Despite our attempts to swath pooch in extraneous garments, nature’s hairy coverings are usually sufficient. But not always. Sometimes your gun dog really does benefit from our silly meddling. Forget the knitted sweaters and red bandanas; think protection, not fashion, before saddling any hard-running field dog with garments.
Life Jackets: Any dogs working in water, even Chessies, can benefit from a float coat. Additional buoyancy conserves energy and could save the life of a dog that goes too far—like onto thin ice, into a rip tide or down a whitewater river. A Ruffwear float coat saved my setter from a watery grave during a float hunt for chukars on Idaho’s Salmon River a few years back. While I was tying off the raft at one stop and before I removed her float coat for the hunt, she heard other members of our party shooting on the other side of the river, jumped in and swam across, the current sweeping her through whitewater. She was too exhausted to reach shore, but still floating when we caught up to her.
Full-blown life vests may be too bulky for hard working retrievers, but tight-fitting neoprene coats like the Avery Boater’s Dog Parka aren’t. The 5mm neoprene material provides some floatation and considerable insulation. Dokken’s Dog Vest is a lighter option with 3 mm neoprene. Many float coats include handles or grab ports to aid in lifting the dog into the boat or blind. But if you don’t need these, don’t buy them because they do provide another catch point for snags.
Brush Vests: A dog’s chest and belly are prone to abrasion and ripping while your dog jumps and races through harsh vegetation, especially brambles, thorns and cut stalks like corn and wheat. Protective vests like Browning’s blaze orange Dog Safety Vest, Filson’s Tin Cloth Chest Protector, L.L. Bean’s Skid Plate and Sylmar’s Body Guard Dog Vest offer effective padding. Sylmar even sells a Front Body Suit that covers the front legs, too. When shopping, consider how belts, buckles and similar attachments might snag brush and impede your dog during its work. Any vest can snag against limbs and branches, so keep a close eye on any dog wearing one. Check also for rubbing between legs and vest. Some poor-fitting vests can do more damage than they prevent.
Visibility Coats: More than one dog has been mistaken for a coyote and shot. More than that have run unseen into the line of fire. If blaze orange is good enough for you, why not for your best buddy? If you don’t want to hinder Streak’s running ability with a bulky protective vest, try a small, light, high-visibility coat like the Hurtta Micro High Visibility dog vest in orange, pink and chartreuse. Or check out the Track Jacket from Ruffwear in orange or green. Most concentrate material over the dog’s back, some down the sides to leave the chest and leg areas unimpeded. Again, consider how straps, Velcro closures and zippers might snag and how materials might overly insulate. Vests and coverings of any kind can be a handicap during hot weather.
Collars: A wide, blaze orange hunting collar might be an adequate substitute for a visibility vest, but superfluous if you’re also running your bird finder with an e-collar.
Boots: Okay, maybe I was wrong about the belly being the weak point. Rover’s pads take the brunt of punishment, and if they aren’t sufficiently hardened—or if the ground is unusually stony or littered with sand burs—Rover could be out of the game in moments. In rough terrain, consider dog boots. These have been around in one form or another for decades, but they’ve always presented a challenge—keeping them on. For years rubber “galoshes” like Lewis Vented Dog Boots have been the best deal going. They’re protective and durable, but challenging to keep attached. Don’t spare the athletic tape with these. The newest boot options combine nylon uppers with rubber or Hyperlon bottoms. Tape these on also. Try Red Ultra Paws, Ruffwear Bark’n Boots and Neo-Paws High Performance Neoprene dog boots. Some of these feature lugged soles made of tire rubber. Many hunters make their own dog boots out of motorcycle inner tubes and duct tape. Cheap, but effective.
Backpack: Forget it. That dog don’t hunt.