by Kristie Perry
Adapted with permission from www.allgoodsk9adventures.com (February 15, 2015)
1. Protect their paws
“Protecting your dog’s paw pads is crucial to having a good day in the snow,” says Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, who has logged more than 7,000 miles in the backcountry with numerous four-legged companions. Cracked or otherwise injured pads will end your outing early.
Long-haired dogs or those with webbed paws are especially prone to collecting snow between their toes. Body heat transforms that snow into little ice balls that grow larger over time and stretch the dog’s toes apart. This leads to cracking, bleeding, and hair-pulling. Dogs will respond to the pain by licking, which will cause even more ice build up. To prevent this, try Vaseline, Bag Balm, or Musher’s Secret.
Sometimes dogs need more protection than a topical application can provide, however, as Mazama member Pam Monheimer learned on an outing last year with her Vizsla, Tüz. Historically, Musher’s Secret and a fleece jacket were all Tüz needed to stay comfortable when romping through the snow. But last year, while snowshoeing around Trillium Lake on a day when the mercury barely made it into double-digits, “Tüz just tried to lay down on my feet,” she recounts. “He refused to get up. Trying to carry a 60-pound dog up a hill while in snowshoes wasn’t fun. That’s when I realized I needed to be more careful about winter conditions.” So Monheimer invested in a pair of Vibram-soled Ruffwear booties.
Dog bootie technology and availability has come a long way over the past 20 years. Dog booties come in a variety of materials, including latex, fleece, cordura nylon, neoprene, and rubber. They also come in various lengths, so if you want built-in gaiters (also known as high tops) for your dog, you’ll find them. Old dress or liner socks, worn under the booties, can also work as gaiters.
If possible, take your dog with you when buying his booties so he can try them on in the store. Just like a Salomon Women’s 8 isn’t a Lowa Women’s 8 isn’t an Asolo Women’s 8, makers of dog booties show quite a bit of variation (or perhaps imprecision) in their sizing charts.
Various dogs will tolerate booties to varying degrees. Practice putting the booties on your dog at home first. (And if you haven’t already seen the videos of dogs in booties high-stepping, prepare to laugh yourself silly.) You’ll want to make sure you can get the boots on and off easily and that your dog can’t.
One drawback of using booties on your dog in the snow: you’re taking away his built-in crampons by covering his toenails. If you’re going to be traveling in steep, hard snow try to make one of the topical applications work so your dog will have traction.
2. Keep them warm
Just like humans, dogs will remain warm in winter conditions while they’re on the move. But also like humans, dogs will feel chilled during breaks. If you have a short-haired dog or one that is cold weather-sensitive, get it a coat.
“The old line of ‘why does a dog need a coat, they have fur?’ might be true if you have a husky that lives in Alaska,” LaRuffa points out. “But I have a lab mix who spends most of his days in a nice warm house sleeping on the couch. So, yes, he gets cold in the winter.” While he is on the move, LaRuffa’s lab mix, Karluk, wears a winter jacket made specifically for dogs. During breaks and at night, LaRuffa wraps him in a human’s puffy.
While Monheimer happily dresses Tüz in a waterproof fleece jacket, Mazama member Matt Carter takes a different approach with his Golden Retriever, Lily: “My rule for Lily is that if it is so cold that her double coat is not adequate, it is too cold for me to be out hiking around.”
Even long-haired dogs are susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite. The ears, pads, and tail tips are the body parts most prone to frostbite, according to the veterinarians at VCA Animal Hospitals. If your dog starts shivering, it’s time to go home. Shivering is a signal that hypothermia may be close behind.
3. Drink plenty of fluids
Nothing dehydrates you more than a long day in cold air. “With each breath, you expel precious moisture,” notes LaRuffa. “Pair that with elevation and high levels of activity and you are setting you and your pup up for dehydration.” LaRuffa recommends bringing at least one quart of water for each of you for every five miles traveled.
Although many dogs can drink with impunity right out of most bodies of water encountered on the trail, many streams ice over or are under snow in the winter. “I think of winter like late summer when considering how much water to take for Lily,” Carter says.
In the winter, carry water for you and your dog inside your pack to prevent freezing. If you must carry bottles on the outside of your pack, make sure you use wide-mouth bottles and turn them upside down so that any ice that forms will float up instead of freezing the cap shut. If you prefer water bladders over bottles, use an insulation sleeve on the hose.
Like you, your dog will burn more calories in cold weather. If you plan on snacking in the middle of your snowshoe, bring dog-friendly snacks for your pup, too. High-fat foods like peanut butter and cheese burn slowly for sustained heat and energy. Your dog’s regular dry kibble works well, too, and won’t make a mess in your pack.
“Because Lily won’t eat her breakfast if I am preparing to take her out, I end up packing it,” Carter says. He also brings treats for Lily, an endeavor that over the years morphed into an escalating competition with a hiking buddy. “One cold February day he pulled out an insulated bag with sliced pork roast kept warm with a gel pack. I conceded defeat.”
Multi-day trips call for a bit more thought. Kristin Hostetter, an editor at Backpacker Magazine, recommends a mix of 75 percent regular kibble with 25 percent puppy food. “Puppy food has added calories and protein, which will help boost your dog’s nutritional intake during big mile days,” she says.
LaRuffa swears by TurboPUP bars when he needs to watch the weight in his pack. TurboPUP is the brainchild of Kristina Guerrero, a backcountry skier who wanted to make sure the four-legged companion who accompanied her on her adventures had the nutrition he needed to keep his energy up.
Locally, TurboPUP can be found at Next Adventure, U.S. Outdoor Store, and various Petsmarts.
5. Keep your dog under control
What’s true in town is true in the backcountry, also: a well-trained dog that obeys commands is more enjoyable to be around—for everyone.
“Some dogs are simply aggressive by nature,” says retired veterinarian and Mazama member Don McCoy. “If your dog can’t be a good citizen, then it needs to stay home.”
Canine obedience training becomes even more important when freezing temperatures and snow are part of the adventure. More dogs are lost in winter than in any other season, according to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
Be mindful of your terrain. You don’t want your dog running into a partially frozen body of water. Nor do you want them to engage wildlife.
Carter and Lily once encountered a coyote while hiking in the Deschutes National Forest between Christmas and New Year’s. “The coyote kept trying to engage Lily,” he recalls. “’Come play with me,’ was the message she was getting. Just out of sight was the pack of coyote friends who had dinner plans for her, instead.”
If your dog is the type who would engage with a coyote, it should be on a leash, veterinarian McCoy says.
Another reason to keep your dog close is traps. Trapping is allowed all year in Oregon and Washington. “The further away from you your dog is, the more likely it is to get caught,” Carter says. “The ‘improved’ leg hold and Conibear traps being marketed as ‘humane’ are more destructive than the old ones,” he opines. “More importantly, I think the new traps are much harder to release by hand. I carry Vise Grips to help.”
Finally, make sure your dog shows the same respect for steep snow that you do. “When you are traversing a trail that is benched out on a steep slope, you are entering a danger zone,” LaRuffa warns. “Allowing your dog to run loose above you or below heightens the risk of triggering an avalanche.”
6. Watch out for sharps
Ski edges, crampons, ice axes, and snowshoes are all potential hazards for your dog. So how do you prevent a bad accident?
Skiing: LaRuffa keeps his dog, Karluk, either directly ahead or behind him when ascending. “When we switch to downhill mode, I ski as fast as possible, keeping well in front of Karluk the whole time. I stop every few hundred yards so he can catch up, therefore preventing the risk of a cut from my ski edge.”
Snowshoeing: Train your dog to walk directly behind you when snowshoeing. That way, your dog can use your tracks (and not, say, the Nordic skiers’ tracks), and she avoids being stepped on or caught in a crampon. Don’t be surprised if you feel some extra weight in your shoes at the end of the day. Smart, tired dogs have been known to hitch a ride on the back of snowshoes to avoid having to slog through deep snow.
Mountaineering: This activity poses many risks, but the biggest one is impaling your dog with your crampon, “so being aware at all times where your foot placement is in relation to you dog is paramount,” LaRuffa says.
7. Bring a pad
A lightweight foam pad can be deployed on the snow during the day for you and your dog to rest on during a break, and then used at night in camp. Bonus: it’s warmer than an air mattress in the snow, and safer, “since it can’t pop and leave you shivering on the snow,” LaRuffa says.
8. Line your dog’s pack
Even in the snow, the gear in your dog’s pack can get wet. LaRuffa swears by turkey oven roasting bags because they are light, cheap, and strong.
9. Bring a rubber toy
Bring a toy to play with in camp. LaRuffa’s dog, Karluk, recommends orange rubber balls. They are bright and, therefore, easier to find in the snow. Plus, their rubber surface doesn’t soak up slobber and snowmelt.
10. Pay attention
“What seems to work best for Tüz, who has unlimited energy, is to go with his flow,” Monheimer says. “We go as long as he seems fine, and at the first sign of discomfort we turn back. This has put a damper on my ability to summit or reach a particular destination. But Tüz is my best buddy. My number one goal is for him to have a good and safe time.”
11. Have fun!
No explanation needed.