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Danger Strikes by Margaret Lindsey

In November my husband, Keith, and I finally got to take a hunting trip to South Dakota that we had dreamed about. We have many friends that take an annual trek south just to hunt birds and they would come back full of stories. Keith and I had taken hunting trips to North Dakota, but neither had ever been to South Dakota. So after a good friend moved there and begged us to come down, we decided to go for a change of scenery.

Logistics from Alaska are a bit daunting, especially since we took both our springers, eight year old Scout and two year old Buddy. Buddy had never been on wild pheasants so this would be a learning experience for him. Scout is an old pro at this and I wanted to give her one more great hunt before signs of her age set in. Buddy is my first steady Springer so my goal was to hunt by myself and keep him under wraps and not undue what we had worked so hard to attain. I was determined to set him up for success.
South Dakota hunt

We love late season hunts as the temperatures are cool, the birds wild, and we have the world to ourselves. To us, hunting is about working together with the dogs and not necessarily killing lots of birds. Plus, being in Alaska so long, we love solitude.

In a large, walk-in, public place on our first day out, Scout was back in her element. She went to flushing and finding pheasants with a flurry. Once again, we would have lost birds if not for her uncanny tracking ability on cripples. Buddy worked a nice pattern, but I could tell he didn’t quite know what to expect. But it didn’t take long untill he was flushing tight sitting hen pheasants, and I was able to keep him steady! Finally, after about five hens and his excitement level amped up, he flushed a rooster which Keith dropped. Buddy was not steady, but I was proud all the same as he finally had worked, flushed, and then retrieved his first wild pheasant. From there, he only got better.

On the morning of the third day, we stepped out of the rental SUV to a bright, windless, sunny day. Scattered snow patches still covered areas of ground and deep drifts were unmelted in the windrows. I noted that the temperature read 32 degrees when I got out of the vehicle. We were hunting a huge walk-in area, where I had dropped Keith and Scout off at the other end of the field, and we planned to work towards each other. I felt as though I had the world to myself on this beautiful, cold, sunny day. After I set Buddy up as I would if we were in a field trial, I cast him off. Two days of hard hunting had taken the edge off and he worked like a dream. I felt like a director, he would look at me, I would wave my arm and he would respond like beautiful music. The sun was warm on my face. While walking in this wonderful rolling grass I began to have sweet daydreams of having him actually work for me like this in a field trial - my big flashy dog wowing the judge. It was magic and for once I could relax with such a high powered dog.

We weren’t producing much on this walk, but I figured we were running the birds out in front of us and would bust them eventually. We worked over a little rise where I lost sight of Buddy in the tall grass. As I came over the rise, I saw the grass moving, and many little animals running ahead. At first I thought they were pheasants, but then I realized they were prairie dogs running for their burrows after foraging in the CRP. My fast, long-legged Buddy was already far out in the prairie dog town, joyously harassing something in a burrow. As I called him, he started to come but then ran back for one last harassment before coming in and resuming his hunting. I noticed his leg was bleeding and called him to me to check it out. He had just hit a barbed wire fence, something our Alaska dogs don’t know about, so I assumed the minor puncture wound was from the fence and would doctor the wound when I reached the truck.

"The savings account is a metaphor in a way to make you think about what you as a handler are telling the dog."

Shortly thereafter, he stopped to pee in a patch of snow and as I walked by I noticed there was a trace of blood in his urine. I wondered if the stress from hunting could cause that and I noted that I should give my vet a call when I got to my phone. About five minutes later he peed again in a snow patch, this time it was pure blood! Now I was alarmed, so I decided to cut the hunt short and headed back for the truck a half mile away. I checked Buddy over again, he had no loss of energy and seemed his happy self but his abdomen was a bit hard and slightly swollen. When we were almost back to the truck he stopped to pee and again it was pure blood. I loaded him in his kennel in the back of the Blazer and went to pick up my husband then headed the two hours back to town. On the road, I tried calling my vet and some vet friends with no success.

Back at the house, I opened Buddy’s kennel and was shocked to see his front leg was badly swollen. Now I could clearly see two side by side puncture wounds bleeding down his leg. There was no question what it was - a snake bite!  We rushed him to emergency vet clinic where they immediately put him on an IV and antibiotics.  Anti-serum is no longer produced for dogs so they were unable to give him any. Once again, he seemed fine wagging his tail and showing no lack of energy or pain - as well as begging for his dinner. 

Buddy was in the clinic for two days on an IV untill his urine was clear. The vet informed us that the venom breaks down muscle tissue, which goes into the bloodstream. The venom and extra load in the bloodstream stresses the kidneys and can cause kidney failure. The swelling from a bite is huge and, depending on where the dog is bitten, can be very painful. If the dog is bitten in the face, the swelling can cause obstructed breathing and intense pain. A bite near the vital organs can be fatal. Buddy’s leg was swollen twice it’s size for about five days then went down as suddenly as it came up. He seems no worse for wear but in my post research we were lucky to get him to a vet when we did and that he may have kidney issues later in life from the stress the venom put on the kidneys. 

I was never concerned that snakes would be an issue on a late season hunt. We prefer these hunts due to the cool temperatures thus our highly active springers are much less likely to overheat, something I do think about. Snakes should have been denned by mid-November, but with the late warm temperatures this season they stayed out later. The vet commented that Buddy’s snake bite is the latest in the year she has ever treated - snakes are not normally out when it is 32 degrees with snow on the ground. Also, right after the incident the locals told me that you NEVER let a dog go into a prairie dog colony as that is where the snakes live.

Since news of Buddy’s snake bite has spread through my dog friends, I have heard some horror stories which have me scared as after effects can appear months later. I had heard of the vaccine but did not considered it as I felt we were snake safe with our late season hunts. The vaccine is produced by Red Rock Biologics and was developed to help prevent the anaphylactic (allergic) reaction of dogs to rattlesnake venom. After the snakebite, the vaccine-elicited antibody will combine with the injected venom to slow down the systemic absorption, neutralize toxin activity, lessoning tissue injury and pain. The vaccine is given in a series with the second shot given 30 days after the first then a booster is needed annually. Protection from the booster shot lasts about six months so timing is important. The booster should be given six weeks to a month prior to possible snakebite exposure.

On a friend's recommendation I called and spoke with the Oahe Vet Clinic in Ft. Pierre, South Dakota, who are experienced at treating snake bites to ask about the vaccine. I also contacted Red Rock Biologics, the makers of the vaccine. Being unfamiliar with the vaccine, my vet was concerned about vaccinating a dog that had already been bitten - was it safe to give it to a dog that had already been bitten? I also wanted to know how well the vaccine works and if it really makes a difference. The vet from Oahe Vet Clinic informed me he had vaccinated dogs that had already been bitten with no ill effects. He had also treated dogs that were bitten after being vaccinated and the effects of the bite are much milder with significantly less swelling, less pain, and shorter duration of swelling. This vet is a firm believer in the vaccine and, from his observations on treating many snake bites, he felt it made a significant difference. He said that you still must bring your dog in for treatment when bitten - whether vaccinated or not - as any snake bite is considered an emergency and requires a trip to a veterinarian. However, it will not prevent an infection, local tissue reaction, or systemic infection. A vaccinated dog will only have to deal with the toxic effect of the venom and its damage to the tissues around the bite site.

Snake break training is another option and all I spoke to recommended both. Snake broken dogs can still be bitten, as evidenced by one case where a 13 year old pointer was bitten on a retrieve while running over the snake. Hopefully, those of you in the lower 48 can find someone to snake break your dogs. There is no one in Alaska as we don’t have snakes and a snake is required to snake break a dog.

Maggie Lindsay

Maggie Lindsey is a New Mexico transplant living in Alaska since 1983. She works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as the south-central hunter education coordinator where she coordinates and helps teach hunter ed, bow hunter ed, hunting clinics, Women In the Outdoors and coaches a youth sporting clays league. Hunting is her life - Maggie is an avid big game and bird hunter, pilot and fisher person. She has had hunting dogs since childhood - her first dog was an Irish setter that she bought and trained herself. Now Maggie has springers, is a hunt test judge, runs in hunt tests and competes in the bird dog challenge. While other Alaskans are vacationing in Hawaii, Maggie spends two weeks in November hunting deer and pheasants with her husband, Keith, and wonder dogs, Scout and Buddy.

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