by Dr. John E. Dillberger

Reprinted from The Claymore


Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has devoted a lot of time and effort to preparing for future emergencies. Those of us with dogs should also spend a little time now and then preparing for emergencies. This was brought home to me recently by an “adventure” with my own Deerhounds. Thankfully, everything turned out all right, but the episode reminded me how easy it is to grow complacent. I share it with you as an introduction to the subject of being prepared.

My Story

One winter afternoon, my wife and I were walking our two hounds on the farm—or more accurately, on the 40-acre tract of wooded hills and pasture on the lower part of the farm that we fenced off last year as a safe place for them to run and explore. The fence is heavy-gauge, 4-foot high, woven wire, which allows deer to jump in and out and has no sharp points to snag a dog. There are four gates, and all are chained and locked so that no one can accidentally leave them open for a dog to escape. 

On this day, as we came down out of the woods, the dogs spotted a group of deer on the pasture below and took off. The deer headed straight for the nearest fence line, but one of our dogs caught up with them in time to turn the last deer away from the fence and into the path of our other dog. With his escape route cut off, the deer swerved sharply and accelerated across the pasture. He headed uphill toward the woods with both dogs in pursuit. In seconds, deer and dogs disappeared into the forest.

I ran a course to take me into the woods about 60 yards from where the dogs had entered, with the intention of continuing up the slope at an angle and intersecting the dogs’ trail about halfway up the hill. Thanks to the snow on the ground, I knew I could easily find and follow the chase.

No sooner did I reach the woods than the dog that had caught and turned the deer loped back, panting and spent. He went right past me and headed for one of the frozen ponds for a drink. Of his brother, there was no sign or sound. I started whistling for the missing dog. To my relief, I soon heard him coming toward me. When he appeared, however, I was shocked to see both of his forelegs swollen to twice normal sized from the elbows to the dewclaws and horizontal slashes across the front of both his elbows! Blood was dripping from the left wound and running freely from the right one. I could see that no bones were broken because he was walking toward me, albeit shaking with fatigue. But he obviously was badly hurt.

As I leashed the dog and walked him over to my wife, my mind was racing. We had a cellphone with us but no emergency equipment or first-aid supplies of any sort. Neither my wife nor I had so much as a handkerchief with which to apply pressure to the wound that was bleeding. We were at the lowest point on the farm, which meant that the house was a mile away—all uphill. It was obvious that the injured dog could never walk home; he had run himself to exhaustion and was shaking just with the effort of remaining on his feet. The sun was setting fast, and would be down in less than half an hour. The gate on the farm driveway was locked—to make sure that no one accidentally left it open so that a dog could escape— and we didn’t have a key with us. Thus, it wouldn’t help to call someone to come get us, as they couldn’t get into the farm and neither we nor the injured dog could get out.

As I said, everything turned out all right. My wife had the good sense to rummage through a truck parked nearby that belonged to our farm manager and discovered an old handkerchief to tie over the bleeding wound. Meanwhile, I half-ran and half-walked back up to the house with the uninjured dog. Partway back, I realized that I had the cellphone in my pocket, which meant that my wife had no way to contact anyone if something happened to me, so I took it a little easier from then on. I drove back to the farm (with the gate key!) and retrieved my very cold wife and dog.

At home, we cleaned the wounds and started antibiotics. By then the swelling had spread all the way down both legs, so that they looked like someone had pumped them up with an airhose, and the bruises were beginning to color. I wrapped both legs in pressure bandages to help reduce the swelling. The dog was asleep before I finished.

The dog never showed the slightest amount of distress or discomfort. He ate heartily and was ready to go deer hunting again the next day, if only I would remove the bandages that were slowing him down. Over the next few weeks, the swelling subsided, the bruises disappeared, and the wounds healed.

The day after the event, I went back down to the pasture to see if I could follow the tracks and discover what had happened, although I had a pretty good idea of how the dog had been hurt. Tracking in the woods was harder than I had expected, but I followed the trail almost to the fence near the top of the slope. The dogs had returned by a slightly different path, and I found a few drops of blood on the snow not far from where the dogs had turned back.

As nearly as I can piece together events, the deer ran upslope toward the fence with the dogs close behind. The dog that got hurt is the faster of the two, and was probably in the lead. When the deer cleared the fence, the dog simply didn’t see it and hit the fence at full speed. I guess that his legs went through the gaps and a horizontal strand of wire caught him right across the inside of each elbow. The force must have been tremendous. The fence probably acted like a spring and threw him back on his rump. I suspect he never knew what hit him. His brother, a little ways behind, probably stopped short at this unexpected event, and thereby avoided getting hurt, too.

Lessons Learned

In the days after the adventure on the farm, I thought about the lessons I had learned (or re- learned!) about how to better prepare for farm walks—or, indeed, for anything that might happen whenever the dogs are away from home with us. I will share my thoughts with you now in the hope that they will help you be better prepared.

Becoming prepared is a three-step process. First you do a little brainstorming to imagine what sorts of emergencies could happen. Next, you think about how you would deal with each sort of emergency—what sort of advance preparation you would like to make and what sort of supplies and equipment you would like to have available. Finally—and this is often the difficult part—you actually carry out the preparations and gather the supplies and equipment that you have decided would be useful.

Imagine Possible Scenarios

It is easier to prepare for an emergency if you have thought it through in advance. And even more importantly, you cannot take steps to avoid or deal with an emergency that you never realized might come. This is why groups and individuals whose job is to prepare for emergencies spend a lot of time brainstorming the sorts of scenarios they might face.

To use our farm walks as an example, my wife and I made a partial list of possible accidents or emergencies that we thought could happen during a walk. We limited ourselves to incidents that were particular to a farm walk and excluded incidents that could happen anywhere or any time, such as bloat or seizure. Here is what we came up with:

• Cuts from old barbed wire or discarded glass, cans, etc.; puncture wounds from a sharp branch or snag. Besides the risk of bleeding and infection, I have a special worry about this risk because the people before us kept horses for 30 years, and that makes the soil more likely to harbor the bacteria that cause tetanus.

• Stings from bees, wasps, hornets, or yellowjackets; bites from spiders or centipedes. • Snakebite. We have copperheads and timber rattlesnakes in our area. • Head or neck injury from running into a tree. I have actually seen one of my dogs collide with a tree in our yard when the two were chasing each other, so it isn’t hard to imagine them doing so when chasing an animal in the forest.

• Sprains, dislocations, or broken bones. There are plenty of molehills, chipmunk holes, and sticks on the farm that could cause a dog to stumble or fall.

• Injury from fighting with a wild animal. In our area, the list of animals that could do damage to our dogs includes deer, raccoons, foxes, beavers, coyotes, bobcats, feral dogs and cats, and the occasional black bear. And this doesn’t exhaust the list— previous dogs we have owned have sustained nasty wounds from tangling with squirrels and woodchucks. It gives me comfort to know that the dogs are protected from rabies and distemper by vaccination, but that doesn’t prevent them from getting thoroughly mauled.

• Gunshot or arrow wound from a hunter. • Overheating to the point of heat stroke. This is a summer risk. • Falling through the ice into one of the ponds. This is obviously a winter risk. I put this on my list after watching one of my dogs—the one that did not get hurt—walk out to the middle of the frozen pond and lick the ice. He was thirsty and trying to find out what had happened to the water. If the ice had given way, he would have plunged into 10 feet of icy water 60 feet from shore. Luckily, the ice held.

• Escaping from the fenced area because a tree has fallen on the fence or simply by jumping over the fence.

Decide How to Handle Each Scenario

For this part of the process, I grouped my list of possible incidents into six categories: wounds that break the skin, wounds that don’t break the skin, bites and stings, overheating, falling through the ice, and escape. Then I thought about what I would want to know and have on hand if any of these happened.

Some of my ideas applied to every category. For example, I might need some way to transport an ill or injured dog if he wasn’t able to walk home on his own. Carrying a cellphone was a step in this direction, but only if I had someone to call who could come for an emergency, and only if they could drive into the fenced area. Obviously, then, I needed to have a charged cellphone with me that was programmed with a few emergency numbers, and I needed to carry my gate key on every farm walk. What if I couldn’t reach anyone by phone? Then I would need to leave the dog with my wife and go get transportation myself. In that situation, it would be nice if we each had a cellphone, partly so that we could keep track of each other’s progress.

Other ideas were specific to a particular category of possible emergency. To illustrate the process, here is a synopsis of how I decided to handle each emergency scenario:Wounds that break the skin. The only immediate danger from open wounds is excessive bleeding from a damaged artery or large vein, so you want some way to control bleeding. The other aspects of caring for a wound—cleaning out debris, suturing the wound closed, and starting antibiotic therapy for infection—could wait for hours.

By the way, if there is something protruding from a wound, like an arrow or stick, then you are generally better off leaving the object in place until you get to a veterinary clinic. An object imbedded in a wound can seal off damaged blood vessels and preventing bleeding, in which case removing the object is like unplugging a drain.

If you can see blood flowing from a wound, then you should try to stop it. You should first apply pressure to the wound, preferably with a cloth or bandage of some sort. If the flow stops within a minute, then all is well. If not—if the bandage becomes saturated and starts dripping blood—then you need to get help quickly. If your dog continues to bleed, then his blood pressure eventually will drop and he will go into shock.

If the wound is low enough on a leg to allow you to try a tourniquet, then do so; however, be sure you do not over-tighten the tourniquet and that you loosen it every few minutes to allow some circulation and to see if the bleeding has stopped. If you cannot apply a tourniquet, then keep pressure on the wound even if bleeding continues—the pressure will slow the blood loss.

Even if a wound isn’t bleeding visibly or you are able to stop the bleeding, you should check for signs of internal bleeding, which can also lead to shock. Check your dog’s gums to see that they are pink. Press your fingertip on the gum and then remove it. You should see a white blanched spot that turns pink again within two seconds. If your dog’s gums are pale, gray, or lavender, or if a blanched spot stays pale for 3 seconds or longer, then you should suspect internal bleeding and get your dog to a veterinary clinic as soon as possible.

My conclusions: For wounds that break the skin, I would want a cloth or bandage with which to apply pressure to stop bleeding, a tourniquet in case the bleeding continued despite pressure, and a way to transport my dog quickly for help if I couldn’t stop the bleeding. Wounds that don’t break the skin. The only emergency situations that might arise from this sort of wound are internal bleeding and, if the blow happens to be to the head, a concussion (bruising of the brain). I couldn’t think of any first-aid measure for either of these events, other than to transport my dog quickly for help. Sprains, dislocations, and broken bones are not emergency situations. My conclusions: For wounds that don’t break the skin, I would want a way to transport my dog quickly for help if I suspected internal bleeding.

Bites and stings. The only time that insect bites and stings might be an emergency would be if a dog happened to be allergic to them or if he got a large number of stings; for example, by stumbling across a nest of yellowjackets. In either case, giving an antihistamine as soon as possible would reduce the dog’s discomfort and chance of serious complications.

Snakebite is another matter. Depending on the location of the bite and how much venom is injected, snakebite can be an emergency. There is little point in trying to suck venom from the bite wound, even if you can find the fang marks through a dog’s coat. There also is no point in applying a tourniquet to slow the spread of venom. The best thing to do is get your dog to a veterinary clinic as soon as possible. My conclusions: For bites and stings I might want to have antihistamines with me and a way to transport my dog quickly in case of snakebite.

Overheating. This situation truly is an emergency. It is important to cool an overheated dog down as quickly as possible. On the farm, my options were to get the dog into the shade and get him wetted down with pond water.

One of my dogs will happily wade into the pond up to his shoulders, so wetting him would be easy. My other dog will not touch the water, even to drink. This is a consequence of his first experience with the pond, when he went for a drink as a pup. He felt his feet sinking in the muddy bottom, and decided to leap free. Unfortunately, he chose to leap away from shore, presumably with the intention of landing on the water’s surface; instead, he end up in deeper water, still sinking into the muddy bottom. With a great deal of thrashing and flailing, he got to shore, but he has not gotten over that experience yet. For this pond-shy boy, I would have to bring the water to the dog, so to speak. I figured I could dip cloths or towels in water and wring them out over his body, or use a hat to scoop water onto him. My conclusions: In case of overheating, I would want to have something I could dip into water or use to scoop water for wetting down a dog. In a pinch, my shirt or socks would do for dipping and my hat would do for scooping. Falling through the ice. The more I thought about this, the trickier it got. How could I get a dog out of a hole in the ice quickly so that he didn’t drown or die of hypothermia? I don’t think I could throw a rope around the dog and drag him out. That might work in the movies, but I am not good at throwing a lasso and I’m not sure I could pull a wet 110-pound dog out of the pond even if I could get a rope on him.

I decided that my only hope would be to use a limb or rock to break a path through the ice to reach the place where the dog fell in, giving him a way to reach shallow water and walk out. Of course, if the ice was thick enough to hold up the dog, then it might be too thick for me to break, and I would get soaked myself in the process. But I couldn’t think of any alternative. My conclusions: If I ever faced this situation, my first move would be to call for help. Only when I knew someone was coming who could rescue me, if necessary, would I try breaking a path to my dog.

Escape. First, I would want to learn of the escape as soon as possible, which meant never letting my dogs be out of sight for long. Second, I wanted to be able to call my dogs to me. Some SDCA members have a great deal of skill at obedience training, but I am not one of them. Until recently, the only way I could attract my dog’s attention was to tap into the pack instinct by jumping up and down, shouting excitedly, and running in the opposite direction. But I decided that this was not good enough; in the future, I needed to figure out some other way to attract a dog’s attention. My conclusions: I would not let my dogs be out of sight for very long during a walk; if they had been gone more than five minutes, then I would call them back to me. Ideally, I would see if I could find an electronic device that would allow me to track them via some marvelous 21st-century technology. If the dogs did escape, I would have an effective way to call them.

Get Prepared

It isn’t enough to decide how you would prepare for emergencies; you also have to “make it so,” to borrow a phrase from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. In my case, my brainstorming work revealed that in order to get prepared for future farm walks, I needed to do some advance work and I should make up a walking kit to take with me on every walk.

Advance Work

Teach the dogs to come. My wife gets the credit for solving this one by inventing the Cookie Game, which requires two items: a whistle and yummy dog “cookies.” We opted for a big red coach’s whistle on a cord to hang around one of our necks. Why a whistle? Because the sound will carry farther than a shout, and you can blow a whistle for much longer than you can shout. Why not two whistles, one for each of us? Because two whistles could confuse a dog.

The Cookie Game goes like this. When the dogs have wandered off a short ways, blow a loud blast of the whistle and call out “Cookie, cookie, co-o-o-o-kie!” in a happy voice. When the dogs come running, which they will if you have taught them in advance that cookie means food, feed them. Let the dogs wander off again and repeat the process. Do this only a few times each day and each walk.

After a few days of this game, our dogs were keeping an eye on us constantly to see if our hand was going toward the whistle or the pocket where the cookies are kept. They would start toward us before we could even blow the whistle. Now, after a month of the game, we can call the dogs from 3 acres away, and they will come running.

I don’t mean to imply that I could call the dogs off from a chase—far from it. The point of having them trained to the whistle is to be able to get them back after the chase is over, especially if they have escaped from the fenced area or crossed over the ridge into the next valley.

(By the way, a side benefit of a whistle like this is to attract attention or help from other people, even if they are too far away to hear you shout.)

Program the cellphone with a few emergency numbers and keep it charged. We live in the country, but we do have a few neighbors who would come to our aid if we had an emergency. Their phone numbers are in the phone. We also know a local sheriff’s deputy and his wife, who is in charge of the county 911 service; thus, the sheriff department’s number is in our phone. We have considered getting a second cellphone, but haven’t done so—yet.

Keep the car’s gas tank half-full and know how to reach the nearest veterinary clinic(s), both during and after normal business hours. When an emergency does happen, it can be difficult to think clearly and important to act quickly. This is not the time to discover that your gas tank is nearly empty. It also is not the time to be trying to locate a veterinary clinic or figure out how best to get there. You need to have this information in your memory or at least on a sheet of paper. If you have one of the in-car GPS-guided navigation systems, then it may be sufficient simply to have the clinic’s address and let the computer talk you through the route; however, computers don’t take rush hours or local traffic patterns into account, so it is best if you know the route yourself, and even better if you have driven it once or twice when you were not in the middle of an emergency.

Put a heavy sheet and/or blankets and some rope in the car. If you end having to transport your dog, you may need to begin the job by getting him to the car, if he can’t walk on his own. Two people can use a sheet or blanket as a makeshift stretcher to carry an injured dog; one person can use a sheet or blanket as a travois to drag a dog. A blanket also can be useful for wrapping a hypothermic dog or one that is in shock, to reduce heat loss. A rope can help in various ways—and besides, it just seems a useful item to have.

Get some training in first aid. Because I am a veterinarian, I already have this training. The same is true for anyone with medical training, human or animal. Others may have gotten first-aid training in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts programs, in military service, or as part of their job. There are books available on first-aid for animals, which you can get through libraries or bookstores.

Microchip the dogs. This is to increase the chances of getting a dog back if he escapes from the fenced area.

Get bright-colored dog vests and train the dogs to wear them. Coursing blankets are OK if the dogs will not be in wooded or brushy areas, but we needed something tougher for the farm that would stand up to blackberry and wild rose thorns. You can get these in various styles from hunting supply companies.

Investigate high-tech ways to track my dogs. Via one of my favorite hunting supply catalogs, I have discovered that there are dog collars with transmitters that would allow me to track the dogs via GPS satellite. Apparently the devices work, because one night last month I found a truck parked outside my gate with a driver who explained that his son was fetching their coonhound, which they had tracked via satellite. I am on the verge of trying one of these systems myself. If the system really works, then I will get one for each dog immediately. That way, I could locate my dog if he couldn’t or wouldn’t come to me and have a good chance of finding him if he ever escaped from the fenced area.

Walking Kit

I am using the word “kit” here in one of its older senses, to mean all of the various things that I want to take with me on every farm walk, not just some medical supplies. My kit includes:

• Cellphone. This is second nature to many of you, but not to me. I do not routinely use a cellphone, so I am not in the habit of carrying it on walks.

• Collars and leashes. In order to reach the fenced area of our farm, we have to cross part of the farm that is not fenced, so we always have the dogs on leash and collar when we enter the fenced area. We unhook the leash but leave the collar on. The collars have identification tags that could help reunite us with an escaped dog. The leashes are important for gaining control of a dog that is hurt. A leash also can serve as a tourniquet.

• Bandage and tourniquet material. I carry a few rolls of different material: stretch gauze, regular gauze, and an “Ace” bandage. Plain old cloth strips will work well, too, and can be laundered and used repeatedly. If you ever find yourself without items like this when you need them, do not forget your own clothes. Handkerchiefs, scarves, socks, or stockings make good emergency bandages or tourniquets. Bandages can be tied on. Tourniquets can be tightened with a stick.

• Antihistamines. These are used to treat allergic reactions, such as the swelling and hives that can follow insect stings and spider bites. The earlier antihistamines are given, the better they work, which is why it is good to have some with you to give as soon as you suspect an allergic reaction. Antihistamines also do not have serious side effects, so you are unlikely to harm your dog by giving an antihistamine even if he isn’t having an allergic reaction. There are many over-the-counter antihistamines available. Check with your veterinarian about dosage for the one you choose.

• Scissors Good sharp ones that will cut hair are best. I prefer blunt tips because I am less likely to poke myself or my dog. Scissors are useful for cutting bandage material, trimming hair around wounds, and cutting open packages that are difficult to tear.

• Wire cutters. You want ones strong enough to cut barbed wire or farm fence—if you can cut a clothes hanger with them, then they’re strong enough. Wire cutters are used to free dogs caught in fence wire, and they can double as nail trimmers to remove a dangling piece of a broken and bleeding toenail.

• Hemostat or Clamp. By this I mean any of various medical instruments that have handles like scissors and long, narrow, bluntly-pointed ends. These instruments come in all sizes. Smaller ones are called hemostats; bigger ones, clamps. These instruments do everything that tweezers or small pliers do, but are often handier to use. Small ones are ideal for removing objects from ear canals or wounds. Bigger ones are especially good for safely removing sticks or bones caught between teeth.

• Comb. This is not specifically for dealing with emergencies, but simply so I can comb burrs out a dog’s coat. I have seen burrs matt fur so badly that a dog cannot see well, or gets pinched when he moves; consequently, I want some way to remove burrs in the field. I have found that a plain old plastic pocket comb works best.

• Hand warmers. You can get these at hardware stores or hunting supply stores. When rubbed or kneaded, they generate heat that can thaw your hands and keep them thawed for delicate work. They are really wonderful for winter emergencies.

The purpose of this month’s column was not to give detailed instructions on first aid, but to illustrate a process for thinking about emergency situations. If the column gets you thinking about emergency situations of your own and how you can prepare for them, then it will have achieved its purpose. One final note about my farm walk routine… I always wash the dogs off (when it’s warm) or comb them out after a walk. In doing so, I find little injuries that might go unnoticed and take care of them before they fester.