Walking dogs in cold, wet weather

Pete’s dogs: Finzi in her Doggy Bag and Kiko in her Dogrobe
Pete’s dogs: Finzi in her Doggy Bag and Kiko in her Dogrobe

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Dogs need to be walked all through the winter, even when the weather is cold, wet and windy, and when hours of daylight are short. It's just part of the deal of owning a dog: they need to be walked.

Dog walking is not just for physical exercise: dogs get bored staying in the same home and garden area. It's like humans being confined to prison. Dogs get fed up with the same sights, sounds and smells, with no interesting or different social interactions and just the same dull routine. They love to go to different places, sniffing a variety of new scents, meeting a mixture of people and animals. A walk is a multi-sensory experience which is stimulating for the mind as well as the body. It's no wonder that dogs love going for walks as much as they do. 

So given that dogs need to be exercised, what are the particular challenges linked to exercising dogs in the winter?

First, the short hours of daylight

You need to plan a schedule for taking your dog for a walk. The aim should be half an hour twice a day, but given that it can be dark between 4pm and 8pm, it can be difficult to fit in daylight walks. For some people, a lunchtime walk may be possible. For others, it may be necessary to walk in darkness, but this also takes planning, to make sure that you are in a safe area that your dog also enjoys.

Another aspect to be addressed in low-light conditions is the fact that dogs need to be seen when walking with their owners beside the road, and also when running through a dark park off the leash. Reflective clothing items can help for the former, but LED illuminated collars and harnesses are better again, allowing pets to be seen whether in car headlights or out on their own in a remote field.  

Second, the cold weather

Big dogs, with long fur, don't need extra insulation: think of Huskies pulling sleds in the slow. It's true that there may be a case for some type of water resistant jacket in heavy rain, but in general, for big, long-haired dogs, coats are more about fashion than necessity.

Small to medium sized dogs have a bigger ratio of surface area to body weight, which means that they lose heat more easily. Furthermore, if they have short coats, they have less natural insulation. A carefully chosen coat can be worth getting for some smaller dogs. 

You need to choose a coat carefully: ideally, visit a pet shop to allow your pet to try different types on. It can be hard to get the size and feel of a coat right when shopping online, and it's important that it's just right. You are looking for insulation, water resistance and comfort; these are far more important than the look of the coat, and they are all difficult to judge without trying a coat on and examining it in detail. 

In countries like USA and Canada, where winter temperatures regularly fall far below freezing, doggy boots may be needed. In Ireland, it's rarely cold enough for dogs to suffer from chilled feet, but it makes sense to be aware of their comfort in ultra-cold weather. You can buy simple boots for such occasions, or alternatively, simply rinse their feet in warm water when you get home, drying them carefully aftwerwards.

Third, the wet weather

It's almost inevitable that dogs will get wet while out on an enthusiastic winter walk in the countryside. There are now a number of products available made with highly absorbent, lightweight towelling material: these can be used to dry dogs down after walks. My own favourite is the Doggy Bag, a microfibre zip up bag designed to encase dogs in the back of the car after a wet muddy walk. Once they've been zipped in a few times, dogs learn to enjoy the cosiness of these bags, and they mean that the animal is transformed from dripping mud-soaked messiness to towel-dried, dampness while they are in the back of the car on the ten minute drive home. You can also buy wrap-around jackets made of a similar type of absorbent material (e.g. Dogrobes). They are the equivalent of the insulated dressing-gown type robes that human sea swimmers use to keep warm after a swim.

Fourth, the dangers of stick chasing

It may seem like the most natural thing in the world to throw a stick for an enthusiastic dog. However owners should realise that a stick thrown for a dog is capable of causing horrific injuries when the sharp end of the dog accidentally lacerates the mouth or throat. I have seen dogs die as a result of injuries inflicted by a stick that had been thrown by a well-intentioned owner. It's far safer to throw a tennis ball.

Fifth, the dangers of letting dogs swim in swollen rivers

The winter months include periods of sustained, heavy rainfall, resulting in rivers that are unusually full and fast flowing. If your dog is used to paddling in certain waterways, they may be taken by surprise by the volume and current of water. Dogs don't have the analytical intelligence necessary to assess this type of risk, so it's up to owners to monitor any risk. Before you let your dog go for a swim, make sure that there's an easy way for them to clamber out afterwards. And if they do get into apparent trouble of any kind, do not go in after them: every year, there are incidents where owners drown after wading in to rescue a dog, and invariably, the dog survives anyway, finding a way out of a river further downstream.

Enjoy winter walks but be sensible!

Kerryman

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