How to Winterize Your Dog

Ollie in his Ruffwear booties. Photograph by Matt Paul

We winterize our cars. We get out our high-performance clothing, layers and layers that breathe, wick or stop a howling gale. We check and recheck our skis, snowshoes, poles, bindings, sleds, backpacks.

But when it comes to dogs sometimes we just whistle, grab some biscuits and toss Fluffy in the car for an outing.

If it’s just a short romp in the fresh snow, a towel and a treat when you get home will do. But if you’re planning a ski or snowshoe of any distance bear in mind that dogs can get hypothermia, frostbite and very sore feet from exposure to wet and cold.

Two St. Bernard mixes (there may be a wooly mammoth in their ancestry) share our household, and they positively relish the cold. As winter approaches we brush and brush their thick coats, trim their long feathers and try to minimize their plumy tails. All this extra hair gathers moisture and can felt fur into dense, impenetrable mats or collect balls of snow. When that happens the dogs plop down on the snow—preferably outside the ski track and not on a steep hill—to gnaw and tug on the annoying, frozen clumps.

Their feet get the most attention because that’s where problems often start. First, toenails get trimmed; long nails splay paws, making more surface area where snow and ice can pack next to sensitive skin. These big dogs love a pedicure, daintily offering up a huge hairy foot for care. Many pups flee at the sight of clippers, though, and the best way around that is to play with their toes when they’re young and always, always cut nails conservatively with sharp blades in your guillotine-style trimmer.

Next, we use small, sharp scissors to trim the hair between their pads. This is time consuming but it really cuts down on sticky snow and ice. We also trim all around their feet and ankles, so they end up with paws as neat and round as a Westminster champion’s.

Our dogs go bonkers when they see us put on our ski boots, and just after we do that we cover their feet too. Musher’s Secret is like saddle wax, breathable, easy to apply and safe. Funny River Trading, in Keene, makes Hard Workin’ Dog Pad Balm, made from beeswax, comfrey-infused olive oil, almond oil and other botanicals. The old standby Bag Balm works too and is widely available. What we’ve discovered does not work so well are sunflower-oil products that spray on; the coating is just not thick enough to have much benefit.

Living in the central Adirondacks where snow is often enviable we’ve had poor luck with booties, which, despite Velcro straps, can slip off in fresh, deep powder. But our circumstances may not be yours at all. Maybe your pooch hops on three legs when confronted with the cold, cold ground and shoots a long-suffering look in your direction when you say the magic words, “Wanna go out?”  For short-haired dogs booties like those from Ruffwear can make winter walks in the woods or on icy sidewalks hazard- and guilt-free.

Salty sidewalks can really irritate dog feet, and when sore paws are licked the dog ingests a variety of harmful chemicals. For around your home, Safe Paw Snow and Ice Melter is easy on pets and wood floors too.

For ideas on great dog-friendly ski and snowshoe destinations, check “Wild Life” in two weeks.


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