Snow, ice and freezing conditions throw up both challenges and opportunities for fun if you're a dog owner. Ben Randall explains how to make the most of this beautiful time of year while keeping your pet safe and healthy.
The weather in the UK has recently changed from endless rain to Arctic cold, something which prompted a this week’s question. We’ll jump straight in with this question sent to me via email@example.com.
We became dog owners for the first time last year when we took in our rescue labrador, Benji. He’s been wonderful company, lots of fun and training has been going well. The question we have is that with the cold weather that’s hit, we’re not sure if there’s anything we should know about looking after a dog when it’s freezing outside. — BR, via email
Thanks for writing in, as this is actually a really good question. Common sense will take you so far, but there’s nothing like experience — and there are several things I’ve picked up in the years honing my BG (Beggarbush) training methods and running our luxury boarding kennels. Here’s what you need to know.
How to keep your dog safe and healthy in cold weather
1. Feed your dog more
Your dog has a fur coat to help keep them warm, but in the cold days of winter they’ll also rely on their fat reserves to keep them warm. They’ve probably been laying down a little more in darker, colder days of Autumn, but they’ll need to keep that and more as they will burn more calories merely keeping warm at this time of year. It’s especially true for dogs kept in kennels, but also the case for dogs who stay in the house: they’ll be out and about for toilet breaks and walks so will need to make sure they’re properly fuelled.
2. Dog coats have a role to play — but not all the time
Some owners won’t let their dog cross the threshold without a coat, while others reason that they already have fur, so why would they need anything else? The truth is somewhere in between: dogs with smooth, short coats will definitely benefit from an extra layer, but at times even working breeds with longer hair need extra help too.
So do I put coats on my cockers, springers, and labradors? Yes, but only when going out for several hours, particularly at competitions when they might have to stay close to me, walking to heel or standing around for a long time. They’re also useful out on longer walks — we’ll get to that in point four, below.
There are lots of quality dog coats on the market; the only thing you need to look out for is to measure your dog carefully for a good fit. Too small and it’ll be restrictive, but a coat that’s too big can be just as bad. Many dogs won’t like the wearing a coat that is too big – they’ll try to scratch them off. And even if they do agree to keep it on, coats that are too big are much more likely to get caught on branches and brambles while out on walks.
3. When walking your dog, ice can be bad — but rock salt can be even worse
Having four legs instead of two makes it much less likely you’ll fall over, but when your dog is out running fast and sliding everywhere, they can slip and hurt their legs, backs or hips just like humans do. Keep an eye on them and if they’re getting too exuberant or overexcited, call them back on to the lead.
If you live in a town or city where roads or pavements have been salted and gritted to give better grip for humans, be even more careful. This rock salt — a mix of sodium chloride and grit — can be incredibly toxic, even fatal, for both dogs and cats. The RSPCA publishes a thorough and highly useful guide to rock salt poisoning (PDF link), but the key thing to realise is that your pet is most likely to have a problem when licking rock salt off paws or fur on returning from being outside. So, when you get in, wash off your dog’s paws, legs and tummy fur; if they seem uncomfortable, give them a proper bath; and if you suspect there is a problem — particularly if they exhibit excessive thirst, vomiting or lethargy — then go to the vet without delay.
4. Having fun and staying safe on winter walks with your dog
When I’m out on long winter walks with my dogs, I’ll pop coats on them for the first mile or two, so they warm up nicely through walking. After that, I’ll take the coats off them and do some training as we go along, giving them a mix of some freedom off the lead, and playing retrieval games with me as we head along. You’ll find that dogs love chasing snowballs just as much as humans do!
Once the exercise is nearly done and you’re both heading back, I’ll put their coat back on. Just as you found out when you were a kid going sledging, it’s when you stop running about and having fun that you can potentially get really cold. Once you’re all back, give them a drink, water, and keep them warm and snug for the rest of the day.
5. Be wary of your dog eating too much snow
If you’re playing snowballs with your dog – something I love doing with mine — stay conscious of how much snow they ingest. Often they’ll grab and play with it, but I watch to see if they swallow it.
I’ve seen dogs eat too much, end up getting swollen stomachs and having bad diarrhoea. This goes for ice too, perhaps eaten out of water bowls left outside country pubs and so on. It might feel like it’s just water, but in my experience eating it gives dogs loose stools.
6. And finally, never forget the dangers of frozen ponds and lakes
One very important exception to this is if I’m walking anywhere near a pond (or possibly even a river when it gets really cold) that’s frozen over. I’ve heard too many horror stories of dogs running out on to frozen ponds which then crack, and the dog has fallen in. This really can be fatal — not least because it’s almost impossible for a dog to get themselves out and back on to the ice. It almost goes without saying that these conditions will be equally dangerous for owners jumping in to try and save their dog. So let’s be really clear: never, ever let your dog anywhere near a frozen pond or lake — always keep them at heel or on the lead.
Ben Randall’s book, ‘How to Train Your Gundog’, is out now. You can order it here at £40.
For more detailed advice about Ben Randall’s positive, reward-based and proven BG training methods, one-to-one training sessions, residential training or five-star dog-boarding at his BGHQ in Herefordshire, telephone 01531 670960 or visit www.ledburylodgekennels.co.uk. For a free seven-day trial of the Gundog app, which costs £24.99 a month or £249.99 a year, visit www.gundog.app/trial