How to Plan the Perfect Winter Dog Walk

DrPaul -

How to Plan the Perfect Winter Dog Walk

A fabulous advantage of being a dog owner is that dogs inspire wonderful walks to help banish the winter blues. For making the most of winter walkies, it’s worth a little advance planning with weather and wellbeing needs in mind, so here are a few ideas to consider …


Wrap up warm

Hopefully you have everything needed to dress warmly for winter walks, with layers suitable for the weather conditions. Hat, gloves and scarf are useful to help keep extremities warm, especially as hands can’t snuggle in pockets when holding a lead! Hats are often forgotten but can offer the most benefit as we lose a lot of heat from our heads.


But what about your dog’s coat? Some dog breeds have the ideal coat for winter walks (hello huskies and other long-coated breeds). These should be fine, so long as the terrain and length of the walk are appropriate to the weather.


However, short-haired breeds, such as Greyhounds and Staffies and small breeds like Terriers and Toy Poodles, can benefit from wearing an additional coat to stave off shivers and maximise the fun of the walk. It’s also worth remembering that puppies, older and underweight dogs may also benefit from an extra coat to help them enjoy their exercise.


Shorter walks

In the winter accounting for weather conditions and sudden drops in temperature means shorter walks are advisable. Overall, across those colder or stormy winter months, a couple of short walks a day is preferable to one long one.


Shorter walks make it easier if the weather changes suddenly and you need to turn back or rush on to the end of a circular route! It’s also easier to sustain a brisk pace when walking for exercise across a shorter distance, especially if you or your dog are in the phase of building up fitness. Walking more briskly over a shorter distance will also help raise core temperature and keep you both a bit warmer as you go.


Change the time you take walks

Long, leisurely walks during light, bright evenings might await us later in the year, but winter walking means making the most of the daylight earlier in the day. This may mean changing the time of your walk to the morning or early afternoon, to ensure optimum daylight and to maximise safety by avoiding extreme cold or darkness.


If you’re planning an afternoon walk, always check the day’s sunset time (most weather apps show this). Sunset ‘time’ generally is the moment the sun drops below the horizon but temperatures often start dropping much earlier than this - late afternoon in the UK often sees a significant drop in temperature, so always allow for completing your walk well in advance of sunset.


For those who work all day, organising a dog walker during the day can be a good idea for avoiding cold, dark walks in the evening. However, if the odd evening walk cannot be avoided:


  • Stick to well-lit areas and take a torch.
  • Stay with familiar routes so that you’re aware of likely hazards for you and your dog, such as uneven paths, slippery vegetation and ice which may be lurking in the dark.
  • Always keep your dog on a lead or harness in the dark - save those off-lead walks for daylight.


If you have no choice but to walk when it’s dark or almost dark, invest in light-up and reflective accessories so that you and your dog are visible to traffic and other walkway users. Just check that you’re using reputable brands and that your dog cannot chew or swallow light-up accessories.


Snacking on snow is a no-no

Snow can be beautiful and many dogs love that leap into frosted freedom, but do take care they don’t eat the snow. The danger of this comes primarily from toxic substances contaminating the snow, such as ice melt or antifreeze.


Additionally, eating snow in large quantities could dangerously lower a dog's body temperature, so ensure you avoid letting your dog eat the snow during walks.


Avoid frostbite

Talking about temperature, just like our own fingers, toes and noses, a dog can also struggle with frostbite on the extremities if exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Anything below 32oF is classed as extremely cold and it can take just 30 minutes for frostbite effects to set in.


Generally, the same types of dogs which most benefit from wearing an extra coat - puppies, small dogs, short-coated breeds and older dogs - may be most susceptible to frostbite. Whilst doggy boots can help protect paws, the best protection is to avoid planning a walk in extremely cold temperatures. If you do get caught out by an extreme weather event, check paws regularly, particularly if your dog is showing signs of being in pain, such as limping or wincing. If you are worried about frostbite, always consult your vet.


Walk this way?

It’s always fun to plan walkies which involve pulling on those wellies and taking in the winter scenery, just remember to consider the route in respect of the winter conditions and take care to avoid:


  • Rock salt - often rock salt is used in our local streets during winter as a way of ‘gritting’ against ice. However, it’s incredibly toxic for dogs and they can ingest it when licking their paws after walking. Take account of this when planning your walk, particularly if icy conditions are predicted and people have been proactive in salt scattering. Always rinse paws after the walk if you think your dog has come into contact with rocksalt.
  • Ice - ice can be as hazardous for hounds as it is for humans, particularly on slopes and steps. Older, arthritic dogs may also be more at risk of slips on ice. To help avoid icy routes, set up weather app alerts for local icy conditions.
  • Water and mud - many dogs love to throw themselves into ponds and puddles but getting soaked during a winter walk will result in your dog losing body heat incredibly quickly. Avoid routes where this might be likely or, if your dog has a tendency to jump right in, ensure it’s on the lead until safely past the water and save swimming for the summer!


Finally, walks are thirsty work and hydration is important whatever the weather, so always take a bottle of water for your dog and enjoy those winter walkies.

Paul Manktelow

Veterinary Surgeon

Dr Paul Manktelow is a vet who's worked for almost 20 years on the front line in some of the UK's busiest veterinary hospitals. Paul also appears regularly in the media as a TV and radio presenter, writer, public speaker and podcast producer.