The warmer weather of the spring-summer survey months can bring plenty of challenges when working a dog in the natural environment, including careful consideration of working dogs in hotter conditions, and an increased risk of snakes in the survey area. The spring rain can also mean vegetation is at its most difficult, with dense and high grasses not uncommon. As these grasses start to dry out and release seeds, an additional challenge appears, as these grass seeds can attach to our dog’s fur and become embedded in their skin. This is a risk we face daily, whether we are working our dogs in the field or have them resting at home.
Grass seeds have sharp tips enabling them to pierce skin and migrate through the body. They can lodge in any part of a dog’s body, including the ears, eyes, paws, chest, and mouth. Once they penetrate the skin, they can travel deep into the dog’s body and cause serious infection, with surgery the only option. They can also cause eye injuries, muscle damage, and rupture ear drums. This can cause a lot of pain for our dogs, and potential time out of the field.
In Australia, the grasses that cause these problems typically flower from October to December in response to the spring rain, and with the Bureau of Meteorology declaring a La Niña this spring-summer season, wetter-than-average conditions across the east and north of Australia may lead to greater grass growth and seed production. Although grass seeds seem unavoidable at times, it is critical to try and prevent them from embedding in a dog’s skin. To help avoid any unnecessary discomfort, pain, or vet visits, there are several preventative considerations and safety measures we make during grass seed season.
1. Grooming. Dogs with medium-length coats, in contrast to short-haired or long-haired coats, are at higher risk of grass seed injuries due to a higher-density undercoat that can trap grass awn (the hard, arrow shaped case that surrounds the seed) and hold them closely against the skin.
A good measure is to ensure our dogs (particularly our border collies) are brushed weekly at least, to try and rid them of the dense undercoats that can trap grass seeds. We will also cut back hair between the toes or at their back end to stop these areas from collecting seed.
2. Check training. Checking our dogs for grass seeds is a regular occurrence, but some dogs don’t like to be touched or checked as much as others, particularly around the paws. Some basic positive reinforcement training of checking paws, groin, joint areas, etc., at home in a safe environment helps massively when it comes to checking them without objections in the field. Checking for grass seeds can also be a good bonding exercise. Our dogs know we are working to make sure they are comfortable, and they have learnt to relax and enjoy the deseeding. This is particularly the case when we do our checks at home, on the couch.
3. Scheduling. Because of the dense vegetation at this time of year, a survey can take double the time it would in autumn or winter, as we can spend up to half of the survey time checking over our dogs for grass seeds. Knowing surveys will take longer, and scheduling for this, avoids us having to rush to finish a survey day. We don’t get through as much as we do in autumn or winter in a day, but we are prepared for that.
4. Ground maintenance. At this time of year, we always make sure our training and exercise grounds are mowed regularly. Keeping the grass short reduces the risk of grass seeds attaching to the dogs.
IN THE FIELD
1. Checking the dog. We ask all our handlers to be extra vigilant when checking the dogs for any foreign objects at this time of year. We’ll often check the dogs every fifteen minutes during a search, straight after a search on the back of the ute, and again as soon as we return to base. Time is of the essence, as the longer a grass seed is attached to a dog, the greater the chance it has of embedding into and migrating around the body. It is important to check, check and check again!
2. Choosing your team mate carefully. We have a couple of short haired kelpie-crosses in the Skylos ranks. It was very noticeable to us last grass seed season that the short-haired kelpies do not harbour nearly as many grass seeds as our medium-haired border collies. Our time in the field was significantly reduced when working the kelpies over the border collies in grass seed prone areas. Maintenance time during and after a search was minimal in comparison. Checks would take typically 5 – 10 minutes. In contrast, working a border collie in the same environment could add an additional 30 – 40 minutes per survey for checks.
With the warmer conditions and risk of snakes, being time efficient at this time of year is a big safety factor. Whenever possible, and particularly on our wind farms, we’ll be systematic with which dog goes into which survey area.
3. Using PPE. There are several options that can help minimise grass seeds attaching to a dog:
- Booties. We find between the toes a real grass seed hot spot for our dogs, and booties are great for reducing this risk. However, it is important to remember dogs expel heat from their pads; therefore, we ensure the boots come off at regular intervals.
- Faceguards. These can be used to prevent the seeds entering the dog’s nose, mouth, or ears. We haven’t yet tried these ourselves but have seen them used on working dogs in the environment with other organisations at what seems to be a good effect.
- Work harnesses. Contrastingly, work harnesses can be more of a hinderance than help during grass seed season, as grass seeds can get stuck in them, making it uncomfortable for the dog. It’s not uncommon for us to remove the harness during surveys in high grassed areas if this is the case.
4. Observe your dog. We closely monitor each dog’s gait and behaviour. If our dogs are not moving freely, we will stop and give them a good look over. In time, the dogs learn to let us know when they are not comfortable. Essentially, we inadvertently train them to know discomfort in the work environment is not ok or expected from them.
5. Avoid areas. If we don’t have to, we won’t go in areas with high grass seed risks. Elimination is the best form of risk mitigation, and we try to do this if practical.
These are the steps we take to try and prevent grass seeds attaching and embedding in our dogs. However, if we suspect a dog has a grass seed that we cannot remove ourselves, we take the dog to the vet immediately for further examination.
Beyond the welfare we have for of our dogs, we also have a duty of care for the environments we work in.
We regularly travel between different scheduled sites each month, surveying in different Ecological Vegetation Classes (EVCs). Not only must the dogs be groomed and checked to remove any organic matter, but our own equipment must also be checked prior to leaving site. Boots and gaiters are particularly bad at harbouring foreign objects. Once the dog has been checked and is back in the vehicle, we’ll spend additional time on site removing any seeds from our own personal equipment, too.
Although grass seeds are a hazard of working a dog in the natural environment, some smart decisions, regular checking, use of PPE, and a keen observation of your four-legged teammate, will dramatically reduce the likelihood of a serious grass seed embedment. Plus, we have never had any complaints of additional couch checking/cuddling time from our lot!
For more information on the symptoms of grass seed embedment, and treatment, we recommend this article by Australian Dog Lovers:  https://www.australiandoglover.com/2018/11/dangers-of-grass-seeds-for-dogs.html
Grass seed image credit: https://www.hallvet.com.au/2017/11/grass-seeds-and-your-dog/