This story was originally published in January 2021.
If you’re looking for some company while hiking through the snowy woods this winter, your dog may be up for the task. But there are a few things you should do to prepare your pup for cold-weather adventures. With just a little extra effort, you can easily improve your dog’s safety and comfort while exploring the trails.
Here are just a few tips for keeping your canine hiking companion happy and safe this winter.
1. Call your veterinarian
Before hitting the trails, make sure your dog is up to date on vaccines and other preventative treatments such as tick and flea prevention. Let your veterinarian know that you’re going to be spending a lot of time on public trails, and ask if they suggest any additional treatments.
Rabies, distemper, parvovirus, Lyme and leptospirosis are all common diseases that can exist in the environment or be spread by other animals to your dog. Fortunately, vaccines exist for all of them.
“Parvovirus is everywhere, just in the dirt,” said Ai Takeuchi, a veterinarian at Lucerne Veterinary Hospital in Dedham. “It causes severe vomiting and diarrhea, and it kills fast-replicating cells, so it kills off the GI tract and impairs bone marrow [production]. It’s highly treatable, but [treatment] is very expensive.”
By preventing diseases from taking hold of your pup, you can spend more time outdoors together and less time in the veterinarian’s office.
2. Consider doggy jackets
Depending on the warmth of your dog’s natural coat, you may consider purchasing a doggy jacket or two, even if it’s just for emergencies. You never know when your dog might need an extra layer of warmth. In fact, some short-haired breeds as well as small dogs, puppies and older dogs may always need to wear a jacket outdoors in the winter to stay warm.
Since dogs come in all shapes and sizes, it can be a challenge to find a jacket that fits correctly. If you can’t find a jacket at a local pet store that fits, consider ordering a custom jacket that’s made to your dog’s exact measurements. (Dogn’i Apparel in Bangor is one small business that offers custom dog jackets.) Pay attention to the materials used to construct the jacket. Some jackets are designed to keep your dog warm, while some are designed for other purposes such as visibility, repelling rain or protecting your dog’s chest from scratchy underbrush.
3. Protect their paws
In the winter, paw pad cuts and abrasions are common injuries among hiking dogs due to crusty snow, ice, road salt and dry air. In addition, a dog’s paws can become cold before the rest of their body — just like our feet and hands often fall victim to cold first.
There are a few things you can do to protect your dog’s paws in the winter. You could try outfitting them in booties, especially if you’re able to introduce the booties to your dog as a puppy. However, booties are often difficult to introduce to an older dog. Another option is to coat your dog’s paws in a protective wax that’s created specifically for that use. Musher’s Secret is a food-grade wax that was developed for sled dogs in Canada. It’s purpose is to protect your dog’s feet from salt residue, ice buildup, rough terrain and “snowballing.”
Snowballing is a term used to describe the issue of snow and ice collecting between a dog’s toes, forming into clumps that can be annoying at best and painful at worst. This usually happens to dogs that have long hair between their toes, which serves as an anchor point for the snow and ice.
To prevent this problem, you can ask a dog groomer to trim the hair on your dog’s feet on a regular basis, said Don Hanson, a co-owner of Green Acres Kennel Shop and certified professional dog trainer. He also suggests keeping an eye on the length of your dog’s nails.
“Make sure that the nails are not too long, but also make sure that your dog has enough nails that they can get purchase on things when they need to,” Hanson said. “That’s important on ice. It can also be important on rocks.
4. Revise your first aid kit and survival gear
Even if you take steps to protect your dog from injury, accidents happen. That’s why it’s important to carry a first aid kit and survival gear that can be used for both yourself and your canine companion.
Consider the common injuries (such as blisters for humans and foot pad injuries for dogs) and make sure that you have the right equipment to treat those injuries — at least until you get out of the woods or off the mountain. Also, pack enough survival gear for both of you to stay warm and comfortable if you’re immobilized (say if you’ve an injury or you’re lost) and need to wait for help to arrive.
5. Collect some dog hiking gear
In addition to first aid and survival gear, you’ll need to carry some basic hiking gear for your dog, including a water bowl (many collapsible versions exist), poop bags, treats and water. Never rely on natural water sources for your dog’s hydration during a hike. It’s also best to carry a separate water bottle for your dog. That way, if your dog doesn’t drink all the water you pour in the bowl, you can pour it back into the bottle for later rather than waste it. (If you’re sharing water out of one bottle, you wouldn’t want to do this.)
Some dogs are large enough to carry their own gear in a backpack that’s designed for dogs. This also means they can carry their own full poop bags — not bad.
6. Leash your dog
One of the best ways to keep your dog safe on a hiking trail is keeping it on leash. This can be a challenge, especially if you’re snowshoeing through deep snow, but it could save your dog’s life. Off leash dogs often encounter dangers such as wild animals, cliffs or thin ice.
“Dogs don’t realize that ice can’t hold their weight sometimes,” Takeuchi said. “We’ve had some really sad cases where puppies fell through [the ice] and drowned.”
Off-leash dogs can also become lost, cross roads and get hit by vehicles or approach on-leash dogs that may be aggressive. For this reason, in most cases, it’s safest to keep your dog on leash while hiking.
7. Plan with your dog in mind
When selecting your hiking location, keep your canine companion in mind. If your dog is new to hiking during the winter, start with short trails and avoid steep inclines and rocky terrain. Also, consider the conditions. If it’s especially icy out, you may want to leave your dog at home rather than risk your dog slipping and injuring a leg.
For optimal safety, stick with a trail you’re already familiar with, Hanson said. That way you know its features, including any water crossings or steep sections. You’re also less likely to become lost. And since accidents do happen, it would be useful to carry the number of the nearest veterinary clinic and the nearest 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic.
Another way to plan ahead for hiking is by socializing your dog as much as possible, introducing your dog to a wide variety of different people in different settings. If your dog isn’t used to seeing people in winter hiking gear in the woods, then it may be scary at first. Be sure to carry treats to reward your dog during each encounter with a fellow hiker. This will reinforce the idea that meeting others on the trail is a positive thing, Hanson said.
Some things you will learn through trial and error, so start your winter hiking adventures small. Learn and adjust as you go. Put thought into your planning. And once you’re out there, enjoy the trail together.