Traveling with hunting dogs is a lot like traveling with your wife. You can expect to take about triple the normal number of bathroom breaks along the way. My lovely wife (who happens to be an avid waterfowl hunter) just flashed me the “not appropriate” glance I get when my mouth gets the best of me. Despite the disapproving face I just received, my statement is true. Hunting dogs and hunting women are both high maintenance. Now I’m really getting “the look.”
The same could be said of marriage. One more wisecrack and I’ll be sleeping on the couch.
One of the major problems of traveling with hunting dogs is the issue of space — more precisely, space limitations. No matter what vehicle you own, space on a waterfowl hunt is at a premium. Dogs require a lot of room that could otherwise be dedicated to decoys, boats, guns, clothing, ammunition and even additional hunters. Years ago, when I first started traveling with my dogs, I learned quickly the importance of packing so frequently used items are readily accessible. I also learned that unless a piece of gear is absolutely necessary, it is best to leave it home.
Traveling with hunting dogs has forced me to leave behind surplus decoys, bulky blinds and extra firearms. Ironically, my hunting has become more productive and enjoyable without all of the extra stuff to haul around.
Each dog I travel with requires a basic list of gear. The essentials include a portable kennel, water and food dish, food container, water jug, neoprene vest, training collar/transmitter/battery charger, leash, dog treats, whistle, small plastic bags for picking up dog waste, first-aid kit and an old towel to dry the dog after water hunts. All of the essentials need to be quickly accessible.
Back in my tournament fishing days, I faced similar problems of having to haul extensive amounts of gear in a limited space. The solution I came up with then works equally well for traveling with my dogs.
The bed of a pickup truck covered with a fiberglass or aluminum topper has copious amounts of space, but accessing gear packed inside is often a problem. I solved that issue by building a wooden storage compartment with two large pullout drawers that can be accessed by simply dropping the tailgate and pulling on the drawer handle. I affectionately refer to this essential piece of gear organization as my “dog box,” but it serves a number of purposes.
My dog box is constructed from two ¾-inch-thick sheets of 4-by-6-foot plywood screwed to three 2-by-8-inch planks set on edge and equally spaced apart. Using ¾-inch pine boards, I built and added two drawers measuring 24 inches wide, 6 inches deep and 6 feet long.
I can store an amazing amount of stuff inside of the long drawers, including guns, waders, and of course, my essential dog gear. On top of the dog box, I position two plastic portable dog kennels with the doors facing the tailgate. The standard large size dog kennel is big enough to house most Labs, and yet small enough to fit on top of the dog box with head room to spare.
I secure the kennels in place with a couple short pieces of 2-by-4-inch lumber to ensure a sudden stop doesn’t send my dogs and kennels sliding to the front of the pickup bed.
FOOD AND WATER MANAGEMENT
When traveling with my dogs, I bring enough food and water for the complete trip. Obviously, you want to continue using your preferred dog food brand while on the road to avoid digestive issues. But most hunters don’t realize changing water sources can also lead to the same digestion problems associated with changing dog foods. I use plastic water containers similar to a gasoline jerry can. Five gallons of fresh water will last the average dog about a week.
Dry storage bags made of polyvinyl — the kind intended for canoe trips — work exceptionally well for storing dry dog food. As the food is consumed, the bag can be rolled up smaller and smaller, helping to conserve space as the trip unfolds.
When dogs hunt hard, they require more food energy than normal to support the increased muscle use and stress of hunting in cold weather. My dogs normally eat 1.5 cups of food twice a day. On hunting trips, I raise the ration to 2 cups twice a day.
Feeding twice a day helps to keep energy levels balanced. At each feeding, the dogs are given water. The dogs receive at least two additional water and bathroom breaks per day while hunting and traveling to the hunt.
SNACKS FOR EXTRA ENERGY
Most dog lovers feed various types of dog treats to their animals. Unfortunately, the typical treat has virtually no nutritional value and serves little purpose other than to fill space in the dog’s stomach.
Thankfully, some dog treats do provide valuable nutritional and oral hygiene benefits. My favorite is a tartar-control biscuit. In addition to helping reduce tarter and improving the dog’s breath, these snacks offer 20 percent crude protein that stimulates a bonus energy boost.
Mixing canned dog food with dry food as a treat or energy boost is common. While dogs love it, many canned foods actually provide far less digestible protein and fat levels than dry foods. The best advice is to stick with a premium dry food and offer supplemental dog treats containing a high protein level.
A growing number of motels don’t allow dogs. If possible, I prefer my dogs to join me in my motel room at night. I want the dogs to warm up, relax and enjoy extra attention.
If I can’t bring the dogs inside at night, I compensate by first making sure the dog is completely towel dry. Next, I add a sheet of ¾-inch plywood cut to fit inside the bottom of the kennel to provide an air barrier between the dog and the bottom of the crate. Then, I line the crate with a healthy amount of dry straw.
I put the dog inside of the kennel and lock the truck topper for security. In these conditions, a hunting dog housed in a plastic kennel will be comfortable in weather down to 15 to 20 degrees. In colder weather, I add an insulated kennel jacket over the outside of the kennel to provide more insulation and protection from the cold.
Sooner or later, your hunting dog is going to need medical attention in the field. Fortunately, most of the problems a dog is likely to encounter can be treated without the immediate need for a vet.
My first-aid kit contains a bottle of saline solution, which I use to flush out the dog’s eyes periodically. I also carry a bottle of hydrogen peroxide to clean small cuts and abrasions. Ear infections are the third-most-common field treatment among Labs and other water dogs. A number of manufacturers produce products designed to dry up moisture in the dog’s ear and ease minor infection discomforts.
Minor cuts can be treated by cleaning the wound with hydrogen peroxide, and then by adding antibiotic ointment and taping a gauze bandage into position. Cuts to the pads of a dog’s feet or broken toenails are not serious injuries, but these ailments often are painful and can prevent the dog from hunting.
Simple precautions and treatments will keep a dog healthy and hunting most of the time. If a more serious injury occurs, don’t hesitate to visit a vet immediately.
No matter where I hunt or travel with my dogs, they are always on leash when I’m coming or going to the field and during bathroom breaks. Popular hunting destinations are certain to be visited by other hunters and dogs. To ensure my dogs behave, I never let them out of their crates without first slipping an English style choke lead over their heads. Having my dog under control 100 percent of the time guarantees I won’t have to worry about issues such as fights or dogs bolting into traffic.
Mostly I’m concerned about my dog’s safety, but I also feel strongly that allowing a dog to run free among other unfamiliar dogs is just asking for trouble. Sooner or later, a dog is going to put its nose where it doesn’t belong, and hard feelings are sure to follow.
A portable field blind is one of the items I never leave behind when traveling with my hunting dogs. Most dog blinds are designed for field hunting, but I use mine for hunting small potholes and other shallow-water areas, too. Dog field blinds conceal the retriever and force the animal to stay under control and focused.
A dog that fidgets and moves around while birds are working can quickly ruin a hunt. Field blinds do a magnificent job of concealing movement from incoming birds. Because most blind designs only allow the dog to look out one direction, it is a simple matter to keep the dog focused on the spot incoming birds are most likely to land.
Like layout blinds, dog blinds have stubble straps that allow them to be thatched to match different hunting environments. It only takes a couple minutes to camouflage a dog blind.
TRAILERING THE DOGS
Dog trailers are another wonderful option for managing all the equipment a dog loving waterfowl hunter requires. Trailers work well for transporting hunting dogs and gear, but it is important to understand that when traveling on dusty roads, maintaining adequate ventilation can become an issue.
When I use a dog trailer, I prefer to stop and take breaks more often. I also provide additional access to fresh water. Bumpy roads can also cause motion sickness, so it helps to stop often and let the pups have plenty of exercise time out of the kennels.
If you plan to travel across the Canadian border with your hunting dogs, the customs agents might request a vet-signed copy of your dog’s shot records. You’ll need proof of rabies and other common inoculations to ensure a hassle-free crossing.
I can’t imagine hunting ducks and geese without my dogs, and I have every confidence the dogs feel the same way about me. Advance planning and organization are the real keys to making a waterfowl road trip enjoyable for both the hunters and retrievers.
In addition to being a fanatic waterfowl hunter, Mark Romanack is an expert angler. His television show, Fishing 411 with Mark Romanack, airs on The Sportsman Channel.