Winter walks are a perfect way to explore the great outdoors; from easier-to-spot birds to the country pub oasis that’s calling you in for a hot meal. They are also ideal for spending time with our dogs, letting them get out of the house and stimulating their senses as they snuffle among the leaves.
Braving the chill and breathing in the crisp winter air is a rewarding experience for us and our dogs. It stops us from being cooped up for too long, and the mental health benefits associated with being in nature help to instantly boost our moods.
While there are many positives about walking your dog in winter, there are also some things that dog owners must consider when stepping out into the cold.
So let’s wrap ourselves in our coats and scarves, delve into the best ways to enjoy winter activities with dogs, and discover how to protect our four-legged friends from Jack Frost nipping at their noses.
Wrapping up warm – humans and dogs
The first thing people should do when embarking on a winter walk is to wrap themselves up. Coats and hats are a great start for winter walking gear but we must consider the weather more carefully to determine our footwear, rain protection and hands.
Wearing gloves and holding a lead can be difficult, particularly when trying to pick up and tie a poop bag. Winter mittens that flap open are a good option here as they offer the best of both worlds. Consider a base layer for extra cold days as it absorbs sweat and acts as a second skin, helping to regulate your temperature, and appropriate waterproofs.
As for your dog, it’s important to consider its breed first and foremost. Some are better conditioned for handling the cold than others, like Huskies and German Shepherds, while others like Boxers and Chihuahuas aren’t.
A good guide is the length of their fur, the longer it is the better their insulation. For dogs that struggle in the cold, a fleece jumper or waterproof coat helps them to keep the cold at bay and focus on having fun as they run wild.
Winter paw protection
We must protect our dogs’ paws from the freezing snow and ice but it’s not just the temperature we must be concerned about during winter walks. Salt, grit and even de-icer can find their way onto their feet, acting as an irritant to their skin and making life uncomfortable as snow packs into the gaps between their pads.
In more urban environments, avoid places where cars may have used de-icer to clear their windows as the chemicals involved are irritating to their skin. Paw balm can act as a layer of protection against harmful materials while you are outside but when you get home it’s important to wash their paws to remove anything lingering.
Some dogs get on with protective boots but they aren’t for every pooch, and all will require some training and familiarising before they are comfortable wearing them.
How long is it safe for dogs to walk in frost and snow?
Most dogs are fine to walk in frost and snow for short periods thanks to their resilient paws. Unlike humans, who wouldn’t dream of walking barefoot outside in winter, dogs’ paws are made up of thick layers of skin, elastic fibres and fat (known as adipose tissue). This helps protect their feet in a variety of conditions but it’s not indefinite and we must pay close attention to our dogs’ paws in the winter.
Once more, how long your dog can play in the snow and frost depends on the breed. Those with more fat and fur enjoy better insulation, while lean breeds such as greyhounds or whippets are at much higher risk of hypothermia and they should be restricted to 10 or 20 minutes to avoid coming to any harm.
As the ground becomes littered with leaves, scavenging for dogs can be much more exciting than at other times of the year. But, this can also lead to health complications if they ingest or are exposed to bacteria that are harmful to them.
Pay particular attention to your dog’s worming schedule to ensure they remain parasite free and don’t represent a risk to you and your family. Symptoms to look out for a worm infection include weight loss, a lack of energy, scooting their bottom along the floor or ground and a dull coat.
Dogs can pick up infections while scavenging from snails or slugs, ingesting poisonous materials such as acorns, or disease-carrying parasites. While some snuffling and scavenging can be encouraged, try to limit your dog to reduce the risk of an infection being picked up.
Playing in the snow
A long walk might not be a great option for exercising your dog in frosty conditions but it’s perfectly fine to play with your dog in the snow for a short while. Introducing dogs to the joys of snowballs will typically be well received, especially if they enjoy playing with balls. If the snow is clean it is safe for them to ingest in small quantities but if it contains toxic substances from de-icer, antifreeze or grit, it may be contaminated.
Best practices when walking dogs in winter
Pay attention to the temperature before leaving home, anything below freezing is worth noting and the smaller your dog, the faster they will be impacted by the cold. When walking in the snow, you may wish to keep your dog on a lead to ensure they don’t become disorientated and lost.
However, with the ground prone to becoming slippery, hands-free leads that attach to your midriff rather than staying in your hand are a safer option. They give you two hands to help balance and if you do fall you won’t be dragging your dog down with you.
Stick to routes that you are familiar with and that are paved or well-trodden as snow can hide trip hazards like branches and rocks. Similarly, even though dogs are typically lighter than us, avoid letting them run over frozen bodies of water, such as ponds or lakes, as the risks of them falling in are high. Not only will your dog be frozen but you risk your own safety by jumping in after them.
How to know if your dog is too cold
While some breeds are more resilient to the cold than others, it’s still important to look out for the signs that your dog has had enough of being outside in winter. You know what normal behaviour is for your dog and if they begin to display anything slightly different it’s their way of telling you they want to go home. Shivering is an obvious sign but also whimpering, licking and pawing at you are also indications that the walk is over