You’re not about to let a little snow come between you and your training run—and good for you! With the right gear, you can absolutely keep building miles as the temperature drops. But if your go-to running buddy has four legs, it’s important that you keep her needs in mind when planning a run. Contrary to what you might think, not all dogs do well in the cold—and even if they do love to run in the snow, there are a few things you can do before, during and after your running with dogs in winter to keep them healthy and happy through all four seasons.
Tips for Running With Dogs in Winter
Before you head out into the cold, mind these tips from experts to keep your pup safe.
Think About Layers
You might be all layered up, but your dog has a fur coat. She should be good to go, right?
Maybe—but it depends. Dogs that are low to the ground (like a Chihuahua) and thin dogs with thin coats (like Greyhounds) are more susceptible to cold weather (and therefore more likely to need a sweater or a coat once the temperature drops below freezing) than larger dogs with thick, double coats, like Huskies and Labradors.
Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury, an emergency and critical care veterinarian in St. John’s, Newfoundland, says, “When it comes to running, the same rule of thumb you would apply to yourself can be applied to your dog: the coat you wear to walk to the store in is probably overkill for a run.”
She recommends a coat designed more to break the wind than to insulate for most dogs, and also suggests taking acclimatization into account. “My Rottweiler loves the cold and would happily go for a trot in -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), but here in St. John’s, where we live, below zero is the norm for half the year,” she says. “If we lived in Texas and came up to Newfoundland for a winter visit, she’d feel a lot differently about -15.”
If you have a thin-coated pup, a pooch who seems to shiver in the cold or if the temperature falls well below freezing, a coat may not be a bad idea—even for a brief walk—but be prepared to take it off during your run if your dog starts panting, recommends Dr. Julia Tomlinson, a Minnesota-based veterinarian specializing in sports medicine and rehabilitation.
It’s true that your dog’s feet can handle the chill better than yours, but that doesn’t mean they’re impermeable to freezing temperatures. “Dogs will tell you if the ground is too cold: they will lift a leg,” Dr. Tomlinson says. “Check on your dog’s ability to stand in the snow during your warm-up walk, which should be at least 10 minutes of the first run in a newly cold temperature.”
The cold isn’t the only potential problem for your pup’s paws; there’s also road salt and sharp ice.
“If your dog tolerates them, booties are definitely the way to go if you are doing any walking or running where there is road salt used,” Dr. Brown-Bury says. “Some ice-melting chemicals can be toxic if ingested or irritating if in contact with skin for a while, so if not wearing booties, rinsing the paws when you return inside is a good idea.” If you notice any skin irritation, apply a salve designed for dogs to the clean paw pad.
Although booties offer protection, Dr. Tomlinson warns that they can cause dogs to slip more. “Use musher’s wax if your dog needs more grip ([if the] snow is not fresh and powdery),” she says.
If ice melts and refreezes frequently in your area, pay close attention to your dog’s pads when you come in, says Dr. Brown-Bury, who’s seen plenty of dogs cut their paws on sharp pieces of ice. “But my biggest concern is slipping. We see a lot of dogs with ligament injuries in the winter because they slipped on ice,” she says.
It’s also important to keep your own safety in mind. Not only is your dog likely to take you down with her if she slips and you’re attached to her by the leash, but should she be distracted by something like a squirrel and take off while you’re on a slippery section of sidewalk, you could be in for a nasty spill. That doesn’t mean that leaving her off-leash is the best solution though—especially if you live near areas of open water, as dogs don’t understand that the thin ice over a pond might hold a duck’s weight, but not a Doberman’s—and that can lead to a serious disaster. That said, you’d do well to choose your dog-friendly winter running route with caution, and slow down if the surface gets slippery.
Pick the Right Distance
Just as every human runner reacts a bit differently to changes in weather and temperature, so do dogs. Generally speaking, cooler temperatures do mean your dog can probably hang with you for a little longer than she’d be able to on a hot summer day. “Often, they can work harder and find it easier to cool [in the winter],” Dr. Tomlinson says.
That doesn’t mean that your Golden Retriever can go from spending her waking hours on the couch to keeping you company on a chilly 10-miler. “If your dog has not run with you before you still need to do couch-to-5K-type training using intervals,” Dr. Tomlinson says. Her recommendation on where to begin: “Make sure you do not run farther than your usual walk when you start running with your dog.”
Poor conditioning and well-meaning dog owners unaware that they’re asking too much of their dogs are the biggest mistakes when it comes to jogging with one’s dog, so always pay close attention to their body language before, during and after a run. If your dog is slipping or struggling with her booties, that’s not the time to add another mile. Overheating can be a factor even in the winter, so if her tongue starts looking wider and flatter, it’s time to slow down and/or ditch any layers she might be wearing.
Recognize When To Stay Inside
The best thing about having a canine running buddy is that, more often than not, you’ve got someone who’s not just willing but straight-up over the moon to go for a run—even if it’s 5 a.m., pitch-black and positively frigid. But especially in the winter, there may be times when it’s simply too cold for your dog to spend much time outside, in which case opting for the treadmill might be best for you, too.
“We know research shows some species get inflammation in the airway lining below 10 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Dr. Tomlinson, adding that this has been shown in racing sled dogs. “I don’t run with my dog when it is below 5 [degrees Fahrenheit] or 0 [degrees Fahrenheit] with the wind chill – but that’s for my airways too!”
Regardless of the temperature, it’s always a good idea to let your dog tell you whether she wants to be outside. “A dog who finds it too cold for comfort will not want to be outside, will not be excited to play or run,” Dr. Brown-Bury says. “You want to see a bright happy face, ears and tail up, all the signs of a happy and excited dog. Otherwise, time to head back inside.”
Cold dogs may exhibit signs of discomfort, such as holding paws up out of the snow, shivering or balling up. “If you’re uncertain about the temperature, spend some time outside pre-run and see how the dog behaves,” Dr. Brown-Bury says. “If they don’t want to be outside, no run for them!”
That’s something to keep in mind any time of year. Running with your dog provides her with an awesome opportunity to exercise and it can be a wonderful way to bond, but it’s important to keep your dog’s needs first and foremost when you leash her up. Stopping to sniff a few times—because, hey, they’ve got to check that pee-mail—and making a potty stop or two is important to them, so if you’ve got a key workout that won’t allow for those breaks, find a human friend to join you for that one. You can always go out for a more leisurely cooldown with your best furry friend once you’re done.