Evolution is a funny thing and how we take advantage of it is what puts us at the top of the food chain.
There are three basic foot types and a number of features when it comes to dogs’ feet.
Understanding what each look like and the benefits they bring will help you choose the right dog for your preferred prey when hunting. Whilst some of these traits are common to a breed, not all individuals develop them to the same extent. This is something to consider when choosing your next pup from among its litter mates.
The three main foot types are the round (cat-like) type, the elongated (hare/rabbit) type and the in-between oval (half hare) type.
The main feature hunters need to consider is webbing and dew claws.
The “cat foot” has short, well-arched toes that are tight and compact in their arrangement, giving the overall foot a round shape. This high ‘spring’ type conformation means that lifting the limb is more effortless and these breeds are often your endurance animals, especially on firm surfaces.
The advantage of this firm base means they are generally less likely to suffer from foot trauma, particularly from penetrating injuries. Lacking length and contact through the shorter toe, this foot shape in general is less able to take off at speed and does not have the stability for sudden turns at pace.
These guys are your marathon runners. Very few hunting breeds have this foot type, with a couple of notable exceptions — the gordon setter and the cocker spaniel amongst them. Hunting ground birds via flushing in a dry stubble environment, where sprinting and sudden turns are not required, these guys will trot all day when fit.
Other spaniels, such as the Brittany, have a cat-like foot with slightly longer central toes and are often a little more agile on their feet. Round feet with webbing are particularly suited to muddy marsh-type environments and swimming and the water — spaniel breeds fall into this group.
The hare-foot group has a more triangular print, not unlike that of a deer in its overall outline, with the middle toes being much longer than the outside toes. This feature means the dog does not have the spring in its step and therefore the stride is less energy efficient, so it cannot generally be maintained for prolonged periods.
What it does give is traction, so they have a faster take off and sprint speed and better balance for turning at speed, especially when those toes dig in.
If hunting rabbits and hares is your thing, then these feet will be found on greyhounds and whippets.
I hope this is all starting to make sense now.
The last group is the in-betweeners with the oval or half-hare group. Similar to the cat-like feet, their foot is compact, however, they have longer toes and the central toes are slightly longer than the outer toes, leaving an oval-shaped print. Pack dogs, scent hounds and sight hounds generally have this foot shape.
These guys can have good pace over longer distance, are sturdier over rough terrain but can be a little less steady on the tight turns at speed.
The pack dogs like the beagle and fox hound have the slightly tighter foot in the group and are great stayers, especially when rough country running for hours on end. (And yes, before you all get excited, I know we are no longer allowed to use fox hounds to hunt deer in Australia).
The breeds with slightly longer toes are better at speed but again not endurance and your salukis and borzois fit into the slightly longer variety.
Interestingly though, it does make them great in sand or softer surfaces. The little extra toe length and the elongated legs and chest (increased respiratory capacity) gives this group in the middle great variety. Labradors have the second longest toes in the group.
Now what about webbed feet, I hear you ask? All three foot shapes can come in webbed varieties and variations in the extent of the webbing. But most fall into the half-hare foot group.
In the round/cat-like group, the water spaniels are king. With large round heavily webbed feet, these guys can walk across muddy surfaces without sinking in, and sustain prolonged swimming.
The oval group with webbing is where the pointers, labs and weimaraner fit in. The degree of webbing can vary significantly, so if you are looking to duck hunt pay particular attention to the feet when selecting your pup. If you are looking to stalk then this feature is less important, but it will reduce splaying of the toes and provide greater stability on uneven surfaces, making this lot your all-terrain group.
Hare-foot breeds do not generally have webbed feet: with the long toes this can be an undesirable trait as it may split. The tears to webbing with the long toes is almost impossible to get to repair even with suturing. As vets we often have to sew the split top side to bottom leaving it as a ‘V’, and it can cause ongoing pain and lameness. These breeds with their ‘pointed’ feet often do not make great swimmers as the foot shape creates little resistance or drag in the water and so does not propel them.
Nail and pad care are essential for healthy feet.
Chronically long nails are at greater risk of getting torn or split, and in the upright feet of the round and oval foot breeds, also open up the compact foot and stretch the supporting ligaments causing the dog to become flat-footed.
Damage may result in trauma to the small sesamoid bones either side of each joint in the toes, arthritis and constant pain. The importance of nail care and length cannot be underestimated, so training your pup from an early age to have its feet fiddled with and nails trimmed will make your life and theirs much easier.
Pads are also a critical part of the foot, providing comfort, grip and friction for stopping. If you are planning on working your dog on rough ground start conditioning the pads in the off-season. Walking on rough surfaces such as bitumen and hard, rocky ground will help, in much the same way as our feet will harden if we get around in bare feet.
Avoid hot surfaces to minimise the risk of blistering and damage to the pads; this may put your mate on the sideline for weeks, or months in severe cases.
Cuts to the pads should be cleaned thoroughly, remove any foreign objects, then wrap lightly in a well-padded cotton wool bandage. If bleeding (and you remember back to my first F&G article), a sanitary pad makes a great sterile, absorbent dressing and then bandage over the top. Small cuts can be held together with super-glue temporarily, however, be careful not to apply too much as it can be an irritant and you must have areas of wound contact without glue in the middle or it cannot heal.
It is also handy if you don’t stick yourself to the dog.
Longer or deeper wounds should be sutured to get them to heal as quickly as possible and to reduce lost hunt time.
Happy hunting everyone.
PS: Darcy update. She is now 12 months old and has proven herself to be quite the deer stalker. We have put up several Sambar, including one handsome stag and a couple of fallow spikey. Although with the onset of the warmer weather the last few days she is also brilliant on pint with the blow flies. This is going to be a long summer!
Contributed by Karen Davies.