Whether you are a fan or not, summer is here and the warm weather is upon us.

In raising and training working dogs, with summer, also comes a number of hidden threats – threats that plague not only working dog trainers and handlers, but that affect sport dog and pet dog owners as well. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke and heat related injury can easily take out the strongest of K9 athletes in a matter of sheer minutes.

Dogs, especially working or sport dogs, can quite easily be overcome by excessive temperatures, especially if their bodies aren’t properly conditioned to acclimate. Heat related injuries can be life threatening, so it becomes imperative as a handler or dog owner, that you understand the symptoms of these potentially deadly afflictions, and that you are prepared to react if your dog falls victim.

Recognizing an overheating dog

It’s no secret that dogs pant to expel heat. So telling you panting is a sign of distress would be absurd. Dogs pant often, without being in distress. So how do you know when it’s an emergency?

Dogs that are being affected by heat will extend their tongues as far out of their mouths as possible, expanding the surface area in order to maximize efficiency of heat expulsion. Oftentimes, dogs that are starting to become affected by heat will outstretch their tongues, with the tip of the tongue expanding at the edges, making the end of the tongue appear wider than the base. As body temperature increases, the edges at the tip of the tongue will curl upwards and many dogs will lift their lips to expose their gums to further facilitate the cooling process. The tongue will begin to turn a deep red or even purple color as the dog succumbs to high temperature.

In addition to watching your K9’s tongue as an indicator of internal temperature, keeping an eye on their behavior can indicate a potential life threatening need to take action. Signs of heat exhaustion and stroke can include vomiting, difficulty breathing, elevated heart rate and temperature, staggering, tremors, lack of responsiveness to verbal cues, general stupor or even collapse.

In the working K9, monitoring heart rate and internal temperature can quite easily give you a good and unnecessary scare, even if your dog isn’t in distress, simply because the dog’s natural temperature and heart rate will increase significantly during work. With working dogs, the visual cues tend to be better indicators of a potential problem.

Preventing Heat Related Injury

The best way to manage heat related injury in the Working K9 is to simply prevent it from occurring.

These days, many animal lovers go overboard in the protection of dogs left in cars on summer days. Although I take my K9 everywhere and would, quite honestly, like to see someone try to break my car window out of concern for my dog, it is imperative that you never leave your K9 in your car on a hot day without taking the proper precautions. Plainly stated, if you are going to leave your pup in the car, ensure they are kept cool and out of danger. Keep your pup safe by parking in the shade, providing a cooling unit, and leaving your pup with plenty of fresh cold water. In addition, if you travel often with your K9 like I do, I’d highly recommend purchasing a pet safety system to monitor the internal temperature of your car and to alert you if it becomes dangerous. Try the FreezeAlarm or the Halo Pet Safety System.

If you are out working your dog, simply keep an eye on physical cues and cool your dog when they begin to show signs of an elevated internal temperature. Before their tongue gets deep red, and just as it starts to curl at the edges, apply cooling techniques until the dog slows its breathing. Far too many handlers ignore their dog’s physical cues and continue to push them in training until their body simply can’t handle it anymore. Given the working dog’s drive for their job and eagerness to please, oftentimes the signs will be subtle. But you know your dog better than everyone so pay close attention. It could mean life or death.

Treating heat related injury in dogs

As your dog begins to show signs of distress, it is critical that you lower their internal body temperature quickly. Inaction will be the quickest route to tragedy so be sure to act fast. In the event you suspect heat related injury, you can perform the following cooling techniques to lower your dog’s temperature:

  1. Soak large towels in room temperature or cool water and apply around the dog’s body, focusing on the “armpit” areas and belly. Remove the towels as they absorb the dog’s heat and exchange regularly for fresh cool towels.
  2. Move your dog to the shade or a cool area, and if available, position fans to blow directly on them to expedite the cooling process.
  3. Monitor your dog’s internal temperature via a rectal thermometer and ensure it is declining. Be prepared to warm your dog if his temperature cools too quickly and falls below 100 degrees.
  4. Administer subcutaneous fluids if you have them available and are trained to do so. If you own a working dog, and especially if you are working dogs in the field, you should be trained by your veterinarian to administer subcutaneous fluids and you should have them on hand at all times.
  5. Following any heat related incident, it is advised that you promptly seek medical attention. It is critical you get your dog’s temperature under control immediately to prevent further injury to vital organs so be sure to perform the cooling techniques listed above before or en route to the vet.

While the goal is to cool your dog as quickly and as efficiently as possible to buy you time until you can get to the vet, be cautious not to overcool your dog or cool too quickly. The jury is still out as to whether use of ice packs and ice cold water is safe, but considering critics advocate that it could potentially cause shock, I would attempt to cool with room temperature or cool water first. Then, only if I couldn’t get the temperature under control would I resort to more, potentially riskier methods.

With summer here, the chance for heat injury is greatly increasing. While prevention is key, by being aware of the symptoms and knowing what to do in the event of an emergency, you can be prepared to recognize and prevent life threatening injuries and, in the event your K9 becomes afflicted, you’ll know how to turn a tragedy into simply a lesson learned.