Heat Stress

By Mike Stewart, Wildrose International

Off-season training and early season hunting in hot weather can prove challenging for gingerany sporting dog enthusiast. Heat stroke is dangerous and potentially deadly. Pre-season training during summer months is necessary as dogs need field training to maintain skills important for the coming hunting seasons and exercise to get into physical shape. Hot, humid weather and a dog exerting maximum energy to run, jump, and hunt cover make a dangerous combination at the worst, difficult at the least. Extreme panting is not conducive to exceptional delivery to hand of bumpers or birds. Panting to cool the body limits the dog’s scenting abilities. Okay, we resort to water work. In the South, the water’s temperature is quite warm from the direct sunlight. The thermal line for cooler water may be several feet deep and offers the swimming retriever limited relief for body temperature reduction, but wet dogs do cool faster due to evaporation.
Keep in mind how a dog displaces heat without the advantage humans have of sweating:
90% cooling achieved through the mouth (panting).
5% through the bottom of their feet (pads displacing heat).
5% evaporation, if wet.

Now, consider what we require our dog to do in training: run hard in a fur coat designed for warmth and repelling water. Dark colors absorb heat. The dog’s exertion builds body temperature at a faster rate than it can be expelled since dogs can’t sweat. Worse, we require the dog to pick up a bumper or bird to be carried in the mouth which is their main capacity for cooling.

 Hot Weather Training

  • Don’t use plastic bumpers for land work. Select bumpers small in size to reduce weight, thereby the effort necessary to carry the bumper. The small size allows for more air flow. Canvas or fire-hose bumpers are absorbent and do not become slick with saliva.
  • Warm up the dog’s muscles before the training session with a short, slow walk in a shaded area.
  • Keep the dog in shaded areas as much as possible while working on sunny days.
  • Never leave a dog unattended in a vehicle with the windows up, even with the engine at idle.Vehicles can stop running on their own and it only takes a matter of minutes for a dog to overheat in a closed vehicle on a hot day.
  • Keep retrieves short in distance and allow for “breathers” between repetitions. Summer is not the time of year for lining extensions.
  • Involve water often by staggering exercises between land retrieves with “getting wet” activities.

Evaporation and lowering the dog’s body temperature with exposure to water are fair heat-management tools.


Photo by Katie Behnke

Pad Cooling: Keep the dog’s feet cool when possible.

  • Train early in the morning when the surface of the ground has not been baked to sweltering temperatures. The morning’s cooler earth still wet from dew is an advantage.
  • Avoid running or walking the dog over open, sun-exposed, dry ground. Stay with woodlands, shallow water and wet grasses.Also avoid the dog’s exposure to hot asphalt, concrete, sandy soil or gravel roadways.
  • Retrieves that require bounding in shallow water provide a welcomed option.

Evaporation:  Early morning water work is ideal training in hot weather conditions.

  • Early hours help avoid the sun’s heating effects as the day wears on.
  • Provide plenty of cool water before, during, and after training sessions. Use a squirt hydrate dogbottle, K9 cooler (see wildrosetrading company.com) or a no-spill water bowl to offer a drink between each retrieve. This tip is completely applicable to field hunts early season. Hydrate!!!

Other tips to keep in mind:

  • Do not feed your dog before the training sessions. This applies to feeding before hunting as well. The dog’s digestive system requires fluids and the digestive process increases body temperature.
  • Consider the physical condition of your dog. An overweight dog will overheat fast. Feeding a kibble of high levels of protein/fats and too much of it increases body heat. Control fat intake by changing the amount of food being consumed rather than changing the type of feed during the hotter months. Float the food with a small amount of water at the time of feeding. Most dogs do not drink enough fluids.  This practice should be continued throughout hunting season.
  • Don’t put away a hot dog. Just like with horses, after a high-exertion session, “walk ’em out.” Allow a cooling period and frequent drinks of water.
  • Dogs that enjoy the comforts of a parlor life… the air-conditioned home, can face a difficult transition to extreme outdoor temperatures. Be careful of shocking your dog with abrupt changes in temperatures. Pre-season, acclimate your gundog to the weather conditions that will be expected on early season hunts especially dove and pheasant hunts.



Know the signs of heat stress and heat exhaustion. At the first indication, stop, cool the dog down and monitor the dog’s condition carefully. Shock can come on quickly.

  • Glazed eyes
  • Staggered walk
  • Inattention and lack of comprehension
  • Rapid rasping/panting
  • Tongue hanging out and turned up like a cup on the end

heat stress signs

A dog’s body temperature will continue to rise quickly until measures are taken.  Do not immediately put the dog in a hot crate in a vehicle for rest or transportation. A cooldown is imperative. Do not apply ice water to cool down. Submerge the dog in water if possible, a creek, pond or even a small indention in the ground filled with available water. Otherwise, soak the dog in cool, wet towels. Keep water in the mouth even if they refuse to drink which is normally the case. During summer training and early season field hunts, have large amounts of water available in reserve as well as for immediate offerings afield.

Once dogs experience a heat stroke, they are very prone to have a reoccurring experience, more so than a dog who has never experienced heat exhaustion.  As with most problems in life, the key is prevention.

Any temperature above the mid-70s, a dog handler should remain alert depending on activities; nineties in the dove field, a high-humidity day training in a dry field, mountain biking on a hot afternoon, 80s in the field on opening day in the Dakotas, a warm day on the quail truck in South Texas.

Awareness and prevention are the handler’s responsibility because most enthusiastic sporting dogs just don’t know when to quit.  Heat exhaustion resulting in a heat stroke is a huge killer of active dogs. Be prepared!

Mike Stewart

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1 Response to Heat Stress

  1. llauck says:

    Well-written, Mike. Many articles simply focus on what to do when your dog is experiencing heat exhaustion as opposed to knowing the early signs and how to prevent it. I’m glad you took the time to focus on prevention.

    Larry Lauck

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