Well, after a very cold spring, it's finally starting to heat up! From weekend warriors to serious dog trainers, it's time to make sure everyone is safe while training! After a long winter and a cold wet spring (at least in our neck of the woods), our dogs are not at peak condition. Training for protection sport has been difficult and herding has been just about impossible (my dog is not the type you can chase around in the mud after sheep...) to schedule. So how do we get them into shape for spring and summer trials or fall hunting? Gradually!
Many handlers want to give their dogs diet supplements to get them into tip top condition for competition. And many companies will be glad to take your money for said supplements! Ignore the temptation for an "easy fix" and spend less money and more time on conditioning. Please note I am not suggesting skimping on quality nutrition. We will address the nutritional needs of working and performance dogs in later entries ad nauseum (my favorite topic!). But in general, keeping a dog well hydrated and bringing them up gradually to a plateau of performance during trial season is going to be your best bet.
The main goal of today's entry is safety. Most handlers are excellent at being aware of the concerns of overheating their dogs. However, at the dock diving trial I was at last week, I saw a Chesapeake Bay retriever in a sedan with the windows only cracked about 2-3 inches on each and it was over 80 F. So a large part of hot weather safety is regulating the temperature of where the dog is when she's not on the training field. Agility or rally classes tend to be no more than an hour or so, but Schutzhund training can be a nearly all day affair with some clubs. The savvy handler will park his or her vehicle under shade and especially before a trial, shady spots are under almost as much competition as the action under the field. So how do you make your own shade if there is none? Basic 9 ft x 9 ft canopy tents are only about $50-60 from big box stores and most go up with a minimum of fuss for guaranteed all day shade (just watch the wind as they can blow away!). Sun shades are another inexpensive but valuable solution to go in the front and back windshields, especially for those who drive sedans (as I do to save gas money) and who can't open up the back door like in vans and SUVs. Some like battery operated crate fans, but I prefer the inexpensive fans that you can plug into the adapter and have a clip that can secure to the dashboard or window frame. Wire crates give more ventilation than plastic crates, though plastic crates with two doors provide both good ventilation and shade.
Some choose to leave the car engine on so the air conditioning can run. I have heard of at least one instance where the car stopped for some reason while the owner was away and a dog died from heat exhaustion in the car with no windows down. Many also lock their doors while the engine is on. If you do choose this method, it is likely wise to only do with the doors unlocked so other people can assist if there is an emergency (i.e.-your dog is almost comatose from heat exhaustion) and you are not in the vicinity. In other words, if you leave your car on, only do so at the trial or training field where you can have a clear view of your vehicle at all times, not while parking your car at the Cracker Barrel for two hours for the post trial dinner and socializing.
Now that we've talked about safety in the car and crate, what about the dog? Keep clean and fresh water available at all times during warm weather. When holding a trial, particularly when it is more than 5-10 minutes from amenities like a gas station or fast food, the club ideally should provide either water in some form, either from a hose or pump or have water to sell. In addition, someone from the club should call around to area vets to see who is open during the trial weekend so if there is an emergency (heat related or otherwise), the club can direct handlers from out of town where to take their dog. This information should ideally be located on the trial flyer or some other central location. Check on your dog frequently!
Once your dog is done working, walk them out for a 5-10 minute cool down so they are not panting quite so heavily before you offer water. This is particularly important in brachiocephalic breeds (bulldogs, Bostons, boxers, some pit bulls) and deep chested breeds prone to GDV or "bloat" (German shepherds, labs, Dobermans, Great Danes, etc). I am honestly not sure how scientific this is, but one way to tell how hard your dog is panting is to look at their tongue. If it is pink and flat with a rounded appearance at the tip, they are probably panting normally and may not particularly overheated.
Once they become bright red or purplish and have a more rolled over appearance at the edges with the tip of the tongue looking "sharper" or more like a scoop, they may be getting overheated and it's time for a break.
Having known several trainers and owners whose dogs have died of GDV (gastric dilation and volvulus or "bloat"), offering a large amount of water right after work is not ideal. Until the average German shepherd or lab has slowed down in panting after work with a cool down, only offer perhaps half a cup of water at a time until they cool down further. Once they have cooled down significantly and are not panting as hard, more water can steadily be offered.
Watch for other signs, such as tacky gums, the skin between their ears on their head not being as elastic or forming a "tent" where there shouldn't be one, increased heart rate (180+ beats per minute for medium to large dogs), lethargy, and rectal body temperature of 103 F+. The BEST treatment of dogs with heat exhaustion, besides prevention, is under some debate from emergency and critical care practitioners. Unfortunately, most of what we know is from the human literature and humans cool themselves by sweating. Other than a small amount of sweat produced by glands on their paw pads, dogs do not sweat and depend more on panting. This is why boxers, some pit bulls, and other brachiocephalic breeds should be watched very closely as the cooling mechanisms in the nasal passages has been essentially squashed. Some training clubs will keep a filled kiddie pool for the dogs to get in after working in the high heat of the summer. One school of thought says to not completely wet the dog down on its back so heat can still escape from the top.
If you notice signs of heat exhaustion in your working dog, what should you do? Act quickly! Just like humans, these can progress into seizures, coma, or death. These dogs should be moved to a cool shaded location with a fan blowing on them directly. A kiddie pool or bath tub is nice to have on hand to wet the dog down but do not submerge them in ice water. Most authorities state this will cause vasoconstriction of the blood vessels near the skin from the cold, but hold in the rest of the heat of the body. Cold packs can be placed under the arm pits and in the groin area of front and back legs while the dog is being transported to a vet. At the vet, they will likely start the dog on IV fluids and further the cooling process in a slow way to avoid what is called "rebound hypothermia" where the body's temperature dips below 100 F to compensate. As emergencies, these episodes are harrowing, costly, and upsetting. Accidents do happen, but keeping safety in mind when training and trialing your working or performance dog will more than pay for itself.