Exercise doesn’t need to stop because of the snow
Just as it is for us humans, winter can make it hard to keep up an exercise routine for our dogs as well. Cold temperatures, snow and shorter days are among the challenges that can make exercising dogs outdoors in the winter season difficult and potentially hazardous. While walking your dog is a great way to exercise them year-round, there’s lots to consider before attaching their leash in the winter months.
Please note that I am not a veterinarian nor am I an animal health care professional. I am simply an experienced dog owner and these are my tips on exercising dogs in the winter along with warnings of potential seasonal dangers. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding the condition and/or the safety of your dog.
Seasonal dangers of walking your dog outside include Antifreeze, because it can be fatal if ingested. One danger comes from your pup walking through spilled antifreeze and then licking his paws afterward, which is why you always want to keep your dog leashed in areas where cars frequent, and especially where they are parked. I use a cheap dollar store basin filled with warm water to rinse off my dogs’ paws after a winter walk. They don’t love it, but it gives me peace of mind that their paws are clean (my floors appreciate it too).
Let’s get back to Antifreeze for a moment. Ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in most antifreeze brands, has an inviting aroma and a sweet flavour. Its appealing smell and taste often tempt dogs to ingest this highly poisonous substance. Be sure to keep antifreeze sealed and away from your dogs as well as to clean up spills immediately and thoroughly. You should also fix any leaks quickly.
Antifreeze poisoning occurs in two phases. In the first phase, the dog typically appears lethargic, disoriented, uncoordinated and groggy. Symptoms usually appear 30 minutes to one hour after ingestion and can last for several hours. If your dog is behaving this way, don't delay. Call a veterinarian. Consider whether any of their activities could have brought them into contact with antifreeze. The second phase, which can last up to three days, is characterized by symptoms such as vomiting, oral and gastric ulcers, kidney failure, coma and sadly, death. Remember that you know your dog better than anyone else so if they are showing changes in behaviour or have ongoing digestive problems, talk to your dog’s veterinary team.
Salt and other chemicals used to melt ice can irritate your dog's skin. A high quality, professionally fitted boot can help with this issue. If your dogs are like mine and will have nothing to do with boots, keep a close eye on them during walks as they may need you to pick a bit of salt out from beneath their paws several times throughout a walk. Once home, use your warm water basin and a clean towel to be certain there’s no extra salt or other chemical left over in the pads. Some owners use a wax based cream like the ones popular with sled dogs. If you use a cream, you will have to still wash off the paws as the cream can hold substances that your dog might lick off.
The cold, harsh winter weather can pose a number of dangers and challenges for certain dogs. Puppies and senior dogs are more susceptible to extreme temperatures and are at higher risk for frostbite and hypothermia. Dogs with certain medical conditions, such as thyroid disease or chronic lung problems, should also have very limited exposure to cold air. Be sure to protect dogs that are susceptible to cold temperatures, including those mentioned above as well as small breeds and dogs with short coats and/or low body fat, with a properly fitted water-resistant coat.
With all this being said, some dogs, especially the breeds of Nordic decent, love a good long walk in the winter, so bundle up and invest a great boot to help you to stay vertical in the snow and ice. With double-coated breeds, you can even try activities like sledding and skijoring. Skiijoring which is where the cross-country skier provides power with skis and poles, and the dog adds additional power by running and pulling. I’ve even seen an Alaskan Malamute in my neighbourhood pulling a pair of kids in a tube around the park. All parties seemed delighted.
Take the fun inside!
For many dogs and owners, extended outdoor exercise in the wintertime simply isn’t an option, so on top of quicker outdoor walks, they have to get their exercise indoors. Luckily, there are many great ways to keep your dog in shape inside.
Hide and seek is a great game that allows a dog to use their nose, body and mind. Put your dog in another room first or use this game as a great way to practice your dog’s “stay” command. Hide a treat and let them find it. Keep in mind that in his game, you aren’t limited to using food which can pack on the pounds. Hide a toy or get the family involved and have your dog find someone!
Make fetch happen! If your house has a long hallway or a spacious room, grab your dog’s favorite toy and toss it around for a while. This game presents lots of training opportunities include the commands “give it”, “sit”, “stay” and “wait”.
Make an indoor agility course. I used to do this all the time with my dogs as a child. By using chairs, blankets, broomsticks, hula hoops, and even boxes from Christmas gifts to make a tunnel I would create a whole course in my basement. Before starting any jumping, speak with your veterinarian to check that your dog can handle it. Keep in mind that puppies need to skip the jumping as their bones and growth plates are still developing. I would adjust the height of the jumps and the course length for older dogs.
Get out, get active and meet other dog lovers by taking a class! Take an indoor agility classes, learn Flyball or even get your dog into a doggie swimming pool! Your dog will have fun and you will too!
You may have noticed that I did not suggest stair climbing. Some people have their dogs run up and down the stairs to exercise them. I personally think a lot more can go wrong than can do right there. Joint issue in older dogs could result in injuries, you could cause damage a growing puppy (especially one of a larger or giant breed) and you yourself could fall.
With a bit of planning and caution this season can still provide exercise opportunities for both you and your dog. Bundle up, be creative and have fun!