Cold Weather Duck Dogs: How to keep them safe
By Cole Sousa
Chunks of ice floated through and past the snow-covered decoys. I sat there on the riverbank, shivering, thinking to myself that I should have just stayed in bed and slept in a few more hours.
Libby, my black lab, was beside me. I crammed my cold hands into her vest to warm them. When at last they were extracted, steam rolled off my palms. This was to be our routine for the day, since my gloves were sitting somewhere at home. It was the only way to keep my hands warm in such frigid temperatures.
Waterfowling in wintery and cold conditions can result in good hunting. However, success comes at a price. Snow and ice are hard on gear and harder on hunters. As birds congregate in the few remaining patches of open water, hunters push themselves to great lengths in pursuit of them. Ice and deep water can be treacherous, and every year there are waterfowlers who end up suffering from hypothermia or, in extreme cases, drown.
With all the obvious dangers that come from duck hunting in ice and snow, it’s easy to forget our retrievers. Duck dogs are crucial tools for making simple retrieves or sniffing out cripples, and it is important to take the proper precautions to avoid endangering them in late-season conditions.
Be wary of ice — thick or thin
One of the harshest elements to encounter is ice, as it is notorious for causing injuries. A retriever with high drive may be able to work through the pain, but even tough dogs can sprain their knees and pull muscles in the later months of the season — especially on ice strong enough to support their weight.
Thin ice carries its own unique set of issues. Though it may break up easy, the thin shards are sharp and can cut through foot pads and skin. It’s also difficult to swim through. If your dog becomes fatigued, hypothermia can pose a real risk and, when combined with deep water, may result in a life-threatening situation.
One piece of gear that can aid in preventing hypothermia is a neoprene vest. Vests should
be relatively tight fitting to keep most water out; bonus points for a vest that provides
additional flotation for long-distance retrieves. A protective skid plate can also help by reducing the chance of the chest and vitals from being damaged by ice shards or other submerged debris. Areas such as beaver ponds and flooded timber are notorious for sharp objects below the water’s surface.
In any case, do your best to shoot birds over open water when it’s icy to keep retrieves easy. And read the signs as well — if a dog that typically charges after downed birds becomes reluctant, the smart choice might be to call it quits.
Keep your duck dog’s breed in mind
Some retrievers were bred to work in low temperatures; others, not so much. Your dog’s specific breed is an important factor to keep in mind when considering cold-weather hunting.
Common duck dogs bred for the water like Labrador retrievers and Chesapeakes, have oily undercoats that reduce the amount of water that comes in contact with their skin. Non-traditional retrievers, such as German shorthairs and springers, don’t possess the same undercoat. Thus, they’ll likely get colder faster.
If you’re concerned that temperatures may be too low for your canine companion, that’s okay. The right choice may be to leave ol’ Buck at home and instead get a bit of exercise picking up birds by hand when duck holes are frozen over. Or, if conditions are that extreme, maybe just stay home and get a few more hours of shut-eye.
It’s your responsibility to protect man’s best friend
In the end, our duck dogs will do just about anything for us, so take the extra time to examine your situation and make the best possible choice. A duck is not worth your life, nor is it worth the life of your retriever. If you do plan to hunt, take proper precautions to avoid endangering your companion, and use a vest to keep them as comfortable and safe as possible.