the Rig ‘Em Right Bully Blind, can be placed on top of a dog stand–even when hunting in the water–to keep your dog fully out of the elements. They also offer the added bonus of complete concealment.
It’s important to feed your retriever a high-grade food at all times, but especially when weather demands the most from his metabolism. Dogs utilize protein and fat rather than carbohydrates to fill their energy needs, so rely on a food high in these values and short in grain fillers like corn and wheat. Be sure to keep extra food on hand throughout a cold day, and feed smaller amounts more often.
Finally, take precautions to ensure the unthinkable doesn’t happen. Never allow a dog to roam free in a boat when under power. A hunting companion of mine nearly lost his best buddy when the dog slipped from an icy bow and was struck by the boat.
Scout carefully to find spots where your dog can get up and out of the water whenever possible; choose island hunts rather than flooded marshlands. And always consider the dangers of hunting in and around ice. Dogs can easily cut their legs and dewclaws from even the slightest skim-ice conditions. Always carry a canine first aid kit and other hunting gear. Store-bought versions are OK, but I simply made one that includes the true necessities: EMT gel to stop bleeding, lots of gauze, medical tape and duct tape for added protection and strength. These items are easily packed in Plano’s waterproof, brute-strength 145000 polycarbonate box, which fits neatly inside my boat’s toolbox.
Hunting with retrievers is truly one of the most enjoyable and productive aspects of waterfowling. Continue to carry your buddy afield as the season winds down, but be sure to do so with caution. He’ll thank you in the end–usually with a lick on the face.
Do you have a tip for hunting with a dog? Share it in the comment section.