Caring for your hunting dog's feet

The ring-necked pheasant flushed from the “dirty corn” just inches from the nose of my 5-year-old black Lab. Buddy had been working the bird through the weed-infested, waist-high cornfield for what seemed like forever. 

The mini-drama near Wessington Spring, S.D., was worth the wait: The flush was perfect, as if it was choreographed for outdoor television. I waited for the bird to catch air before I slapped the trigger. Winged, the bird landed on a nearby fence line, with Buddy in hot pursuit. Ten yards away, and with Buddy on a dead run, my dog tumbled to the ground, like he had slipped on a patch of ice. 

He immediately bounced up and retrieved the bird to hand, like he had been taught. One problem: Buddy was limping badly. Something was wrong with his front left leg. Upon inspection, Buddy’s pad had been shaved off, lengthwise, like it had been put through a meat slicer. After still more inspection, it was obvious his pad had caught the sharp edge of an exposed rock. It was a strange injury (I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since), which ended his day of hunting on the spot. 

As the bird-hunting seasons begin in earnest, dog owners need to be prepared for any and all foot problems that may rise in the field. They happen. Cut pads, cracked nails, embedded foreign objects – all can seriously cut into your hunting time if you’re not prepared to diagnosis and treat Fido’s ailment. 

My friend, Wade Herbranson, from Mountain Iron near Virginia, has owned more dogs than most. A former sled dog guide in the Boundary Waters, he has owned as many as 60 sled dogs, which doesn’t include his hunting dogs. For his part, Herbranson says dog owners should condition their pups to foot touch as soon as possible. 

“It’s wise to manipulate the feet and nails when the dog is a pup so that when they do tear a nail or have a similar injury, they will allow you to touch and treat the injury without becoming aggressive,” Herbranson said. “You want them to get used to that sort of handling early on.” 

Also, dog owners, he said, should condition their dog’s pads during the off-season. That includes plenty of upland training and land retrieves. 

“If your dog sits in the house every day of the year, and you pull them out to hunt pheasants in the prairies, your dog will develop sore pads, because they’re not used to running, particularly in that terrain,” Herbranson said. “Getting your dog out and working in a variety of conditions ahead of the season will toughen up the pads and reduce soreness.” 

For sore pads, Herbranson said he treats his dogs with Bag Balm, which, he said, is actually used for cow udders and can be found in the farming section at Fleet Farm. Apply the ointment and put a lightweight bootie over the foot. 

“You can remove the bootie after 15 minutes or so,” he said. “The idea is to let the Bag Balm soak into the pad. It really helps.” 

For cut pads, Herbranson said he cleans the wound thoroughly and applies BluKote, an antibacterial medicine. Let it dry thoroughly. 

“BluKote can be applied to any wounds,” he said. “I like the spray kind, but there’s also a liquid type. It also has an additive that reduces the dog’s desire to lick the impacted area.”

Cut pads can be tricky, depending on the severity. If one is severely cut, you may have to see a vet. That also means you may have to put your dog on the shelf for a period of time. 

“Use common sense,” Herbranson said. “Or, better yet, follow your vet’s advice.” 

In past years, I’ve used super glue on cut and/or cracked pads (as well as cracked nails). Here again, clean the cut/crack and apply the glue. Cover with a bootie until it’s dry. That treatment has worked well for me many times. 

Herbranson said nail maintenance is vitally important. Trim them regularly, as often as every two weeks. 

“Long nails can get snagged when hunting and that can be very painful for a dog,” Herbranson said. “Start doing nail trims as a pup so they can get used to that, too.” 

During breaks or after a hunt, Wade said he thoroughly inspects his dog’s feet and pads for any stickers or other foreign objects. The smallest unfound sliver, he said, can cause an infection very quickly. Bring a first-aid kit to the field, including a tweezers.  

“Check thoroughly between the toes,” he said. “Sometimes slivers and other objects can get embedded and can be hard to find.” 

A dog’s pads, particularly with older dogs, can crack or develop cuts. Ask your vet for a good pad moisturizer and use as directed. 

Pay close attention in winter. Bitter cold can cause pads to chap and/or crack. In addition, rock salt and chemical ice melt can cause sores and blisters, which can get infected very easily. Not all dog pads are created equally. Some are more sensitive than others. For cold-sensitive dogs, booties might be the ticket. Keep in mind, however, that booties reduce traction (in my experience) and dogs generally don’t like wearing them, at least initially. 

As for Buddy, I cleaned up his wound, applied some antibacterial cream and wrapped it loosely in gauze. 

After two days of rest, Buddy was much better and was ready to hunt. This time, however, with a lightweight canvas-like bootie on his left foot. He didn’t like wearing it, though he quickly forgot about it after he scented his first pheasant.  

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