The dogs had come up treed and we were making our way over to where they were.  The ground was covered in a 50-50 mix of snow and dry dirt. This is the kind of day I really enjoy because I can usually keep up with the dogs as they trail until we get the track fresh enough to jump a lion.  The dogs had put up a young tom lion in a burned juniper (or cedar) tree on a barren hillside – the white barkless branches looked something like a large skeleton, at the top of which was perched the puma.  As we approached, I could see something was wrong with Lydia.  Her body was perched against a large horizontal branch and she was frantically struggling, though I couldn’t quite tell why. 

Fearing the worst, I began to sprint towards the tree where I arrived to find out she had slipped out of the tree and managed to get hung up by the loose skin on her back after falling onto the sharp end of a broken branch.  Quickly I surveyed the situation and was able to lift her off of the branch that very nearly impaled her.  She had a large, but superficial, laceration across her back, and as there was very little blood, it was clear that she would be just fine, so we took a few minutes to enjoy the treeing that was going on before I called the dogs off, letting the lion go to hopefully grow a little older. 

Tree climbing dogs are almost certain to break a handler’s heart eventually.  Dogs just lack the coordination and the grace to climb a tree, and it usually seems that the most driven dogs, the ones that are so full of heart they make you swell with pride, seem to have the predisposition to trying to climb any manner of tree after game.  While this situation ended very well for all of us, had Lydia fallen a few inches further up the branch would most probably have entered between her ribs and ended her life.  It served as a good reminder that every time we hunt with our dogs it could be the last, as there are always risks that accompany our pursuits. 

Before I get too far into this discussion let me be emphatically clear here: I am not a vet, nor am I trained in veterinary medicine.  My only goal in writing this is to offer some practical tips on how to provide immediate or first response medical care for your dog so that you can hopefully buy yourself enough time to get your dog to a vet for proper care.  Whether your dog falls from a tree, gets too close to an angry bear, gets cut on a barbed wire fence, or any other list of potential injuries it might encounter on a hunt, being prepared to render first aid in the field could make the difference in losing a dog or not.

I have put together a field kit of first aid that I always keep with me in my backpack on a hunt.   The first and foremost tool that I keep with me is a medical grade stapler.  The stapler replaces sutures for lacerations, or cuts, as well as other injuries where it is necessary to get a wound held back together.  The stapler is very easy to use, and more importantly, it affords a very fast response time whereas stitching a wound takes more time, dexterity, and a cooperative dog.  Stapling a wound on a dog can be accomplished with or without the help of another person, so it’s ideal for those of us who also like to hunt alone.  The operation is simple: using one hand to align and compress the skin on either side of the wound, take the stapler with the other hand and center it over the wound and squeeze the handle together while applying gentle downward pressure.  Fortunately, it takes very little practice to become adept at placing staples on a wound.  

Keep in mind that the staples will need to be removed once the wound has had time to heal, and this should be done by vet or trained individual.  I should also note that the wound really needs to be irrigated, or flushed, with a sanitary saline solution as soon as possible.  While I don’t keep this in my backpack, I do have a small tackle box that I keep in my truck with a large syringe and a bottle of saline.   Using the syringe to draw up the saline, I can quickly flush out a wound once back at the truck.  99% of the medical treatment I have provided or been a part of while hunting has consisted of stapling and flushing wounds with saline.  An ace bandage or similar wrap can be used to cover the staples on a temporary basis, though it will more than likely require the use of an Elizabethan collar (cone of shame) to prevent the dog from tearing the staples while the wound heals.

The other piece of emergency first aid that I carry in my backpack is called “Combat Gauze.”  I first learned of this while hunting bears with a paramedic turned fire fighter who had served on a local swat team.  After observing how quickly a situation could get dangerous for a dog with an angry bear, he told me about Combat Gauze.   His advice was that if you find yourself in a situation where you’re looking at a wound and thinking “HOLY SMOKES!” then it’s time to apply the gauze.  While I’ve never been in that situation (and hope I never am), the general principal is to locate the source of active bleeding at the wound site and begin to pack the gauze directly into the wound.  The gauze serves as a hemostatic dressing, meaning that it is intended to stop bleeding.   

With these three simple first aid tools – a stapler, combat gauze, and some saline rinse back at the truck, you can provide yourself and your hounds a very good chance of getting safely out of the woods and over to proper veterinary care.