By Barry 'Bear' Siragusa
Have you ever experienced a tire blowout on the highway? As in rubber pieces flying everywhere and erratic driving as you struggle to maintain control of your suddenly unbalanced and bucking vehicle? Well, I have. About the only thing I can imagine would make it worse (apart from a sudden and abrupt stop involving a telephone pole) would be if I then needed to wait for that tire to grow back and heal up before I could use the vehicle again. Sounds terrible, right? Welcome to hunting big game with hounds.
Our hounds have four points of contact with the ground and when even one of those points is compromised, the whole animal is compromised. I have seen hounds run over tarmac after crossing an open creek in the winter and leave parts of their anatomy behind, stuck to the asphalt. Twigs and sticks, as sharp as #2 pencils, puncture webbing between toes. I have seen toe nails get torn off in cracks in the rock and ice, and pads get lacerated on the shale and scree slides that stripe many a mountain. Once the injury happens, it is time to box that hound and prepare for some time hunting without him/her. There are some preventative measures that can help avoid a lot of issues. Later, I will discuss what to do to reduce recovery time and get them back on all fours.
Early Season Roading:
I will cover several preventative measures here, but none are as crucial as early season roading and conditioning. Have you ever headed out to hoe the garden after a long winter of shoveling snow, only to find the skin between your thumb and forefinger covered in blisters after only a short time? Yet, by the end of the summer, your hands are tough and calloused? The same idea applies to the feet of your hounds. If you expect them to do the work of a toughened hound after six months of living the lazy life in the kennel, you are going to have some mighty sore-footed animals on your hands.
Depending on when my season starts, I like to start roading my hounds a month or more before I expect to dump the box to put some serious miles on them chasing game. Roading is not only good for feet, but good for joints, circulation, tendons, muscles, and their mental well-being. What that looks like here at my kennel is letting them trot at 10-12 mph for 30 minutes, three to four days a week in the beginning. I make sure that they get at least two consecutive rest days a week, and I increase the training by 15-20 minutes every week. By the time we are after game, the hounds are roading for 1.5-2 hours three to four days a week. I do a quick feet check after every run and if I see abrasions, or scuffs that look deeper than the first layer of skin, I will put some ointment on their feet. Paws R Protected, Musher's Secret, or Bag Balm are all good choices. I will continue doing this the entire training and hunting season. That should take care of any small injuries before the next training or hunt.
I'll put this really simply: if you feed your hounds a sub-standard food, the first place you will see digression is coat and skin quality, and that includes their feet. Feed a food with enough fat, Omega-3s, and antioxidants. It will keep your hounds’ feet healthy and keep them fueled for the grueling task ahead of them every time you dump the box. I have had good experience with Inukshuk and Red Paw, and there are several other excellent foods on the market. Do your research and ask your buddies how their hounds’ feet are and what they feed them.
Another key aspect to keeping your hounds running like the super athletes they are is hydration. A dehydrated hound is just not going to perform like you want it to. Their skin will be chronically flakey, and their feet will be as cracked and as coarse as a cat’s tongue. A good indication of how hydrated your hounds are is what color their urine is. Is it pale yellow or almost clear? That is a well hydrated hound. What about dark yellow, red, or brown? That hound is most likely dehydrated and, in the case of red or brown, likely worked so hard that its body has started flushing damaged red blood cells out through the kidneys.
So, you have roaded all season. You feed a quality food. You water frequently, and your hound is peeing clear and often. You look over your shoulder only to find Murphy's Law laughing hysterically behind you. Your best hound (it's always the best one, isn't it?) has managed to stab a stick through the webbing between its toes, or has found a glass coke bottle from 1886 and now you have a lame and bleeding hound on three legs. What now?
Well, box that hound. Their contribution to that particular hunt is over. Get them off the bad foot before they make it worse or cause themselves muscular injuries in their shoulders or back trying to compensate for that bad foot while they try to stay in the race. When you get home, clean the injury. This can be a challenge, especially with a frustrated hound that has spent the last several hours in the dog box. A trick that I use often with my hounds is to take a dog crate with a solid bottom and fill the bottom with a couple of inches of warm water and a dash of hand soap. Stick that hound in the crate and they will stand there, looking miserable, while the soap and water cleans up that foot. If the hound lets you, clip the hair away from the wound. Grab yourself a tube of zinc-oxide diaper rash ointment and smear that on the cut or abrasion. They will most likely lick it off after a while, but it will still help. Wash and smear twice a day for a week and, depending on the severity of the injury, this should clear it up quickly.
Give them enough time off. These hounds are tougher than is good for them. Most hounds will happily hunt on three legs the day after an injury, but don't let them. You will have a healthier hound that is capable of more in the long run if you give them a week or two off (again, depending on the severity of the injury). Consider putting a dog bootie on that foot the next couple times you run them. Dogbooties.com, and Non-Stop Dogwear sell decent booties in bulk to dog kennels. You may wear out 2-3 boots over the course of a long bear race, but that wear and tear will not be on that hound’s recently injured foot.
If you can, ease the hound back into it after an injury. Even as I write this, I realize that is far easier said than done. Still, each hound will be different. Some are perfectly content to ride the box and start stretching those strike dog muscles while they heal. Others will destroy themselves, your box, the rest of your pack, and try to eat your hunting partner in an attempt to get in on the chase. Do what you can. I once tried to box a hound with a foot injury in the middle of a race and she shucked and jived and stiff-armed me like an all-American running-back, then ran another 15 miles before I could tackle her and get her off the injured limb.
Apart from long distance sled dogs, there is no other canine in the world that puts as much mileage on their feet as big game hounds. If you can give them the pre-season training and the nutrition to keep their feet healthy and, when they do get injured, use some of these tips to get them back on track, then they will stay healthier overall and hunt longer as they age. I like how the old houndsman and dog musher, Gareth Wright, once said, “No foot, no dog.”