How Cold is Too Cold to Hunt with a Dog?

dog standing in snow.

Dogs are used all over the world for hunting and are adaptable to varying climates.  As a hunting dog owner, you should have an idea of the possible temperature ranges you could face where you are hunting and know what you and your dog can physically handle. Some breeds and some dogs are more “cold hardy” than others.  Different activities performed by the dog such as retrieving in water will also dictate what is considered too cold. 

Owners of cold-hardy breeds should start watching their dogs closely when temperatures get below 20 degrees F.  If you are asking the dog to retrieve in water or limiting their activity to sitting in the blind, you should watch them more closely below 32 degrees F.

Owners of cold-sensitive breeds should watch their dogs more closely when temperatures get below 32 degrees F.  If you are asking the dog to retrieve in water or limiting their activity you should watch them more closely below 45 degrees F.

Different types of hunting mean different types of conditions. Air temperature vs. water temperature can have a 15-degree difference. If your hunting in the woods, you may have a natural wind block. So, whether your hunting upland bird, furry critters, or waterfowl, you need to know the difference between what is safe for you and your dog, pay attention to your surroundings, know the oncoming weather, and be perceptive to changes in behavior and movement of your dog.

The biggest risk to your dog in cold weather is hypothermia.

What is Hypothermia and What Should You Do When It Sets In?

Hypothermia occurs when the body can no longer maintain its normal temperature. This creates a decline in the body’s central nervous system, which can ultimately lead to death. Three stages range from moderate to severe hypothermia. A normal temperature for dogs is between 101-102.5 degrees F, but this can vary due to the breed of dog and the actual dog itself. If you are not familiar with your dog’s body temperature, it would be a good idea to know it.

If you think your dog is starting to get cold, watch for some of the signs and symptoms of each of the levels of hyperthermia, which are listed below.  You don’t want to let it get to the point of even mild hypothermia. 

  • Mild Hypothermia: dog body temp of 96-99 degrees F.
    At this stage, your dog will have uncontrolled shivering. They will act lethargic or tired, which will inhibit their reaction time and could cause them to lose excitement about being out hunting. At this point, you should be noticing their behavior changing.
  • Moderate Hypothermia: dog body temp of 90-95 degrees F
    At this stage, your dog will no longer have the ability to shiver. They will lose their coordination, causing them to stagger, and may lose consciousness. At this point, your dog’s life is in real danger.
  • Severe Hypothermia: dog body temp of 82-90 degrees.
    At this stage, your dog has now collapsed. Breathing will be labored, pupils dilated, and they will be unresponsive. At this point, you need to get your dog warming up and should be on your way to an Emergency Veterinarian. This is where things become very real.

Although these situations are undesirable as well as unplanned, keep in mind that it is preventable if you are paying attention to your dog and their behavior. If you find yourself in any of these situations, you’re going to want to take immediate action to start warming your dog up. If possible, get your dog to a vehicle and get it started and the heat blowing directly on them. If you cannot get them to your vehicle, build a fire and make sure they are out of the wind.

You can start warming them by giving them a good body rub. Vigorous rubbing to their core is going to start conducting heat with friction and stimulate them, which will warm up the blood, warming up their heart and pumping that blood back through their brain and extremities. If they are wet, make sure to work on drying them off with a towel while you’re rubbing them. If you have a thermal blanket (such as one found in an emergency kit, not the plug-in type), you can use this as a shield to keep the heat in. If you do not have a thermal blanket, just wrapping them in something dry will be your best action to keep any progress made in creating heat in their bodies.

As you continue to warm them up, watch for signs that they are coming out of it. You should see them start progressing, shivering as they gain back some of their natural heating ability. Most long-term damage will be to their organs, such as their brain. This can take several days or even weeks before you or your veterinarian with know if there is any permanent damage.

Other Cold Weather Dangers

Frostbite is an injury sustained to body tissues when exposed for too long in extremely cold temperatures. In pets, it will first affect areas like ears, noses, tails, genitalia, and feet. When frostbite affects the areas, you do not rub to reheat the tissues as this may damage the tissue further. Instead, you can bring the skin back to temperature by submerging the body part in warm water.

Limber Tail can come up as an injury resulting from excessive use of the tail in cold or wet conditions. Your dog’s tail will look limp or broken. The tail typically heals itself within a few days with proper rest, although anti-inflammatory medications can aid with healing it.

Cuts to the Pads can happen when your dog cuts themselves while walking or running on land. With temps below 32 degrees F or freezing, ice forms and can form sharp transparent slivers and edges. Constant exposure to snow, mud, and rain can also irritate the pad, causing it to crack. Be sure to check over your dog’s feet for any slices or cut to the pad. Consult your veterinarian if you find any major cuts or bleeding.

Air Temp vs. Water Temp

There is no way to calculate what the water temperature will be based on the air temperature. Water is denser than air, meaning it will retain its heat (or cold) for a longer amount of time than the air. Depending on flow of the water, sun, overnight temps, and general location, your water temperature could be warmer or colder than the air temperature. That could range to nearly 15 degrees F difference. Keep this in mind when sending your dog out. If it is too cold, they should give you some sign if this; such as whimpering or whining while retrieving.

What is Too Cold for Dogs Hunting in Water?

Most dogs don’t think, “Hey, it’s cold out; bet this water is cold.” They think more along the lines of “Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose!!!” There isn’t a black and white answer, it’s going to come down to acclimation if you have a vest on your dog, and your common sense. A common rule of thumb would be that if it’s 45 degrees out or if the water temperature is below 55 degrees F, put a neoprene vest on the dog. Create a wind block, keep some dry towels in the boat or vehicle, keep the dog out of the water when they aren’t retrieving, and bring a dummy toy for some fetch on land to keep the blood pumping. Watch for signs of hypothermia too. All of these can make the difference as to whether you’ll be able to hunt again with your pooch.

Tips for Keeping Your Dog Warm

If you can, produce a wind block to keep the air from blowing the heat out of the coat. If there is some downtime where your dog is sitting a long while, produce some fetching exercise to get their blood flowing, which will help keep their body temp up. Keep your dog from sitting in the water while they aren’t retrieving by creating a place in the boat/blind or investing in a dog stand. You can also bring along a propane heater to crank on to keep some cold out. Simple steps taken can help prevent big problems from happening, which could, in turn, ruin your hunt and/or hurt your dog.

Stay away from ice.

Neoprene vests are very common when it comes to keeping your dog warm and their core dry. There are many types and thicknesses to choose from, so read reviews along with the product specifications when choosing. Make sure it’s snug enough for a good hug and not too loose and sloppy to allow water in.

Keeping a Trail-ready emergency bag with a thermometer (for your dog), a thermal blanket, a fire starting kit, along with your typical first aid supplies would be a great idea for anyone out hunting, even if you keep it as a general-purpose kit in your vehicle. If you would prefer not to make your bag, you can purchase a kit online or from your favorite hunting store and doctor it to your needs. Having one handy, just as a precaution, could be one of the smartest things you can do for yourself and your dog.

What is Too Cold for Upland Dogs?

Again for cold-hardy breeds watch the dog closely when temps are below 20 degrees F. With cold-sensitive breeds watch the dog closely when temps are below 32 degrees F. When hunting Upland game, the situation is way different then if you’re on the water. Your dog will last a lot longer in the colder weather and will be able to keep themselves warmer too with the continuous movement. The best way to guarantee that longer outside time is that built-up exposure. The more you expose and introduce them to the cold, continuously working them up to being in the cold weather, the more your dog will be used to it. If you think the weather is too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for them. Pay attention to signs and symptoms of frostbite though, as there is potential for this to become a problem. With Upland hunting, it is not necessary for the dog to wear a neoprene vest, as it can overheat the dog.

Best Cold-Weather Hunting Breeds

If you’re looking for which breed will be best for your environment, look local or regional, as their coats will vary depending on where they are from. Dogs with double coats are going to stay much warmer than those who do not. Some of the more popular breeds are; Labradors, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Nova Scotia Duck Trolling Dogs, Golden Retrievers, American Water Spaniel, Boykin Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, and the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. Beyond these, there are numerous other breeds, but like advised by locally or regionally to find the best breed for your climate.

Transporting Your Dog the Back of the Truck in Cold Weather

If you are transporting your dog in the back of the truck, make sure the box/kennel is up against the back of the truck cab to keep the wind from blowing through. Put a good layer of bedding/straw inside to help dry and for them to make a bed out of to help warm them up.

You can put a kennel cover over but be aware that it can potentially overheat your dog. Depending on the outside temperature, keep the vents open on your kennel cover.

  • At 45 degrees F: leave all flaps open,
  • At 35 degrees F: close side flaps but leave the front flap open,
  • At 25 degrees F: close all side and half shut the front flap,
  • At 15 degrees F: leave flaps vented but not open (this should be a supervised time to keep from overheating).
  • Anything colder put your dog in the truck.

This is all suggestion though, anytime you are traveling with the kennel cover on or off, stop and check on how warm or cold your dog is.

In Conclusion

Being practical about what you think is cold is probably the best thing you can do for your dog. If it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for them. Build up their tolerance to the cold gradually. Although we can’t predict the weather completely, we can gradually build up their outdoor time little by little. Hunting dogs typically have one thing on their mind when they’re working, so you need to be the logical one. Stay away from ice, especially if you don’t know how thick it is. Watch for signs and symptoms of hyperthermia and frostbite and any indication that your dog is starting to get cold. Be prepared for the worst but have fun!

Scott Phelan

I came from a non-hunting family, in my teens I got interested in hunting and taught myself to hunt. I got my first hunting dog after college and became obsessed with all things hunting dog and hunting dog training. I have spent the last 10 years training and hunting with dogs. My dogs and I have hunted quail, chukar, huns, pheasants, grouse, woodcock, ducks, and geese all over the USA and Canada. Hunting dogs are my passion.

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