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Winter brings about a wonderful set of outside options for having fun with your dog. Running, hiking, snowshoeing and skiing are fun activities for our hounds and provide new mental and physical challenges that help them become more heathy, confident, balanced, calm dogs.
Winter also brings some challenging conditions for your dog and there are some extra considerations you might take to make to keep them happy and healthy on the snowy trail.
Any kind of rough, hot or cold terrain is hard on paws. Snow, ice and melting-chemicals are a nightmare for your pooch’s pads. While frostbite isn’t hugely common, abrasions, chemical blisters and torn nails are more likely.
A natural, simple and effective option is paw balm. The king of these is Mushers Secret but there are many options, including some DIY solutions too. Matt Gunn from the Aspiring Avalanche Dogs in New Zealand conditions his crew’s paws two-to-three times a week before and during the season and keeps a watchful eye on them every day. Gunn stresses the importance of getting right up between the toes as well as on the bottoms of the paws to stop snowballs from forming. He also trims some of the excess hair between the toes to reduce ice sticking to the fur which is the uncomfortable equivalent of having stones in your shoes.
One way to tell if your dog is cold is to feel its ears, skin and fur. If they feel cold, your dog is cold.
These balms contain natural waxes that condition skin and form a barrier to snow, ice, chemicals and even sand or heat. Typically, and most importantly, these are all natural, nontoxic and are semi-permeable so dogs are able to sweat freely through their paws (as they do). DIY solutions include spraying with cooking oil or applying coconut oil which has the added bonus of softening your dog’s coat as they incessantly lick off its delicious goodness.
The often hilariously awkward dog boot is another answer. Some dogs will tolerate them and a percentage of those will manage to not kick them off while running. Others look at you as if you’ve taken their last shred of dignity (the only bit left over from that drag-queen cowgirl costume on Halloween) and proceed to goose-step around the living room before chewing through the Velcro while you dejectedly list “set of three dog boots, worn once inside” on Ebay.
If your dog will wear boots, and they stay on, be sure to look for signs of wear on fur where they fasten, abrasions from seams and, in the case of heavier boots, signs of joint fatigue around the carpal and pastern joints (ankles) caused by the additional stress of the boot’s weight and differences in gait when wearing them. Dogs sweat through their paw pads so bear in mind that this cooling mechanism won’t be working as efficiently as usual in boots.
Finally, trim your dog’s toenails regularly, including dew claws to minimize the risk of tears and snags in toenails and outerwear.
Unless your dog is built for the cold, fur isn’t necessarily a great insulator against wind, water and transitions from periods of intense activity to rest. Thin, single coated dogs like pointers, vizslas and ridgebacks have very thin coats and cool around their core quickly when bowling through snow. The incredibly popular any-and-everything-doodle also can have thinner coats than their contributing breeds and may not insulate well, particularly when wet.
One way to tell if your dog is cold is to feel its ears, skin and fur. If they feel cold, your dog is cold. Also look for behavioral signs such as shaking (a sign of cold as well as anxiety), lethargy, yawning (again this is anxious behavior and signals discomfort) and suddenly turning for home on the trail. A dog’s body temperature only needs to drop one or so degree F to trigger hypothermia (from an average of 101-102F core body temperature to 100). If this does occur, wrap the dog in warm clothing or blankets and if possible, give warm fluids.
Snow balls forming in fur is a consideration for any dog with a long coat. These tend to form around the feet (avoidable with balms mentioned above) and behind the legs. Mushers often trim this hair as it can cause abrasions. There are some doggie-onesies that prevent this altogether and, while they may look strange, can help keep snowballs at bay. When considering these, think about how easily your dog will be able to move inside the suit. While blocking snow and wind these are less insulating than other coats so are not as suitable for warming up.
Another tip from Gunn is to take a little powdered beef stock with you to add to water for dogs that need to drink but may not want to.
Dog jackets have come a long way and you’ll find some that use human grade materials like breathable soft shells, merino wool, Pertex® and Thinsulate® to provide lightweight, breathable protection from the elements. Look for coat rather than cape-style jackets that cover the area between the front legs and under the belly. For activity jackets look for ones that are cut higher over the shoulder so they don’t restrict shoulder movement. Cape-style coats, open at the chest, covering the top of the dog are OK for gentle strolls but will be no match for more intense activities. Keep an eye on coats that get saturated as these will likely stop warming and start cooling your dog. Zipper fastenings are secure but can be tricky and can snag skin and fur. Avoid Velcro as fur and snow reduce its effectiveness.
Even if your dog doesn’t need protection from the weather while moving, consider wrapping it up when you stop to let it cool down slowly or remain warm if left in the car. If nothing else, it’s much nicer to have a dry and relatively clean dog in your car on the way home and jackets provide a great barrier to dirt and water trapped in fur.
Remember how thirsty you are after a day in the snow? It’s pretty much the same for your dog and often plunging through snow can be harder work than blazing summer trials. While linked to body temperature, hydration is about moisture and how much panting is required to cool the effort of keeping up with you on your runs, snowshoes or skis.
So, even-though it’s not hot, take your trail bowl and water for your dog. Another tip from Gunn is to take a little powdered beef stock with you to add to water for dogs that need to drink but may not want to. It kind of makes it like beer, (a popular choice for dehydrated humans). If your dog is very cold, consider using lukewarm water with the stock to make a tasty broth.
Keep Your Distance
If you’re running, skiing or snowshoeing with your dog, take extra care with the space between you.
Gunn trains all their avalanche search dogs to two distances: in close and out wide. He also starts dogs off slowly on skis and takes special care where space is tight or conditions might mean more frequent or un-even turns.
When buying ice spikes or tracks for your shoes think of what might happen if you were to accidentally catch a paw underneath them and make your choice wisely. Plugs are the least likely to cause injury, but if you need something more grippy think about the diamond tracks rather than spiked crampon styles. Snow shoes are even more awkward and sliced legs and paws from dogs crossing ski edges are more common than we may think.
If you have your dog on a leash, consider something hands-free. Hands-free leashes are great for keeping balance and for using poles when skiing, snowshoeing or running. Some offer length adjustments so you can have your dog closer in urban environments and have more room on the singletrack.
Don’t Leave Home Without This
When you hit the hills with your dog, take a roll of self-adhesive stretchy bandage with you. It is like a first aid kit in a roll and can be used to help splint a limb, as a temporary boot, as a wound dressing (pack optional gauze pad), even a muzzle if you need to do something unpleasant that might frighten your dog and induce a fear-snap. This stuff is cheap and easy to carry and invaluable when things go south.
When It’s Just Not ‘Going Out’ Weather
If your dog is anything like ours, their patterns are set with atomic-clock accuracy to breakfast, dinner and outside time. Getting outside and moving with your dog is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our dogs for both physical and mental wellbeing. As descendants of wolves, they like to migrate every day with their pack (even if that’s just you) and can become frustrated when this doesn’t happen. However, when it’s really not an outside day and your dog’s alarm clock simply won’t snooze, then animal behaviorist and zoologist Mark Vette recommends taking your dog outside for just a few minutes with you so it knows that the weather isn’t migration-friendly and that staying inside binge watching Netflix is today’s activity while resting up for the fresh powder tomorrow. Some good indoor activities to do with your dog include playing games like hide and seek, asking your dog to look for things that you have put a particular scent on (clove is excellent for beginners) or giving them toys that hide treats inside like puzzles.
One part outdoorsy-type, one part crazy-dog-lady and one part designer, Angela Hook co-founded New Zealand’s D-fa Dogs and is now co-owner and part of the product development crew at Stunt Puppy USA.