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How to Keep Your Retriever Safe During Duck Season

While they're out working for us, it's our job to keep ‘em safe. Here's how.

How to Keep Your Retriever Safe During Duck Season

If duck hunting were easy, then more people would do it. The same holds true for retrievers. Keep ‘em safe; they’re more than happy to return the favor. (Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak)

Retrievers don’t stop hunting when they’re tired; they stop when they’re done. Labs, Chessies, and every other retrieving breed that hits the water know how to do their job. They give it everything they have; the rest is up to us to ensure we're keeping them safe from any number of dangers in the field.

Pre-Season Preparations

Pre-season conditioning should start with a general check up with your vet. Also, compare your dog’s profile to the Body Condition Score (BCS). The BCS shows proper weight through a visual 9-point evaluation of fat in a few areas of the dog’s body. 1 is a seriously underweight dog, 9 is a seriously overweight dog, and 4-5 is ideal. Every number over 5 means your dog is 10 percent overweight. Every number under 4 means your dog is 10 percent underweight.

If you don’t have a BCS you can also gauge your dog’s weight by looking at his ribs, waist, and hips.

Ribs: Hold your fingers flat against your dog’s rib cage. If you need to press your fingertips to feel the ribs, he’s overweight. If you can see his ribs, he might be underweight. Remember that it’s ok to see ribs on some dogs for that’s just how they’re built. An English pointer is a perfect example of a healthy dog with ribs that are visible.

Waist: You should see a tuck where the chest ends and the hips begin. If there is a straight line from the bottom of the chest, then your dog is probably overweight.

Hips: Visible hip bones mean your dog is too thin while saddlebag bulges indicate too much weight.

If your dog has been sedentary in the off-season, start with slow, short workouts and then start to increase time and intensity. Begin with short walks and simple drills to condition their muscles, strengthen their cardiovascular system, and increase their V02 max. Dogs respond to physical work faster than people, but still, take your time. You’ll avoid injuries if you allow their bodies to adjust to the increased activity. Regular training is the best way to keep your retriever fit all year long. If you are ramping up, then allow 8 weeks of regular, progressive work before opening day.

dog trainer with black labrador retriever in grass running drills
Simple summertime drills will help your retriever get into shape before duck season. (Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak)

Drink Up

Working dogs need to drink a lot of water. According to Dr. Jill Cline, the director of Eukanuba’s Pet Health and Nutrition Center, “A dog’s body is comprised of about 70 percent water. Maintaining proper hydration ensures good health, and it’s especially important in hot, humid conditions. Water is so critical to a dog’s body functions that a 2005 summary of working dogs stated it best; while hunting and working, dogs can recover from the loss of most of their fat and half of their muscle, a loss of more than 10 percent of a dog’s body water stores can result in death.”  

But how much water is enough? “Daily water loss for a 44-pound dog can range from half a gallon to a gallon-and-a-half,” Cline said. “Your gun dog should drink at least that much, but preferably more. There is a way to determine daily water intake through food, too. Multiply the number of cups of dry food offered daily by 3 and you’ll have a solid number. 3 cups of food per day times 3 is 9 cups of water. So, your dog needs to drink a minimum of 72 ounces of water per day.” 




Keep It Clean

Sometimes it’s not easy to find clean water when we’re hunting. If you’re in doubt, pack in plenty of water, and don’t allow your dogs to drink from these natural water sources.

Water in fields that is tainted from chemicals. If you’re field hunting, ask the farmers what kind of fertilizers or pesticides they sprayed and when. If a lot of chemicals were used, then you’ll keep dogs healthy by pouring them a bowl instead of letting them drink from the standing water in a field. 

Mud puddles often attract overheated dogs to cool off which is fine, but that puddle’s standing water can contain bacteria and protozoa, and a drink can cause Giardia. A dog sick with Giardia will have diarrhea, a lack of energy, and can lose weight. A second sickness from a mud puddle can be leptospirosis, which also can come from slow moving or stagnant water. Symptoms can include fever, an upset stomach and lethargy.  If you’re concerned that your dog is infected, then get him to your vet. Sick dogs aren’t focused on fetching ducks.  

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Cyanobacteria can be toxic if not lethal. It’s a colorful algae that grows in hot, stagnant water. It’s blue or green in color and contains high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. Dogs can ingest the bacteria by drinking tainted water or even from their fur while self-cleaning. Common symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, disorientation, seizures, and collapse. Kidney failure can occur, too. The blooms are vibrant and easy to spot, so while you’re scouting your early season hunting spots make sure they are full of birds and not bacteria. 

Fit is it. Retrievers love to eat, but lot of dog injuries can come from dogs that are overweight. Dogs carrying extra weight have to work harder than those that are fit. All body systems from the muscular to the skeletal to the cardiovascular and the respiratory systems are maxed out. Joints, tendons, and ligaments are more easily strained or torn by dogs that are overweight. Preseason conditioning is a great workaround to help them shed unnecessary pounds.  

Hidden Dangers

Watch your water levels. When precipitation has been light, water levels are unusually low. Low water in your hunting areas may expose previously submerged hazards, so keep your dog safe by avoiding some of the following.

Strainers are trees, roots, and lost fencing or guard rails that washed into the river. They have enough space to allow water to run through, but not enough to allow people or dogs to pass. Dogs on a retrieve can get caught in a current which then pins them to the strainer. If the river you’re hunting is low, check to see if there are any strainers that were not an issue when the water was higher. 

Old metal from farm machinery, vehicles, metal posts, or barbed wire may become more dangerous during low water years. While you’re scouting for ducks look for any sharp metal that can cut your dog or give him a puncture wound.

Thick mud or exposed rocks can become exposed. Thick mud is tough on a retriever’s joints, just as rocks are hard on pads. A post-hunt tailgate check should focus on pads and joints when water levels are low. Toughen up pads before the season with regular work as well as applications of one of the pad conditioners available at your gun dog supply store.

Gun Safety

Part of keeping your retriever safe on a duck hunt involves the behaviors and actions of the shooters in your hunting party. Before loading the guns, have a quick safety briefing to outline the expectations about the how/where/when the group will handle their dogs. Assign a dedicated place for the dog(s) to stay inside the blind and where the dog(s) will enter and exit from. Every hunter should have a firm grip on their gun at all times or completely unload before they safely set it down to step outside of the blind. Lastly, make it an absolute rule that anytime a dog is working outside of the blind there will be no shotguns pointing down range.

yellow Labrador retriever with duck hunter in the flooded timber mossy oak camouflage
With the proper gear, planning, and expectations, you'll be sure to keep your duck dog safe all season long. (Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak)

Cold Considerations

Every duck hunter knows that as the season progresses and the cold sets in, the hunting activity often heats up. Snow, icy water, and frosty morning boat rides start to coincide with peak duck migration, often leading to some of our most memorable hunts of the season. We’ve done our job so far, and it’s important now more than ever that we continue to keep our retrievers safe.

On late season hunts, it best to keep your dog up and out of the water to avoid cold weather complications. Offer them a warm pad or blanket to sit on inside of the blind or boat between retrieves and bring a towel to dry them off. A portable propane heater is a great option to keep yourself and your dog comfortable and out in the field longer. A neoprene dog vest becomes a major advantage during the late season, not only to protect your dog from brush and briars, but the extra layer provides additional flotation and keeps them warmer by reducing the loss of body heat.

Although cold stress can be mitigated with proper equipment and planning, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the warning signs of cold stress in your retriever. It can start with mild symptoms such as weakness, lethargy, shivering, or breathing issues. If unchecked and your dog’s condition worsens, things can quickly progress toward hypothermia and an emergency situation. Use a bit of common sense and sound judgement when keeping your dog safe while duck hunting, and don’t be afraid to call it quits before it’s too late.

With so much time and energy invested in your retriever to perform for you when it’s their time to shine, you owe it to them to take the proper precautions to safeguard them throughout the season, from opening day until the last day of the late season. Setting out with the right set of expectations, gear, and hazard awareness, you’ll have no problem keeping your retriever safe and enjoying your time afield, making memories that will last a lifetime.

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