Saturday, October 20, 2007

Digging on the Dogs

Char came down from Illinois to attend the JRTCA's 25th Annual Nationals trial, and I took the day off to go digging with her. The weather called for rain, but I told Char the weather reports did not mean too much around here, and that we'd probably get by with an overcast day before a good evening thunderstorm, which is exactly how it went.

We met up at Stups Market, and then headed a few hundred yards up the road to a little farm where I have been digging in recent months. Pearl is still knitting up from a dig two weeks ago, so I left her in the truck (Char bred her, and she's been a great dog for me), and we took Mountain and Char's Rue up a hedgerow to see what we could see.

Within the first five minutes Rue bolted a nice groundhog up a tree, and Char got a picture. Excellent!

We found the next groundhog where I thought we would -- in a trash-strewn hedgerow in the middle of two recently cut-over bean fields. The dogs bolted this one too (a very BIG groundhog!), and it dashed out and slid under a half dozen coils of old rusty barbed wire and into a cascade of steel and iron car parts, rotting fence posts, old tires, and broken bottles.

Mountain located this groundhog again, but after moving a couple of big rusty barbed wire coils, and seeing what was below that, we decided to give this groundhog best and move on. Why put a dog out of action working barbed wire, broken glass and trash when the day was still so young?

We rolled on across the top of the field, and down the middle. I swear, if we had a dollar for every piece of fox and raccoon crap we saw, Char and I both would have had gas money for a week.

The fox and raccoon are definitely marking every scrap of territory on this farm. And who can blame them with such nice fields of soy and corn bordering a narrow meadow with a stream running down the center? The soil here is pretty friable, and the drainage is very good. There are not too many trees, but the ones standing are often huge. This is about as good a farm as I have found for fox and raccoon. And the groundhogs are thick on the ground too.

We headed down to the edge of the soy field after banging around another recently occupied sette that had a slightly skunky smell to it.

Mountain located in another nice big sette along the fence line. She bayed it up and we downed tools, located, and dug to her. To make a long story short, this sette had two nice groundhogs in it, and both were accounted for, one by Rue and the other by Mountain. Rue did an excellent job of holding her hog while we finished up with Mountain's and could devote our full attention to her end of the pipe. Both dogs came away from this dig without so much as a nick for their efforts.

After the dig, I walked down field for a quick bathroom break, when I saw something white ambling my way -- a skunk. "Lace up the dogs Char," I yelled back to her "We have a skunk coming down the fence line. " The skunk hardly seemed to care about me. I ran back for the camera and took a few quick shots, as this skunk was almost completely white on top. A nice little freak of nature -- the kind of thing that awakes the raging 10-year old bug-collector inside of me.

We repaired the den we had dug up, and had just finished gathering up the tools, when Mountain began poking around a sette about 12 feet away. She slipped underground, and from the sound of it she began to dig on a bit.

No worries. We relaxed, waiting for her to find and open up if she did. In the interim, we took a few pictures of the two hogs, gabbed, and rested a bit.

It was then that Char noticed the white skunk coming back down the fence line, and so I grabbed a heavy board-like piece of bark with the idea of either changing the skunk's trajectory or its perspective on life. I was tossing the chunk of wood at the skunk's head (and missing by about three inches), when Char yelled back to me, "SKUNK in the ground with Mountain."

Oh crap!

I jogged back to the hole, and sure enough there was the faint smell of skunk coming out. Mountain was baying a bit, but then she fell silent.

Oh damn!

We boxed, but the collar seemed to be working intermittently, and so while Char cut away at the entrance hole which seemed to have the most sound coming out of it, I barred down to where I thought the den pipe was.

I think the bar had just popped into the den pipe, but I was not absolutely certain, and was about to bar again three inches over when Mountain began to bay a bit closer to the hole where Char had been cutting away.

Excellent. A baying dog is a living dog with some oyygen.

I ran over to where the sound had been coming out, and Char and I both cut back on the pipe entrance until Char said she could see the skunk, trying to exit, head out.

Mountain was baying a bit more now. I relaxed. No worries. If you can see the skunk and hear the dog, it's probably not going to end bad. This was going to be a bolt.

Char backed away from the hole, and I waited for the skunk to clear the pipe before I tried to nail it with the digging bar. I missed, and the skunk bolted for another pipe with Mountain chasing on after her. Char just managed to grab Mountain before she went to ground a second time, and we collared her up and checked her over for damage. She was stinky, but otherwise fine.

Mountain has been skunked a few times before, and does not seem to be overly sensitive as some dogs are. I checked her over, and she did not have the yellow spray marks on her chest or head that would suggest she got a full-on hit at very close range. I suspect the skunk was three feet ahead of her when it blew its load -- a good thing, I can tell you, as a full load to the skin is a lot of toxin (skunk spray is almost pure sulphuric acid) and stink. I collared her up and tied her to the fence twenty feet away, and in a few minutes she was rolling in the grass trying to get the stink off. She was going to be fine.

We filled in the skunk hole, checked Mountain again (no burning of the corneas), and decided to hit the trucks to swap out dogs and get a cold drink or two for ourselves.

At the truck we ran into the farm owners, and after a nice visit with all the dogs, we left them to hit the other side of the creek with Smudge and Sassy.

Smudge is an older dog that has had the good fortune of finding a home with Char, while Sassy is the one-year old full sister (out of a different litter) to my Pearl.

We walked down the creek bank, and there were a lot of holes over the space of 500 yards, but all of them were blank. I have taken about 30-35 groundhogs out of this creek bed over the last few months, and it seems I have made a some small dent in the population. Still, the stream bank is not completely blank, as I have bolted a few that got away as recently as last week, and the week before that.

From our side of the creek we could see some of the exit holes on the other bank, and so when we saw a really nice sette under a huge old elm tree on the other side, we decided to cross over and check it out.

Smudge waded over ahead of us and noodled up the bank through the thick maze of roots. Char followed directly behind, while I rounded and went up the bank a few yards upstream. By the time I got top side, Smudge was in the ground and baying up a storm.

When I say this was a big elm tree, I'm not kidding -- it was six or seven feet through the middle, with the top broken off about 25 feet up. Smudge sounded like he was inside the trunk . I circled the tree looking for a way in. There was a small soft-looking spot at the back base of the tree, and I started to pull away some matted leaves to see if I could find a hole when a large raccoon stuck its nose out. Yow!

I don't know which of us was more freaked out by what we found on the other side of that thick plug of leaves. The raccoon, of course, was not expecting to see a 200-pound human. On my end, I am hyper-aware that we have a lot of rabid raccoons in our area, so I try to stay away from the business end of raccoon with my bare hands. Yes, yes, any mammal can get rabies, but raccoon are positively dizzy with the stuff around here.

Anyway, the raccoon darted back in the tree, and I now knew what we had inside. I reached into the hollow with Char's scraper and pulled out some dirt and a chunk of rotted wood. The pipe did not appear to be very big and it seemed to jog to the left.

I boxed to locate the dog and the locator said Smudge was about two feet inside the trunk from the left side, but it sounded like he was also a foot or two down in the ground below that. Maybe more.

I barred on the left side of the tree, and cut through some smaller roots until hitting hard massive trunk wood. I tore off some pretty decent chunks of wood, but there did not seem to be any weakness to this side of the tree.

While I was slamming the posthole digger and bar into the roots and trunk with almost total futility (and doing some sawing too, it should be said), Char had stuck her spade into the hole where I had seen the coon nose, and pulled out quite a bit of dirt. After looking into the hollow of the hole, however, she decided she had probably blocked off the pipe as she could not tell which way it went. I checked it out and she was right. Where DID the pipe go? I could not tell either, and poking around inside the trunk, everything felt pretty solid. The coon had tried to exit from here, but where it had gone to was a complete mystery.

About an hour had gone by, and Smudge was still baying up a storm, especially when we banged on the trunk a lot. Smudge clearly had the raccoon cornered, he was not backing off, and the raccoon was business-end out. Air was apparently not a problem, and it sounded like Smudge had a good location to work from. What to do?

I suggested to Char that we pull off about 80 feet, sit down, and see if the dog would come out on his own if he didn't hear us banging about on top with our tools. Some dogs will exit after a while if they do not hear humans digging or talking.

Thirty minutes later, Smudge had not moved and he was still baying up a storm. Hmmmm. We seem to have a dedicated working dog here! A new plan of attack was clearly needed.

I went back to the original hole at the base of the tree, and moved a large trunk and branch that had been serving as a porch over the hole. With the branch and trunk out of the way, I had a better purchase on the hole, and I used Char's scrapper to pull out a big piece of old rotten wood and dirt. I dug a bit more, my arm all the way in, and banged out pieces of old rotten wood that were large enough to make an apple crate out of. I put in the shovel and brought out a lot more dirt too. I was digging and banging around inside the trunk blindly, but I was definitely removing material. If nothing else, I was creating more air space inside, and that could only be good. Plus, I was doing something.

Char got a light, and I shined it up into the pipe, and now I could finally see the top of Smudge's wagging tail peeking out over a piece of rotten timber. He was clearly doing fine.

I pulled out a little more dirt and wood, and shone the light about some more. Now I could see that there was a wall of rotten wood and dirt between the dog and us. I explained the situation to Char, who scooted in to take a look. While she sussed out the situation, I explained our plan of attack in my best Ronald Reagan voice: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

And so we did.

More wood and dirt came out of the hole, and in the end it was clear Smudge had the raccoon, still unseen, pinned down in a hole somewhere near his feet.

I reached in with the snare pole to pull Smudge out (he was farther in than I could reach), and he got the idea that I was not happy with where he was ensconced, and so he bolted out of the pipe, very hard and very fast.

In truth, when Smudge exploded out of the trunk, I was not sure if it was the dog or the raccoon coming out. And believe me when I say it mattered to me quite a lot at that moment!

When my heart stopped skipping, we got Smudge leashed up, packed up the tools, and decided to leave the raccoon for another day's sport. As a general rule, raccoon and fox do no harm on our farms, and I find it best to let them go. A living fox and raccoon is the promise of another day.

Smudge looked fine coming out of the hole, but in fact he was ripped up a bit at the gum line, and he started to swell up on the walk back to the truck.

Char cleaned him up and loaded him up with Clavamox, but when I saw him at JRTCA Nationals the next day, he was still swollen and tender. None-the-less, he picked up his Bronze Medallion for all of his previous work in the field, and I will say that no one could question that he was a true working dog!

A permanent hat tip to Char who has beautiful small workers, and knows what to do with them! Come down when it's cold, lady, and we'll see if we can put something up.



Rane Sessions said...

It's great to read about Smudge and Char, as well as the other dogs. Glad to hear that Mountain recovered well from the skunking.

Just a note though -- gums may look fine, but the tongue color on a skunked dog may be off. If the dog's tongue looks gray/blue, get to the vet. Same thing if the dog is wobbly after a skunking. All of these are signs of a worse hit rather than a lesser hit from a skunk. My dog has been skunked 4 times, and this last time was bad. She needed extensive vet care, and a transfusion four days later.

Good reading, and I'm delighted that Smudge is with Char. He could't ask for a better home.

PBurns said...


Actually, the gums of a dog will actually go WHITE if toxic shock is setting in. The cause of this whiteness is anemia due to exploding red blood cells (called Heinz Body Anemia).

Mountain was fine and his gums were fine, as I checked them. It's best to wait 20 minutes and 40 minutes after a skunking to look at gums, as it takes a little time for Heinz Body Anemia to set in if it is going to set in at all.

I have been skunked quite a few times over the years (2-4 times a year on average) and have written a bit about the signs of skunk toxic shock, the blood chemistry of skunking, and the treatment options -- see also several other posts on this blog such as and and

Skunking underground can be very serious, but most dogs get out of the earth fine, and most dogs end up needing nothing more than rest, a bowl of water, and a stink treatment. Of course, the most critical issue is always getting the dog out of the ground, and having the proper tools and the physical ability to really use them to dig in crisis is very important.

I am not one to run to the vet when a dog is skunked underground, as veterinarians know NOTHING about the chemistry of skunk toxic shock and can do very little other than charge you a LOT of money for their ignorance while taking full credit for a natural recovery.

A favorite veterinary routine in cases like this is to put your dog in a crate for three days while they put in an occassional IV, and check the dogs eyes (always staining, staining, staining). The dog looks fine after a few hours, but the dog is not released because the bill is not yet high enough. They vet may have to "run more tests." The final price tag will be over $1,000 and they will have actually done NOTHING but exacerbate the healing of the eye, while charging you $1,000 for $8 worth of lactating ringers solution you could have put in yourself if the dog needed it at all.

If your dog needs a transfusion to stay alive (only 1 in 1,000 do), it's a dog that probably should never be taken hunting again, and it's a dog that you probably should not breed to as the propensity for a dog to go into skunk toxic shock is pretty clearly genetic and related to a weaker-than-normal renal function.

Most dogs that are skunked underground die right at the hole, and skunk toxic shock has nothing to do with it; the dog simply suffocates from lack of oxygen underground. Knowing how to give a dog CPR in the field is important, but no one talks about it, do they?

Nor do folks mention how to get acetycistein over the counter (Mucomyst) or that it is the only medicine that helps clear toxins from the lungs and perhaps strenghten renal function. The vet won't know that, but you can actually have it with you in your field vet kit; you do not need a veterinarian to get it or to administer it. Nor do you need any special knowledge to start a fluids IV -- just keep a bag of lactating ringers solution in the boot of your car or in your vet kit.


Rane Sessions said...

Patrick, I think you do an injustice to the seriousness of skunking. You do understand about what the spray is. Many vets are willing to learn... and there are vets who teach them without charge from far away.

Two vets -- one from New Jersey and one from Tennessee who are both experienced in dealing with skunkings contacted my vets to help. Both of these vets have helped other people whose dogs were skunked and did poorly as a result. They both say the severity of the reaction is situational -- they do not blame it on genetics.

I think there are lines that are more prone to a bad reaction, however -- all lines will succumb if they somehow get into the wrong set of circumstances.

Getting the dog out is of the essence -- no one disagrees with that.

Another thing I agree with you, is once a dog gets a transfusion, they are retired from the hunt field. They won't withstand another skunking crisis.

My dog's gums didn't go white, and toxic shock did set in. The anemia was monitored by CBC's. My dog crashed 4 days later, and that is typical in a severe skunking.

You may want to interview Dr. Doug Tack, or Dr. Debra Calloway to obtain information on skunking. It would be useful for a blog like your's that is well read to have accurate information for others to read. Both of these vets were selfless (and free) when my dog was skunked. My vet charged less than half of what you claim a vet bill is -- and my dog had all the treatment you described, plus a transfusion, plus steroids, plus anti vomiting meds -- that was something they had to get under control with her that I could not. My bill was less than $500, and my dog was at the vets for most of 4 days... and two check ups so far.

Rane Sessions

PBurns said...


No one is saying skunking is not serious -- if you had gone to any of the links I gave, or the section on skunking on the main web site at, or the skunk toxic shock section in the book, you would see that I am pretty firm about the fact that skunking can be VERY serious and certainly fatal.

That said, in my experience people panic too much after the fact, and prepare too little before the fact. Most folks are unprepared to get their dogs out of the ground, do not know how to locate their dogs, do not have the proper tools with them, have almost no veterinary kit with them, do not know how to give their dogs basic CPR, are not physically prepared to dig their dogs out of the ground, do not have mucomyst or steroids with them in the field (and they should), and know nothing about skunk toxic shock (or even that is is the same as Heinz Body Anemia). Then, after preparing not at all for what is predictable and assured if you dig on your dogs very often (i.e., a skunking) they panic and rush off to a vet who does not know his ass from a tea-kettle about this problem.

As I have said many times, the trick with emergencies is to prepare BEFORE the *it hits the fan.

As for skunks, I have been skunked quite a few times and lived to tell the tale. Because I dig a lot in an area that has skunks, I have also spent no small amount of time researching Heinz Body anemia and Hemolytic Anemia in dogs.

Here's what happens when a dog is skunked: Mercaptaps (the active ingredient in skunk spray) go inside the dog through the capillary net in the lungs, and are also absorbed through the skin, where they continue to leach into the blood stream, but much more slowly.

Mercaptans are theosufates, and they bind to red blood cells, causing the cell walls to bulge and rupture. This bulge and rupture is called "Heinz Body Anemia" and it is what cats get when they eat onions which also have theosufates in them. Ruptured red blood cells result in a dumping of iron and oxygen and the gums on the dog go WHITE. This is the first sign of trouble, and the thing you should be looking for in the first 20 minutes to two hours after being skunked. If a dogs's gums do not go white, that is a pretty good sign that the dog did not get too much spray in the lungs, and you are probably going to be OK.

Remember: If the dog did not get much skunk spray in the lungs, the gums will stay pink. Also remember that dogs NEVER die from skunk spray above ground (i.e. just from skin contact alone) as the leaching of skunk spray into the blood through fur/skin contact alone is too slow to overwhelm a dog if that is all the dog has to deal with.

The point here is that checking gum color at the hole is VERY important. If your dog's gums go white or very pale at the hole, you are in serious trouble. If you do not check this important first sign of trouble, the dog may recover a bit but (in a few rare cases) fail a few days later as liver function fails. If you miss the first sign (white or pale gums) you will may end up shocked when your dog has liver failure later on.

If the liver function fails, the blood will get dark because the dog is unable to process toxins. At this stage, a lot is going on: the dog's immune system may get cross-wired and start killing off healthy red blood cells thinking they are part of the problem, which is why corticosteroids are given to suppress the immune system. A transfusion may keep red blood cells in the system, but if the immune system continues to kill them off, and/or the liver does not kick in to filter off toxins, the new blood will go bad too. In short, at this point, you may shell out a lot of money and still have a dead dog. You will certainly have a dog that you should never hunt or breed.

The good news is that most serious liver problems can probably be avoided by focusing on the WHITE gums at the hole. If you see white gums, you have a dog with a LOT of initial toxin in its lungs entering its blood stream, and flushing the dog with a lot of fluids right away and for the next day or two is "Job One." Gettin water in the dog is important as urination is how the toxins clear the system. If the dog will not drink enough, then you need to hydrate the dog with a few bags of lactating ringers solution. Most folks do not keep this with them in their vehicles, but this stuff keeps forever and costs about $1.50 a unit, and you can administer it sub-Q yourself (no need to find a vein. Mucomyst also helps shed toxins as it is an expectorant (i.e. it help clear the mucous lining around the capillary net in the lungs).

As for vet prices, you are in Kentucky, and I am not. A 20,000 square foot lot down here will buy you a 100-acre farm with mansion in Kentucky, and the relative differential in veterinary prices reflects that. If you paid $500 to get your dog better in Kentucky, I am pretty confident that it would be at least triple that price down here. Maybe more.