Some time when you’re sitting around the house, stroke the underside of your dog’s paw both backward and forward. Backward, it will be smooth as leather, forward as rough and coarse as sand paper. This is because the scales on a dog’s pads are angled back like a snake’s for traction. What an amazing adaptation.
I’ve also noticed when my hunting dog, a springer spaniel named Hunter, runs, his paw print is twice the size than when he walks. When running, his four toes really spread out and the claws penetrate deeper for maximum traction. His toes are also half-webbed, adding more traction, especially when swimming. Combined with the traction scales on his pads, no wonder dogs can move with such speed, power and agility. When they pour on the speed, this four-wheel traction effect just increases.
How static this makes our measly two feet seem when trundled in stiff boots that are often covered with mud, further reducing traction and agility. Ever walk or run barefoot? Your toes really dig in just like a dog’s. A dog, in fact, walks on his toes like a horse, not the soles of his feet like us.
The Odd Parts
The small pad further up a dog’s front leg, or carpal pad, is used for additional traction when stopping or descending slopes as the foreleg is lower to the ground. Some speculate that dew claws were once used to help hold down large prey or bones for chewing.
Many know that dogs perspire through their pads as well as their tongues. I’ve felt this when my dog is hot from running and have checked his pads for thorns or cuts. You can feel the moisture coming off their pads or see it when they walk on concrete. I didn’t know, however, that dogs have scent glands on the bottoms of their feet for tracking and marking territory. I always wondered why they paw up the ground sometimes with their hind paws, kicking up great streams of dirt. Maybe that is why…they are scent marking.
Springers have a lot of long fur between their foot pads. This is sometimes not a good thing since it holds burrs, and in cold, snowy conditions, gathers irritating ice balls which they are constantly chewing off. Yet, the foot fur probably also protects them against those same thorns and cold.
Pad cuts are the injury I’ve seen most often on my hunting dogs. If my dog is limping or hopping on three or even two legs, it’s usually a thorn in a pad, in between them or a cut. They try to bite off thorns, but often need help since thorns and burrs are usually very small or deeply imbedded. If a pad suffers a bad cut, I stop hunting my dog right away and give him anywhere from a half to two days off. I’ve noticed their pads heal quickly, probably because they lick them so much. The only state I’ve ever hunted where owners routinely put booties on their gun dogs is in Arizona quail country where large, impaling cactus thorns are numerous.
A Healing Lick
Of all a dog’s body parts, they seem most fastidious about their paws. When done hunting, the paws are the first place a dog begins grooming. They lavish great attention and time on keeping their paws fit. It really is amazing how a dog can keep a cut paw from infection by regular licking. For an animal that sometimes eats feces, decaying flesh and other revolting items, this is truly a medical feat (no pun intended!)
I seldom have to trim my dog’s toenails since I run him 3-4 times/week in fair weather, walk him all other days and they wear naturally. I run him via bicycle and off-leash in nearby forests and lakes when and where allowed. This keeps pads tough and nails fit, to say nothing of muscle tone, weight and wind. Do this, and when hunting season arrives, they’ll be ready for action and able to withstand it too.
Heart to Paw
Of course, one of the most endearing behaviors exhibited by a dog and his paw has nothing to do with hunting, but rather communication with his master. Hunter paws the air in excitement when I come up the stairs at night, he paws my hand when he wants to be petted more and swipes and stomps at me playfully when rough housing. At night, he’ll lick the sides of his paw and clean his eyes and face like a cat. Sometimes when sleeping near, he’ll reach out with one paw and touch me to make sure I’m there. Surely, a dog’s paw is as much connected to his heart as to his leg.
Mark Herwig is editor of the Pheasants Forever Journal and Quail Forever Journal. Email Mark at email@example.com.