My dogs used to be barefoot hippies, but that’s all in the past. They’re committed to proper footwear these days, but only when we head to the desert states bordering Mexico.
I learned about the dog boot thing from the “Pilot,” a friend and Mearns’ quail hunter down in southern Arizona. The Pilot took his quail hunting seriously, as did his booted-up pack of Brittanies. Back in the old days a typical hunt for the Pilot consisted of his wife dropping him off on one side of a remote mountain at the start of the day, then meeting her on the other side as it grew dark, usually with a vest full of birds.
Those dogs ran all day, and found quail like nobody’s business.
That country is hard on dogs, primarily because in most of the state of Arizona what northerners refer to as soil is largely absent. It’s nothing but rocks and cacti and Gila monsters in the desert.
The first time I chased quail with the Pilot he walked me through his pre-hunt routine preparing his dogs for a day in the field. He first wrapped their legs with self-adhering bandage material from the pads up about 4 inches, slid on sturdy rubber dog boots, and then got serious with duct tape. The trick is to make the tape snug, without being constricting. The self-adhering tape allows you to unwrap the boots at the end of the day without yanking out all your pup’s hair.
The Pilot hunted for extended periods when he wasn’t flying and often ran into folks from up north who — despite the dog boxes in the back of their trucks — weren’t hunting. The usual refrain: after a day or so their pups had tender feet.
Rocks are especially hard on a dog’s pads when they aren’t toughened up by running on them on a regular basis. When I lived in Arizona it was on a mesa in Flagstaff, which may not have been quail country, but the mesa was covered by basalt and cholla. Running on that rough ground kept the dog’s feet tough enough to handle most of our desert outings. After we moved to the soft-soiled north, on our first trip back to Arizona Jack came up lame after a single day of hunting. It took three days of rest, plenty of baby aspirin and the purchase of some cheap dog boots at a pet store to get him back in the game.
I’ve run into the same problem in California. Much of it has to do with the kind of country you’re running the dogs in. Mearns’ and mountain quail are often found in rugged mountain canyons, or desert canyons in the case of chukar. Boots are a mandatory for this kind of hunting. If you’re on a long-distance bird hunting excursion and you’ve dropped serious cash on travel, lodging and out-of-state licenses, you can’t afford to lose your dog for three days.
I booted up my pup Doll for the first time this winter when we hunted Arizona. She was a bit alarmed at first. When I finally got all four paws booted and put her on the ground hilarity ensued as she did that funny dog thing where they to walk while seemingly trying to avoid putting any feet on the ground.
Once we started hunting she quickly adjusted. It fact, she soon figured out the boots gave her capabilities that she wouldn’t have had barefoot. More than once I caught her sliding down slopes of loose rock using her boots as skis.
As a side benefit, booted dogs can be a little easier to track when they are working out of sight. The boots clatter on hard ground, sounding a bit like the coconuts the squires clap together as they run behind the horseless knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
That first day Doll was a hippy rebel with no interest in establishment footwear. But she learned fast. The second day as we prepared to hunt, she stood patiently on the tailgate while I booted her up. She sold her soul for rocks and soles.
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