Surviving a Snowy Winter with Your Dog

A professional dog walker shares seven tips that will help make winter your dog’s new favorite time of year!
By Aileen Whitty, December 2020, Updated January 2021
dog outside temperature safe

Like mail carriers, dog walkers can be found out and about with their dogs in the sun, in the rain, in the snow and in the “dark of night.” Each condition and each season offers its own challenges, some more than others. Winter falls into the “more than others” category, particularly in the northern latitudes. Snow, sleet, ice and frigid cold can make even an everyday walk in the park less than desirable (or enjoyable) for both humans and canines. Here are some tips for making the season more tolerable all around.

1. Know your dog’s tolerance for cold.

Each dog has a different threshold for cold tolerance, which is greatly dependent on the dog’s breeding. Have a Newfoundland or a Husky? Great! They, and many other hardy, double-coated breeds, are better prepared for cold weather and can handle longer outings in harsher conditions. Short-haired or slick-coated dogs like Greyhounds, Weimaraners or Pugs may not find the outdoors as enticing, so bundle them up as needed, and keep a careful eye for signs of chill (shivering, whining, excessive paw-licking, holding paws off the ground, tail-tucking). If you see any of those signs, it’s time to go back inside. Next time, consider adding a layer, or even doggy booties.

How Cold Is Too Cold For Dogs?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. A lot depends on a dog’s age, size, coat type and individual preference. But generally, most healthy adult dogs are okay until temperatures fall below 45°F. At that point, some dogs may become uncomfortable. Below 32°F, small-breed dogs, dogs with thin coats, and very young or very old dogs will be negatively affected by the cold. At 20°F and below, any dog is in danger of developing cold-associated and potentially fatal conditions like hypothermia or frostbite. Wind, dampness and other climatological factors also affect how a dog experiences cold.

2. Stock up on long-lasting chews and puzzle toys.

Winter always includes a smattering of brutal storms that put a halt to all driving and even outdoor walking activities. Make sure to have your dog’s favorite chews or puzzle toys on hand to give him something to do on days you need to stay in. Chewing relieves stress and puzzle toys expend mental energy, which help keep your dog from bouncing off the walls while you work from home, take care of the family or just relax.

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3. Maintain and check your equipment regularly.

If your equipment is going to fail, it’s likely to happen in the cold weather. Keep your leather goods (leashes, harnesses, collars) from cracking or splitting with regular cleaning and conditioning. Store metal pieces (such as safety clips or leash snaps) indoors to prevent them from sticking open or closed, and wipe them clean and dry after use.

4. Wax those paws pre-walk.

Hate the snowballs that pile up on your dog’s paws after a romp in the frosty woods? Smear a thin coat of Musher’s Secret paw wax on your pup’s pads before heading outside and the snow won’t stick. That means no painful ice clumps between your dog’s toes and no snowballs melting all over the house after your walk. Paw wax also prevents pads from cracking and becoming sore on even the driest of days. If Musher’s Secret isn’t available, Bag Balm does just as good a job. Or, even easier, DIY some paw wax in your kitchen.

5. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Offer your dog plenty of water before, during and after excursions to keep him hydrated in the dry winter air and to minimize self-hydrating with snow. Eating snow in small amounts is no big deal, but in larger quantities, it can be unsafe, as the snow may be polluted by antifreeze, non-pet-safe ice melt or other harmful contaminants. Nix excessive snow-eating by always having fresh water on hand and offering it to your dog frequently.

6. Feed as required, not as routine.

A majority of dogs get less exercise during the winter. The less you walk your dog, the fewer calories your dog will burn and the less food he will need to maintain a healthy weight. On the flip side, if you’re maintaining the same exercise routine, or have a hardy dog who spends more time outdoors, he will burn more calories in the cold and deep snow and may need more food in his bowl. Regularly assess even the fluffiest of pooches for weight gain or loss, and adjust feedings as necessary.

Another feeding-related tip: Keeping your dog’s coat in top-top shape (a good move any time of the year) can make a real difference to his comfort level in the winter. Vet Deva Khalsa recommends adding oil—either olive or coconut—to dogs’ food as a healthy fix for winter dandruff and dry-skin problems. As she points out, “Supporting your dog’s biological terrain is the single most important way to maintain his well being and help him have healthy skin and a great coat. Both olive and coconut oil are healthy for your dog’s insides, and it will show on his outside.” (Get the details here.)

7. Exercise and train inside on truly cold days.

Frigid temperatures plus wet conditions is a recipe for frostbite and chills. On the coldest of cold weather days, it’s best to opt for short potty walks and indoor exercise. This is a great time to sign up for a Zoom dog-training class, teach the pup that party trick you’ve been dying to get just right or fine-tune your obedience skill set. If you and your dog are sick of training at home, take a trip to a local dog-friendly store for a change of scenery.

For working breeds like Belgian Malinois, Border Collie or, really, any energetic dog, a treadmill can be a true lifesaver during inclement weather. Consult a trainer before attempting to teach your dog to exercise on a treadmill, and always stay with him when he’s using it. Or, do yourself and your dog a favor by incorporating him into an indoor exercise routine; for inspiration, check out this compilation of human/canine exercise videos