Retrievers live rough lives.

Yeah, I know. You're thinking about your own dog, the one sitting on the sofa munching down on the rest of the hamburger you couldn't finish. If he had opposable thumbs, he'd be operating the TV remote.

But that's before the hunt. During the hunt, nothing he does will ever be easy, and with every retrieve on an ice-swollen river, with every step through the mud and muck of cattails looking for a wing-tipped mallard or pheasant, he runs the risk of personal injury. That's his job, and he loves it. Your job is to keep him safe so he can hunt again.

The Hunt

As your dog's owner, the best thing you can do during an actual hunt is to prevent you and your dog from doing something stupid. I'm not being flippant here. In the heat of the moment, it's easy to make dumb decisions. Here's an example. Years ago, when I owned an exceptionally driven springer spaniel, I sent the dog into the icy waters of the Missouri River after a duck I'd wounded. My little dog never hesitated, and out he went, battling floes of ice all the way. When he finally returned with that bird in his mouth, he was hypothermic. I learned my lesson, and I never sent him out in those conditions again.

Sure, Labs and Chesapeakes are tough as nails. They're bred that way. But they're not indestructible, and putting your dog in danger, or even in significant discomfort, just because you can, doesn't reflect well on your priorities.

So monitor the situation first. If, for instance, there's a sheet of thin, dangerous ice covering the marsh or river, is it safe to hunt? If your dog breaks through, will he be able to break through the ice to get back to shore? Will you be able to get to him if he can't? If the river is floating pack ice, do you want to take the chance of having your dog going under one of them? If it's so bitterly cold he can't stop shaking, is his discomfort worth an extra hour in the blind? You may decide, in any of the above situations, the answer is yes, and you may have good reasons for doing so. But remember, if you decide his safety is more important than another duck in the bag, there will always be another day and another hunt.

The Tailgate Checkup

Once your hunt is over, take a few minutes to examine your dog from head to toe. Make it a habit and you'll save yourself hundreds of dollars in vet bills over the life of your dog.

Remember the mantra "eyes, ears, teeth, toes." Those four words name the body parts you're going to check after every hunt. When you get good at it, the entire checkup won't take more than four or five minutes.

Eyes. These are the trickiest of the body parts to check, so do it first. Pull down your pup's lower eyelids and examine them for debris. If he's been running through the brush, he'll probably have quite a collection of junk in there. If he does, take a dry – not damp – cotton swab and swipe the eyelid pocket gently from one side of your dog's eye to the other. Everything in there should stick to the swab after one or two swipes. Do the same with the other eye, then rinse them both with saline solution. As long as you haven't discovered something serious, like an imbedded thorn or twig, you're good to go to the next check.

Ears. Dogs with floppy ears tend to collect burrs, and anyone who has ever had to take their dog to the vet to remove a foreign body from the ear canal will tell you how much fun that is. Look inside the ear and pluck out any burrs and grass awns you find. Grass awns, also known as foxtails or cheatgrass, are bad news, so never wait until you get home to check your dog's ears. By then they may have worked down inside the canal. Incidentally, if you have a long-haired retriever (a spaniel, flatcoat, griffon, etc.), trimming the hair short immediately below the ear can help prevent the accumulation of burrs.

Teeth. Yup, you heard right: teeth. All the same stuff that collects in your dog's ears can also collect in his mouth, often between the teeth and gum line. Several years ago, a vet had to lay open the face of a friend's setter to find a grass awn that had worked up through his gums and into his forehead. The dog eventually healed, but it wasn't pretty. Pluck out anything you see, and take special care to examine the deep pockets on either side of the mouth.

Toes. Check your dog's foot pads for wear. If they're raw and red, your dog probably will be out of commission a few days. But pay special attention to the gaps between his toes. Here's where burrs and, you guessed it, grass awns can become imbedded and fester. A flea comb is an excellent tool for plucking out burrs and awns from between your dog's toes. In fact, that's about all I use them for.

You're done. If your dog needs to be combed out, do it now. Then, as long as your pup isn't in obvious pain, he should be ready for another hunt tomorrow. You can use the money you saved on vet bills for a burger on the way home. And that last bite you can't eat? Save it for your dog. He'll need something to munch on while he's watching TV.