by Ed Wall
The summer evening was like the dozen or so that had preceded it – hot and sticky without even a slight breeze to cool my Brittany spaniel and me. Because of the conditions, I intended for the run to be a short one – a walk down a new logging road and a brief swim for the dog in the nearby creek.
As we made our way back toward home in the gathering darkness, the little bird dog looped to the sides and then sprinted ahead to retrieve the well-worn tennis ball I tossed down the road. It was fun for the dog and a good foundation for retrieving lessons that would begin shortly before quail season.
As my thoughts crept ahead to November mornings, the dog raced up the road, intent on catching up with the ball she could barely see in the fading light. Suddenly she lurched, gave a sharp yelp and came running back, whimpering quietly. As I tried to calm the shaking animal, I felt a lump the size of an acorn bulging under the skin between her front legs.
The Brittany had struck one of the pieces of tree limbs and logging splinters that protruded from the dirt road in places where they had worked their way to the surface. It didn’t look too bad but it was Saturday night and, if left until Monday, the wound would almost certainly fester and create real problems.
A couple of phone calls and a short ride later, the dog and I were in the examining room at a veterinary hospital. As it turned out, the mishap was a lot more serious than I thought. A nine inch-long stick with the diameter of a pencil had penetrated the Brittany’s chest, rupturing one lung and barely missing her heart. Emergency surgery and massive doses of antibiotics saved the dog, at least temporarily. Two days later, I buried her in the shade of a tree in our backyard.
The point is not whether the dog lived or died in this particular case, but that anyone who spends time afield with gun dogs of any breed should expect the most unlikely accidents at the most inopportune times. Gun dogs, like people who enjoy the outdoors, are subject to physical injury. And, like children, they are totally dependent upon those of us who care for them.
The situation described illustrates Rule One in being prepared to cope with hunting dog emergencies – know where the closest veterinarian is and how to contact him in a hurry. There are actually very few hunting dog injuries that require elaborate, long-term treatment by the dog’s owner. Most serious conditions are best handled by an experienced professional. And, the best help you can give him in treating your dog is to get the animal to him as quickly and with as much information about the accident or illness as possible.
A good example is snakebite. While not as common as some herpetophobics would have you believe, it does happen. And, when it does, one of two things usually occurs. Either the dog dies very quickly, as in the case of a small dog bitten in a vital spot by a large venomous species like a rattlesnake. Or, and this is much more common, the dog begins to show symptoms such as swelling of the affected body part, pain and perhaps shock.
In the latter situation, the best course of action is to transport the animal to the closest veterinarian as quickly as possible. The vet will be able to diagnose the injury and begin treatment with antivenin or other medications if needed. If a positive identification of the snake is not possible, kill it and bring it with you.
Rule Two in dealing with gun dog emergencies in the field is to be prepared to do what you can to treat minor injuries or to control major ones until professional help can be secured. There is no way you can anticipate every possible mishap, but you can be ready for the most common ones. One thing you should be able to do is restrain the animal. In its pain and fright, even the most docile dog can become violent while being helped.
Muzzling an injured dog is the quickest and easiest way to ensure a second injury doesn’t occur. A cotton bandage or a two foot-long length of soft rope can be used. Tie a loose knot in the middle, leaving a large loop. Slip the loop over the dog’s nose and tighten the knot over the bridge of the nose. Bring the ends down under the chin, tie a knot there, then bring the ends around the back of the ears and tie again. Attached this way, the muzzle won’t interfere with the dog’s breathing and will keep everyone safe.
A dog that is injured may need to be transported. Broken bones can make lifting him difficult, especially if it’s a large breed like a Labrador retriever. In that case a small blanket, lifted by four corners, can be helpful. It can also be used as a full-body restraint when needed or to keep a dog that is going into shock warm. Half an army-style blanket is about the right size. I keep one in my truck at all times.
The most common symptom of gun dog injuries in the field is bleeding to some degree. Minor nicks and scratches are part of hunting and are quite common with some dogs. I’ve had bird dogs whose ears looked like they had been through a shredder after a day of woodcock hunting. They looked terrible but required no treatment other than keeping the afflicted places clean until they healed on their own.
In cases where the bleeding was a little more severe, a dousing of styptic powder and some direct pressure usually stemmed the flow. I have a friend (a former Navy medic) who carries a tube of Super Glue for “suturing” cuts that won’t close on their own. I just stick with the powdered alum and some gauze pads.
A couple of other items that can be worth their weight in gold in a critical situation are a blow-up plastic splint and a couple of chemical “cold packs.” The former can be used to stabilize a fractured leg while a dog is transported. The ones designed for humans’ wrists are a good size. The cold packs can be used to minimize swelling in any injury and to lower the temperature of a dog experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion (rapid, shallow breathing; staggering; rapid hearbeat).
The items needed to help you help your canine buddy can be carried in a small box. An army surplus ammo can is perfect. In addition to the things mentioned, a hunter might want to include a pair of tweezers, blunt scissors, antibiotic cream, latex gloves and athletic tape. The best medicine, though, is to realize that mishaps can happen anytime in the field and to be prepared to deal with them.