January 26, 2022
The history of Labrador retrievers is one that covers quite a few centuries now, and leads us back to Newfoundland. This Canadian island is not exactly known for tropical conditions, nor will you find it on a cruise itinerary where folks are looking to test drive their new Hawaiian shirts and soak up some much-needed Vitamin D from the big nuclear generator in the sky.
It is the official birthplace of our most popular duck dog, and did set some of our modern retrievers up to handle cold weather fairly well. But this tolerance for extreme conditions is highly variable, just like personality, rock-solid steadiness, or the ability to mark three downed birds and take perfect lines to each.
Even though we intuitively know this about our waterfowl dogs (not just Labs, either), we also tend to oversell their toughness. It’s a reflection on us, and our egos, I suppose. But it’s easy to believe that our dogs can handle 33-degree water, and long bouts of sitting in a duck boat with a blistering north wind coming of the lake.
Some can, some can’t.
Dogs run hot. According to Pet MD, the average body temperature of a dog will fall into the 101- to 102.5-degree range. Anything below the bottom end of that range is considered hypothermia, but it’s really a matter of how long that lower temperature is sustained.
What does this mean to the duck hunter? We should keep an eye out for signs of it, like uncontrollable shivering or listlessness. These are pretty obvious if we are open to them, but can get our dogs into trouble if we willingly ignore them to prove how tough they are, or take advantage of the last hunts of the season.
There is also the reality of conditioning in two different forms. Body conditioning matters to cold tolerance, and if your duck dog is built like the average English pointer, pushing it in questionable cold is a bad idea. If your dog has real muscle and isn’t rail thin, then it should be able to handle the cold better. Simple stuff, but true.
The other conditioning involves being in the cold, a lot. This goes for air temperature, and more importantly, water. While you should always use a neoprene vest for your duck dog (some hunters use two if they can get the fit right), a dog that retrieves and trains in the water all year round is going to be better at handling icy conditions.
It’s the extremes, the real extremes, that get our dogs in trouble. Just like the unseasonably warm pheasant opener in South Dakota that claims a handful of upland dogs every decade or so, Mother Nature occasionally colors way outside the lines when it comes to cold. In October of 2020, I was sitting on a treestand in northern Wisconsin watching snow blanket the woods. At my home in Minnesota, the same weather pattern locked up our small water and left us in conditions that looked—and felt—like December.
The duck hunting during that early, extreme cold front, was predictably incredible. It was also a serious deviation from our typical October hunts, and had the dogs busting through sheet ice to make retrieves. For dogs conditioned to cold water, it was a gift. For dogs that weren’t ready for it, that freak weather event was probably more dangerous than most would guess.
This happens up and down the flyway through the season, and it’s the times when we often get blinded by the prospect of great hunting that we ignore the reality of nasty, potentially dangerous, conditions. Even the toughest Chessie out there is only going to be able to handle what its body and killer mentality can handle. That will be a lot, no doubt, but it’s not an infinite reserve.
Arctic-adjacent weather can bring on the flights of mallards, but also invites real danger to our retrievers if we aren’t careful. It’s up to us, as owners, to read each situation, tamp down our egos (or desire for just one more greenhead or honker), and keep our dogs safe when the air and water temperatures drops like a rock.