By Paula Fitzsimmons
Plunging temperatures give rise to pet hazards like frostbite, hypothermia, and paw pad injuries. But this doesn’t mean you and your canine companion have to be confined to the sofa all winter. With basic safety precautions, you can continue to burn calories this winter—and have fun while doing it.
Almost any activity can incorporate dogs, says Tricia Montgomery, founder of Chicago-based K9 Fit Club. “From walking, running, and swimming to hiking, boot camp, and yoga, all are a great way to get fit together and increase the human-animal bond.”
Here are eight safe ways you and your dog can keep moving all winter long. Remember to check with your veterinarian before starting a new exercise program with your dog.
Leash walking is one of the safest exercises for dogs, says Jeris Pugh, owner of The Martial ARFS in Long Island, New York. “Unfortunately, because it’s so easy, it can sometimes be ineffective, especially for your dog,” Pugh says. “To be more effective for exercise, you must increase the intensity.”
You can, of course, walk faster or run, but there are more creative ways to intensify a hike, such as walking up and down hills, varying your speed, and diversifying the terrain, says Deana Noonan, who runs Paws for Companions, based in Zion, Illinois. “Don’t just walk in a straight line—do circles, zigzag on paths, walk over branches, and climb over fallen tree trunks,” Noonan suggests. “Turn your hike into an obstacle course. This will not only help burn calories, but also will aid in burning fat and building stamina for you and your furry hiking partner.”
If your dog is new to exercise, start out slowly with short, frequent walks, recommends Lisa Blanchard, who owns K9 Fitness Coach in Macomb County, Michigan. “As the dog progresses, you can increase the challenge to add time, distance, and hills,” Blanchard says. “Be sure to keep a nice, brisk pace throughout the walk. Walks that include constant sniffing or stopping for elimination breaks are not considered fitness.”
Put shoveling the driveway on hold and head to the park with your dog to enjoy winter sports. With cross-country skiing, you’re in complete charge of the equipment. Your dog runs alongside of you but independently.
"Off-leash skills are recommended for your dog’s safety and yours,” says Noonan, who is a certified professional dog trainer. “If your dog can’t be off-leash, make sure you bring a longer leash.” But make sure your dog is trained to stay out of your way. Skis have sharp metal edges that can lead to catastrophic lacerations if your dog makes an unexpected move.
Don’t want to invest in pricy equipment? “Check with your local sporting goods store or nature preserve center regarding the rental of a pair of snowshoes or cross-country skis,” Noonan recommends.
Skijoring is similar to cross-country skiing except that your dog plays an active role. “This is cross-country skiing with a little help from your dog,” Noonan explains. “While you are on the skis, your dog runs in front of you on a long line attached to his harness. The training is fairly simple, and equipment is easy to find.” Dogs participating in skijoring should be over 30 pounds for their safety, she advises.
If it’s too chilly outside, head indoors and do stair work. To work out without a leash, one person should be positioned at the top of the stairs and one at the bottom, Noonan says. “Practice calling your dog back and forth, rewarding her each time she gets to the other person. To stop your dog from running back and forth too quickly, hold her collar/harness while she eats the treat and release her when the other person calls her.”
If you prefer to use a leash, Noonan suggests walking your dog up and down the steps in a slow controlled manner. “This ensures they are utilizing their rear leg muscles correctly.” The steps and landing areas should be carpeted to prevent slippage, she adds.
If your dog has difficulty with steps, she can still burn calories by walking around the house, Noonan says. “Set the timer for 15 minutes, turn on some walking music, and get started."
Mixing strength training and flexibility exercises with cardio is essential, says Dr. Beth Ellen McNamara, a veterinarian at MedVet Medical & Cancer Centers for Pets in Chicago. "Sit to stand" is a frequently used move in her clinic.
“Have the dog sit and stand in rapid succession. This works the hamstrings and gluteals,” McNamara describes. “You can make these harder by having the dog place his front paws on an elevated surface such as a step. We can work the shoulder and forelimb muscles by doing a play bow to stand (basically a push-up).”
Montgomery, who specializes in human/canine fitness, recommends trying “barking lunges.” “Start with your dog on your left side. Perform your basic walking lunge, leading with your right leg stepping forward,” she says. “As you hold the lunge, guide your dog to walk under your front leg, leading him to your right side. Press up with your back leg and step through, repeating the lunge on your left. Guide your dog under your left leg and to your left side.”
If you have a very large dog who won’t fit under your bent leg, guide him through your legs before going into the lunge, Montgomery suggests.
Yoga offers health benefits like improved cardio function and flexibility, so why not partner with your dog for even more feel-good perks? “Dogs teach us so much about being content and in the present moment,” says Suzi Teitelman, owner of Doga Dog in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. “They are natural dogis.”
In doga, “you share postures, meditation, massage, relaxation, flexibility,” Teitelman says. “Besides all the benefits of a regular yoga class, doga also provides a deep bonding experience between the parent and pup. Being in a yoga state will help you connect deeply with your pet.”
You can practice doga every day, she says. “Do five minutes here and there throughout your day, or lay down your yoga mat and flow for 20 minutes.”
Swimming is excellent for cardio function and is easy on the joints, says McNamara, who is also a certified canine rehabilitation therapist. She recommends using facilities equipped for dogs, and those with a high staff-to-dog ratio. “Here in Chicago, we have several places that have pools where dogs can swim for exercise,” she says.
Keep in mind that dogs aren’t the most efficient swimmers, Pugh says. “Essentially, the dog’s swimming technique is similar to them trotting on land,” he says. “Imagine trying to move about a pool by jogging instead of doing a swim stroke.” For this reason, dogs who are new to swimming should always start slowly and gradually build up their endurance.
They do eventually improve, however, so you’ll have to find a way to maintain their heart rate, he says. “Chase or be chased is lots of fun. We do this a lot with dogs in our pool at The Martial ARFS. Swimming from your dog or after your dog will get both of your heart rates up. A weight vest will also make your dog swim harder,” but for obvious reasons, dogs should always be closely monitored when in the water and never pushed too hard.
Treadmills can offer versatility and mental stimulation that activities like fetch and leisurely walks don’t always provide, says Blanchard, who is a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner.
“When doing these activities, the dog does not have to engage his prefrontal cortex. Most of the time, the dog is using what we call his ‘instinct brain,’ she says. “When the dog is on a treadmill, he must use mental concentration to maintain balance and coordination. The dog will also be physically tired and it takes a shorter time frame to accomplish these things.”
A few cautions before beginning: “Always introduce the treadmill slowly by just having the dog be comfortable around the treadmill,” Noonan says. “Never put the dog on the treadmill and expect her to just start walking. Always have the dog on a back-clip harness, not a collar, and a leash, and never leave the dog on a treadmill unattended.”
Treadmills made specifically for dogs are best, but a standard one is fine, depending on your dog’s size and length of the treadmill belt. “It should be long enough to accommodate the dog’s reach and stride length,” Noonan says.
Dogs love to learn and earn, says Dr. Robin Downing, hospital director at The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. “They want a job, so you can turn the delivery of meals into working sessions,” she says. “Another option is to settle your dog into another room, take the meals, separate them into small portions, and hide them in various locations. Release your dog and allow her to find her food.”
Hide-and-seek may work best when more than one person is involved, Downing says. “The target person should have some high-value treat (ideally with a strong scent) to make the ‘find’ more fun for the dog.”
Noonan suggests having one person hold the dog while the other person hides. “Then, tell your dog to ‘Find ___!’ and have the other person call the dog to them. This has the added benefit of teaching your dog different family names.” Approach it as family game night.
Generally speaking, if it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your dog. “If the weather report includes a frostbite warning, it’s not a good time for your dog to spend any more time outside than the time it takes to urinate and defecate,” says Downing, who has dual board-certification in pain management and veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation. If you do venture outdoors with your dog on frigid days, she suggests keeping it short or going in the afternoon when it’s typically the warmest.
Smaller dogs don’t tolerate cold weather as well as larger dogs, and “it is equally important to take into account body composition and haircoat,” Downing says. “A Malamute will be more comfortable in the winter than an Afghan Hound or Chihuahua.”
Ice is another hazard for dogs, she says. Pavement ice can cause your dog to fall and injure herself. Thawed ice that’s followed by a freeze can be sharp, resulting in cut foot pads. And ice over open water can be fatal. “It is simply never worth the risk that they might fall through and die of hypothermia, drown, or be pulled under the ice by rapidly flowing water,” Downing says.
Footwear provides comfort and prevents paws from becoming popsicles. “Dogs with longer hair on their feet and between their toes can accumulate snow there and form ice-balls that can not only be uncomfortable, but can cut or tear the tender skin between their toes and at the edges of their footpads,” Downing says. Getting your dog to wear booties is challenging, she says, but most dogs can adapt.
Also, invest in outerwear, especially if you have a short-haired breed, as they’re more likely to get chilled, even when active, Downing says. “They need a sweater, fleece, or some other body-wear to capture and maintain their body heat.”