Signs of heat injury
It can be difficult to notice early signs of heat injury in very high drive dogs, especially if you’re not looking for them. These dogs keep on going until they physically cannot, rather than being obvious about their stress. There are early signs, and you have to be careful and pay attention to your dog to be able to identify them. Some of the clues that your dog is getting overheated are described below in no particular order, as each will worsen as the injury progresses:
- Shade seeking – We've all seen our dogs take their reward toy into the shade, and sometimes even into the handler's shade. It means they need a break now, not after you finish your search area. In a fit dog, this might mean a 10-minute break before proceeding and to do just enough that the search ends on a positive note. You can always bring the dog out again later, after they have cooled down.
- Slowing down – Whether performing a search or playing fetch for fun their reward toy, they may return to you slowly or incompletely because they know you will make them go again. As they move slowly, or stand to rest, they may literally sway on their feet as the condition worsens. Conversely, as a dog's distress progresses, he may run in a disjointed (“spaced out”) manner without heed to his handler’s call – towards the last place he found water or coolness. At this point you should know there is a problem: glassy eyes, loud gasping panting, ears may be folded in an unusual fashion.
- Excessive panting - The mouth opens wide and lips retract to expose more of the mouth's interior to the cooler air. The gums and tongue progress from light pink to darker red as the saliva changes from copius clear liquid to a thicker white foam or paste-like consistency. The body’s drive to reduce the temperature does not allow the intermittent runs of deeper breaths so the body becomes starved for oxygen. When the mouth becomes dry, evaporative cooling does not take place. The muscular activity of non-productive panting increases the body temperature further.
- Incoordination (ataxia) – This includes components of both muscle fatigue and mental dullness. Heat injury in the later stages leads to a dog stumbling, leaning on objects to hold himself up, loosing consciousness, and possibly seizuring.
The most important aspect of treatment is rapid, effective cooling. Read that sentence again. The important words are “rapid” and “effective”. Be sure the dog has water to drink – small amounts are better than a large drink at once. Placing the dog in the truck with the AC going may be enough, or they may need to be rinsed with a hose and placed before a fan to enhance air flow. Remember to rinse water in their mouth for improved evaporation – gently – we don't want to choke them! If the animal is unconscious, the risk of choking is too great for rinsing the mouth. Immersing the dog in a pool is not as cooling as moving water over his body, but it will help. Focus water flow on areas where blood vessels are closer to the surface for heat radiation: abdomen, inner legs, head and neck. Major blood vessels are in the neck. This is a good place for ice, especially in males with a heavy ruff where water won’t be as effective. Run the water on their mouth and paws for evaporation. Take a rectal temperature so you have a starting point. It is important that your efforts do not allow the dog to become too cool. Once the temp drops to 103 degrees, relax your cooling efforts, the body will continue to cool a bit. Don’t forget to calm the dog as well; anxiety and stress can increase body temperature on their own. Check their temp every 5 minutes or so. If the dog is in severe distress, consider it a veterinary emergency. Crank up the truck and let the AC run while you cool the dog down with water, then put them into the cool vehicle for a ride to the vet. It is important in severe cases to have a veterinary evaluation. The dog may be dehydrated and in need of intravenous fluids or oxygen therapy. Severe heat injury carries the risk of kidney failure, irregular heartbeats, shock, and cellular muscle destruction. One of the more common and most devastating consequences is disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC. This occurs when the high temperature damages the lining of the blood vessels causing malfunctions in the blood clotting mechanisms. Initially tiny clots are formed throughout the body, literally clogging the smallest vessels, leading to organ damage. As the body exhausts its ability to form clots, there is internal bleeding. Blood work can identify these problems as well as the early presence of DIC in time for potential treatment to be attempted. The internal damage done by a severe case of heat injury can progress for several days so your veterinarian might repeat some blood work. It is not uncommon for a dog that experiences a severe incident of heat injury to lose some degree of heat tolerance.
The good news is that there are many ways we can avoid heat injury in our working dogs. Consider an average training session and how the following ideas can be put into play. When you show up for training, the dog should have a fitness level equal to the demands of training. This is so important, and often overlooked. Search dog training is hard! It is physically and mentally demanding of these dogs. Physical discomfort causes mental stress, and a dog that goes to train hard only on the week-ends and ends up sore and tired every time, will not continue to be an eager partner. It has been shown in many species that stress inhibits learning.
Time must be regularly spent on conditioning. Jogging, hiking, biking, running alongside a horse, whatever works for you. The best way to build up conditioning for a certain task is to do that task, building up to longer times and farther distances. Exercising and conditioning is a whole topic in itself, but get started on something! Your veterinarian and your training director should be able to offer suggestions or resources.
As the handler, it is your responsibility to stop when the dog needs a break. Knowing your dog is exhausted but continuing because you don’t want people to think you’re wimpy or your dog can’t do the work is foolish. Your dog needs your protection. New or young people to our SAR work need an example of how to treat their canine partners.
Consider how you arrive at training. Driving to the location with the AC cooling the car to 21 C and unloading and going to train on a hot day with high is very hard on the dog. During the last 20 minutes of the drive, let the car warm up a bit. When you’re parked at the location, pay attention to shade, even if you have to park a little farther away. When the shade shifts, vehicles can be moved. Airflow is of prime importance. Open windows, or even doors, in the vehicle to create a cross breeze. You may have to pull the crate out of the vehicle to get some airflow. Covering the crates with a blanket because you haven’t taught your dog not to bark, makes it pretty stifling. Some commercial dog boxes that are used in truck beds have minimal air vents. Wire crates are ideal for providing airflow. Be sure you research before you select one. Always bring more water than you need, and consider a fan to place in front of the crate. There are several on the market that run on batteries or the 10V plug in the vehicle truck.
During training, be sure to allow the dog to drink before and after work. In general, dogs drink when they need to – give them the opportunity. If they show early signs of heat stress, stop, cool them, give them water and a break. Even if they are just tired and panting heavily but not stressed, give them a break for a few minutes. As fitness improves, the dog’s need for rest breaks decreases. Just like the rest of us! When your session is over, don’t run back to the vehicle, close the dog in and go away. Walk him around a bit to radiate some body heat and cool down those muscles, offer a drink, and make sure the dog is OK. Most dogs that are panting heavily, will sit up in the crate to make breathing easier, but as they cool and panting decreases, they are able to lie down and rest. Try to figure out what is normal for your dog. Go back after 5-10 minutes and check if you’re concerned.
A common cause of heat injury is dogs left in closed cars. Working K9s die every year after they are left in a running vehicle with the AC on, because the engine stops. Do not leave your SAR dog in a running vehicle. Do not leave your SAR dog in a vehicle at all in hot weather; but if you have to do so (if you are on a search and have to give the dog a rest, for instance), provide plenty of water for the dog, park the vehicle in the shade, and provide wide open ventilation through open doors/lift gates; plus be prepared to check on the animal often, or have a team mate do so.
This topic has particular importance to me because I have a GSD who is very sensitive to heat injury after a heat stroke at a young age. He suffers a moderate to severe heat injury an average of twice a year from chasing dragonflies or fence running. The symptoms I described earlier are from many observations of him as well as from veterinary client dogs. Needless to say, he spends summer days in the house if I’m not around to keep an eye on him – please don’t let this happen to you! Happy training!
Editor’s Note – Dr. Bercier is a veterinarian with the Equine Medical Services facility in Silverhill, AL. I first saw this article in the United Doberman Club FOCUS publication. My thanks to Dr. Bercier for kindly allowing me to edit the article to emphasize SAR dogs.
Province Invests in
Search and Rescue Team Training
March 03, 2016
Hon. Danielle Larivee, minister of Alberta Municipal Affairs with Jaida, Mike, Michelle and Tyndre; and Maryann with Gotta.
The Government of Alberta will provide $300,000 to volunteer-based search and rescue organizations to support training across the province.
“When a loved one is missing, we turn to the brave volunteers who dedicate their time to finding those who are lost or injured. Just as these individuals are committed to the communities they serve, our government is committed to them. This investment will help search and rescue groups expand and enhance their skills, so they can continue to save lives.”
- Danielle Larivee, Minister of Municipal Affairs
One hundred and fifty thousand dollars will go towards 20 volunteer-based search and rescue organizations to promote training and enhance emergency preparedness in our province.
“The Search and Rescue Dog Association of Alberta is pleased and honoured to have received a training grant from Municipal Affairs. This grant will provide us with important training opportunities for our volunteer members in service to Albertans.”
- Mike Arychuk, President of the Search and Rescue Dog Association of Alberta
A one-time $150,000 grant will also be provided to Search and Rescue Alberta to support recruitment and skill development of search and rescue volunteers.
“On behalf of the Search and Rescue Association of Alberta I would like to thank the Government of Alberta for the support that they have provided yearly in the form of training grants given directly to our member teams. This training has allowed us to respond to a significant number of diversified requests for support within Alberta, alongside police, fire, EMS, parks Canada and local municipalities.”
- Shane Elder, President Search And Rescue Association of Alberta
There are approximately 1,500 search and rescue volunteers across the province in six different regions, and supported by the Search and Rescue Association of Alberta.
“This grant is key to our operations. As a charitable organization with no regular funding, it provides stability for our training program.”
- Bart Pouteau, President of Edmonton Regional Search and Rescue
In addition to the Ground Search and Rescue Grant, Municipal Affairs supports Search and Rescue Alberta and eligible ground search and rescue groups in a variety of ways, including protection of volunteers from legal liability, providing disability insurance and Workers’ Compensation coverage in case of accident, and funding specialized courses and public-education materials.
Organizations were notified of their Ground Search and Rescue grant applications in January.
Caption - Edmonton Regional president, Bart Pouteau, Michelle with Tyndre, Minister Larivee, Maryann and Gotta and Mike with Jaida