Advice from a Pro: Is your dog ready for winter-weather walks?


Sure, it may not feel like it, but winter is here. And with the season comes a blizzard of fresh considerations. When is it too cold to walk the dog? Does Spot need a coat for daily strolls? Is eating snow the same as drinking water? Guest blogger Sarah Smith of Paws N Motion chimes in with seasoned words of wisdom about safer, healthier wintertime walks with your pooch. And here’s a word of advice for you: If you’re interested in contributing to the blog with a dog-friendly topic, don’t hold back. We want to hear from you! E-mail with your post idea.

The heart of winter is yet to come, and chances are your dog will still want or need to get out on a daily walk to exercise and stay current on the “news” of the neighborhood, even when the snow is piled higher than he is. Below are some safety tips to keep in mind as you make the most of your winter weather excursions.

Take extra precautions when exercising in cold temperatures. Like people, dogs’ hearts have to work harder in cold weather to regulate body temperature and keep extremities warm. A moderately hard jog performed in 50 degree temps feels more difficult and is more strenuous when it’s 10 degrees outside. Adjust your expectations and your route when exercising in colder temperatures and closely monitor your dog’s effort. Watch for labored breathing, hanging back, listlessness and signs of tenderness or discomfort in his feet and legs. If you notice signs of discomfort or distress, even if you haven’t gone as long as usual, stop. Forgo the outdoor exercise altogether if your dog is elderly, sick or injured, obese, or under 6 months old. These dogs have an even more difficult time regulating their body temperature in cold conditions.

Make sure your dog has access to plenty of water after exercise. It’s easy to become dehydrated in the winter because we may not feel as thirsty due to the cold. Eating snow is NOT an adequate substitute for fresh, room temperature water (for either of you!).

If it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your dog. While many dogs are able to withstand cold temperatures better than humans, dogs are still at risk for frostbite and hypothermia. In Minnesota, a wind chill advisory is issued when the combined temperature and wind reach -25°. At this temperature, exposed skin freezes within 10 to 30 minutes. When it gets this cold, skip the walk and make sure outdoor potty breaks are efficient. Play games indoors, teach a new trick, practice obedience training or occupy your dog with a puzzle toy to exercise his mind, or train him to walk or jog on a treadmill if you have one.

Keep his skin and coat healthy. Winter air can make your dog’s skin and coat dry and brittle, reducing its effectiveness at protecting him against the elements. Groom regularly with a soft bristle brush to distribute natural oils; avoid grooming that removes his undercoat; consider adding a fish oil supplement to his food; and reduce or temporarily eliminate baths to help his skin and coat retain natural moisture. If your pet still gets exceptionally stinky, try pet wipes instead of immersing him in water; mix a few drops of lavender essential oil with water in a spray bottle and give him a light misting. Or get a professional grooming job to ensure he’s thoroughly tended to and blow-dried.

Keep the feet neat. Check your dog’s feet after coming indoors. Wipe them down with a warm wet wash cloth to remove any chemicals or ice balls that may have accumulated between the toes. Check for cuts. Trim fur between the foot pads so snow doesn’t accumulate there.

Gear up for the cold. An effective cold weather coat for dogs is constructed of an outer shell that slicks moisture and a fleece or insulating lining to retain body heat. Look for a garment that will stay in place, doesn’t rub behind the legs, is easy to put on and take off, and that has as much chest and belly coverage as possible. Please opt for function over fashion! The coziest dog coat may not be the cutest, but your dog will thank you. Dog boots will protect his feet from the cold, ice, and chemicals. Boots should be properly sized, stay securely in place and be designed for maximum warmth, comfort, and protection. Make sure your dog’s toenails are short enough to allow proper fit. We’ve had good luck with Kondos Outdoors Dog Booties, which can be purchased singly (great in the event one gets lost) and are available at Bone Adventure.

Gear up for safety. Since the days are shorter, be prepared to walk in the dark. For you: A great option for seeing terrain and being visible to drivers is a headlamp. Drivers can spot an oncoming headlamp at around a half mile away, providing ample time to slow down or move over. A reflective vest or blinking LED lights are visible at about a quarter mile and should also be used. In addition to better visibility, improve your footing on packed snow and ice with a pair of Yak Trax or a similar traction device that you slip over your boots or shoes. For your pooch: Your dog can also be outfitted with LED. Glowdoggie makes an excellent (and stylish) LED collar. Use a 5 to 6 foot reflective leash rather than allowing your dog to wander at the end of a long line or retractable leash.

Teach your dog to walk on a loose leash. In the event that your dog pulls like a Husky, one of the best ways to keep both of you safe when walking over slippery, narrow, and uneven terrain is to teach him to not pull. Consult a professional dog trainer to get help with this before you or your dog is injured!

Think twice before letting your dog roam. Each year there is at least one tragic report of a dog venturing out on the ice and falling through. If you go near frozen rivers or lakes, it’s extremely important that you have control of your dog, as he does not understand the concept of “thin ice.” Dogs can also become lost and confused more easily in the winter because they can’t track as well over snow and ice.

Sarah Smith, CPT, is a professional dog trainer and the owner of Paws N Motion. Read reviews of Paws N Motion and learn more about Sarah in the Sidewalk Dog Directory.