The day I (almost) killed my dog

A Shih Tzu Puppy. Photo by Jim Winstead, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.


By Julia Runk Jones

About 40 years ago, we moved to a small town in central Massachusetts. It had one main street where everything happened, including a summer street festival. It wasn’t much but it was a big deal in a little town. So of course I went and of course, since it was outside, I took one of the dogs. I decided to take Scarlett, our aging Irish Setter, who otherwise didn’t have much opportunity for excitement.

An intense heat wave had just ended and half the town had turned out for the festival on a gorgeous, cool, blue-sky summer day. It could not have been a more perfect time and place to walk a dog. Or so I thought.

Scarlett loved it. She spent a good twenty minutes scarfing up bits of hotdog and bread rolls. I loved it too, so much so that I forgot all my reservations about dogs in crowds. I barely noticed the first time she threw up. It was more an embarrassment than a warning. The second time she threw up, it was  just a gagging reflex. Afterward, she just stood swaying for a moment with her head down, then collapsed in the crowded street. By now I was fully awake (finally) to the desperation of the problem. My sweet, gentle Scarlett was in a late stage of hyperthermia; the heat was killing her.

This was long before cell phones; I had no way to call for help. I gathered her in my arms and ran two blocks home, put her in the car, and drove frantically to our vet who lived in the next town over, leaving my husband to call ahead.

Scarlett was completely unconscious when I arrived, and the vet was waiting with a tub of icy water deep enough to cover her totally. I don’t remember what else that wonderful woman did that day, but Scarlett survived and had no obvious lasting damage. However, as the vet rather forcefully pointed out later, the poor dog had only minutes left before suffering lasting injury or death.

Why did this happen?

As I mentioned, it was a perfect day from a human perspective. The temperature was in the mid-70s and a slight breeze was tickling faces. But that was over five feet above the ground. The further down, the hotter. At ground level, there was no cooling breeze, only stifling heat radiating up from the asphalt. With her head less than three feet from the ground and no circulating air, Scarlett was without any resources to protect herself. When the air temperature is 77 degrees, asphalt temperature in full sun will be 125 degrees. (“Thermal Contact Burns from Streets and Highways”  James J. Berens, MD,  Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec 14, 1970). With her head less than three feet from the ground and no circulating air, Scarlett was without any resources to protect herself.

Today, there are undoubtedly more ways to bring down the temperature, safer than a sudden plunge into icy water. But when the core temperature rises, time is essential. Seconds matter.

No matter what the ambient air temperature, when walking dogs, put your hand on the surface and hold it there for 30 seconds. Is it too hot for comfort? Then it is too hot for your dog’s feet. He won’t always tell you. Many dogs are very stoic about pain. And, they reason, if YOU can walk on it, they can also. (They don’t understand shoes.)

Speaking of shoes, good luck getting a pair of those cute little doggie shoes on Roscoe. Like little Houdinis, my dogs can get out of any shoes in about one-tenth the time it took to get them on. Your mileage may vary.

Hot Car on a Cold Day

It doesn’t have to be hot out for a car to overheat. This next story is even more embarrassing, but I will tell you anyway, because it is  important. Not everyone wanders around a street festival in the middle of summer, but everyone goes shopping.

I was newly relocated to the Raleigh area where I grew up many, many years ago. On a bright late October day with a beautiful blue sky, I decided to buy a jigsaw puzzle. And, because the dogs needed an outing, I thought they might like a car trip to the tiny mall housing the specialty puzzle store. I packed up both dogs, Gesar, a young Rhodesian Ridgeback and Scarlett, the sweet old Irish Setter I had almost killed in the street fair three years before. (I am a slow learner.)

It was only 11 a.m. and the day was chilly. So I cracked the windows on my car,  gave them each a kiss and a biscuit and told them I would be back in ten minutes. I was only going to pick up a jigsaw puzzle, and already knew what I wanted: a 1000-piece puzzle with an interesting pattern. Really now, how long could that take?

Oh my, what a wonderful collection! There must have been a thousand different puzzles in that store. I was entranced. Ten minutes turned into twenty, then forty. By the time I bought a puzzle, the sun was already high in the sky. It was fast approaching the hottest time of day.

A wall of heat hit me when I stepped out, and I panicked. My dogs!

I ran, but even as I ran I saw across the lot that something was different about the car. Gesar’s head was leaning out of what had been a closed window. A woman was standing next to the car, petting him. The window glass was in pieces, all of them outside the car. The woman introduced herself, assured me the dogs were safe and then left.

I had just been forcibly introduced to the tool I now carry with me everywhere: the Resqme.

Resqme is a brand name for an emergency automobile escape tool. There are many other variations available but, like Kleenex, the name stuck and now generally is used for any small tool that safely and with almost no effort will turn a window into tiny pieces. You can buy any number of variations on Amazon for about $10 each. I carry two: one in my car and one in my bag. One end breaks windows; the other can safely cut seatbelts. It even works underwater. I am told most if not all emergency personnel and firefighters carry one, but I have not verified this. I carry two: one in my car and one in my bag.

Can you break someone else’s car window without getting into trouble if you see a dog in distress inside? I was grateful for the woman who not only broke my car window but stayed around to keep the dogs safely inside until I returned. Not everyone will feel that way. They may very well become enraged or call the police. So proceed with caution. Have the owner paged, or call the police yourself. And make sure you know the signs of heat stress. Don’t break a car window only to discover the dog was merely asleep. Oops.

What is the best time to walk a dog in the summer?

Is it better to walk your dog in the morning as it is heating up? Or in the evening when it is cooling down? The evening may feel cool to you, but not to old Sal down near the pavement. The heat there has been building all day.

Walk her in the morning, the coolest time of day. And if you plan to run her, do it at first light in summer. In high heat, there may be no safe time to run. Also, take coat into account when deciding on exercise.  A heavy undercoat is dangerous in the summer. If you can’t shave the coat, try to minimize it with a nice cut.

Leaving the dog outside when you go off to work? I know many people think it gives the dog a certain amount of freedom — more sights and sounds. And they are right, in a way. But if you do that, you are essentially depriving Otto of whatever he has left of your presence. And he may feel obliged to protect the house — from delivery people, passersby, falling leaves. It is a recipe for creating a barking nuisance.

With a little extra care and attention, you and Finnegan can have a wonderful summer together.

Memorials for the week

This column will contain memorials for local dogs when they pass away from us. If you live or work in Chapel Hill and have lost a beloved friend, send a note to and a photo to

Taffy, an astonishingly beautiful, gentle-tempered mix, mostly collie and Britany spaniel, was with Ann Stuart for 15 years and 9 months. Full of life until her final day, she went to doggie heaven on April 6.

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