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Maintaining Sporting Dog Performance in Extreme Conditions

Featuring Dr.Ira McCauley, McCauley Animal Clinic and New Melle Animal Hospital

Environmental factors like extreme heat, humidity, cold, tough terrain, and elevation can significantly impact a canine athlete’s performance. That’s why it’s important to prepare your sporting dog for the early season heat waves just as you do the late winter blizzards. Here are a few tips to help make sure your dog performs throughout the season no matter the conditions.

English Setters running uphill on a rocky terrain during a hunt

Hunting Through the Heat

When the mercury rises, your dog’s fitness hugely factors into his performance. Poorly conditioned or overweight dogs are at a much greater risk of heat stroke and other heat-induced health issues.

“During the first hunts of the year most people’s dogs aren’t in the best shape,” says Dr. Ira McCauley, a Team Eukanuba veterinarian and avid waterfowl hunter. “Off-season conditioning is really important if you want your dog to perform on early season hunts. The conditioning program should be regular and increase progressively. A few days of running before the season opens doesn’t cut it.”

It’s also important to remember that all dogs have different heat tolerances. A hard-charging English pointer running in the sun for hours might not be able to handle temperatures much higher than the mid-60s. A retriever sitting in the shade of a blind with constant access to water is better positioned to handle higher temperatures.

If your dog is actively running in warm weather without lots of places to drink and cool down, you will need to carry water for him. Bring a water jug with a several gallon capacity in your vehicle. This allows you to water before and after the hunt as well as to fill water bottles to take into the field. Keep in mind, some dogs ask for water, but ones that don’t should be watered every 20 to 30 minutes when it’s hot.

Humidity can also affect your dog’s performance. Most states have hot, humid openers whether that’s early season geese or doves. Many types of cover trap heat and humidity, so 70 degrees on a thermometer may feel like 90 degrees for your dog. Increases in respiration, such as panting or hard breathing, burns more calories. Along with extra water, your dog may need more food after a hot-weather hunt.

“If you notice signs that your dog is getting overheated—wobbliness in the back end, severe panting, or lethargy—take your dog out of the field before things get worse and consult your vet,” recommends Dr. McCauley. “Dealing with the heat is mainly about prevention. If possible, you should consider hunting at daybreak when temperatures are the coolest and calling it quits before things heat up.”

Cold Weather Care

By the time the heat of summer is a distant memory, your dog is dealing with a whole new set of challenges. When the temperature plummets, a dog becomes heavily reliant on nutrition whether it’s post-holing through deep snow for pheasants or making retrieves across an icy river.

“When it’s cold there is a daily struggle to keep a dog fueled up with the caloric requirements he needs,” says Dr. McCauley. “But there is also a longer-term effect that comes from regular and consistent work. Dogs that work hard every day need performance nutrition. In colder temperatures, in windy conditions and in icy water, dogs need enough body mass and fat to keep them warm. The additional nutrition helps them perform at their peak. Feeding a premium diet that is highly bioavailable and has all the nutrients and calories they need is an important factor to help keep them in shape.”

Elevated workloads require a different feeding routine. Factor in the extra work when determining how much to feed your dog. Studies have shown fat to be a vital energy source for the long and sustained activity frequent during winter hunting seasons. A nutrient-rich, calorically dense diet will help preserve body fat which acts as insulation for a dog and helps reduce heat loss in cold climates.

Getting your dog acclimated to the cold is also important. A dog that spends most of his time indoors is going to be more prone to hypothermia than one that is hunted regularly, lives in an outdoor kennel, and is used to the cold. Putting a vest on your dog may help keep him warm, but only if it fits your dog well.

Dr. McCauley warns, “a poor fitting vest predisposes a dog to a hypothermic event by pooling cold water against his body. That cold water is trapped inside the vest, so the dog can’t shake it off. The pooled water saps a dog’s body heat, and hypothermia can set in. When in doubt, get dogs out of the boat and blind and into a warm environment. Warm up your truck and when it’s warm crank up the heat. Lay the dog on a fleece or wool blanket. Getting him out of the elements is important if you suspect his core body temperature is low and consult your vet for further instructions.”

Other Factors

Think about the varied terrain sporting dogs work in. Grouse hunts take place in jungle-like tangles of secondary growth forest. Pointing dogs that run up and down vertical slopes burn a lot of calories. Retrievers use more muscle groups swimming to make retrieves than in any other type of exercise. When dogs have to navigate tough terrain, they work harder. That extra work requires extra calories, and their diet should match their needs.

If you are thinking about finally making that dream trip to hunt chukar or ptarmigan it’s important to remember those hunts can start at 10,000 feet. There is a reason you’re gasping for air on vertical hunts like these. There is less oxygen available at high elevations, and your dog feels the same effects. Your dog also has to breathe harder to get the oxygen he needs. Each time he bounds uphill he is lifting nearly the entirety of his weight. As you’re scrambling back down the mountain with your dog, remember he probably needs more kibble in his bowl that evening.

We run our dogs all year long, and some of that is in adverse conditions. To help your dog achieve peak performance, thoroughly condition him in the preseason. Be sure he’s hydrated, appropriately fed, and cared for in the extreme heat or cold.

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