I wish I could give you an easy answer to this question! One of those “when the temperature is ** degrees, stay inside, wrap up warm and curl up on the sofa and watch trashy films instead of taking your dog out” answers… But it isn’t anywhere near as straightforward as that, so the best I can do is… “it depends”!
What to think about
First of all, it depends on your dog’s breed or type. Some breeds have thick coats with an undercoat and enough body fat to easily cope with lower temperatures – and many even love the cold far more than they enjoy a summer’s day. Others have thin coats and light builds and so can’t cope with even the hint of a draft without feeling the chill and demanding a jumper to even go out for a quick pee.
As a quick rule of thumb, look at the country where your dog’s breed (or breeds) was originally developed, and what they were bred to do there. Was it a cold climate where they were bred to be outdoors and working all day? Or was it in sunnier climes where the most they had to do was be a treasured indoor companion?
To give you an idea, the Siberian Husky, with their thick double coat, was bred to pull sleds all day every day through the harshest snows of the frozen north – and so for them even the coldest UK winter is no challenge whatsoever, and in fact is probably their idea of the perfect day. Whereas, the tiny Italian Greyhound, with their slight build, thin skin and fine coat was bred to be a rather cosseted ladies’ companion in the palaces of the Mediterranean – and so the slightest hint of a chill will see most of them diving under the nearest duvet until spring!
Our most popular breeds in the UK come from the gundog group, and while they might not be quite as extreme as the sled dogs, they were still mostly bred in harsh climates and were developed to work happily and enthusiastically all day every day whatever the weather, and so a snowy day in Swindon isn’t going to cause them any problems whatsoever – in fact they probably won’t even notice!
Also consider your dog’s age. The very young and the very old do not cope well with extremes of temperature, and in addition are less likely to be highly active and keep warm with exercise, and so for the babies and the veterans, it is definitely best to err on the side of caution when it comes to winter walks.
Ice, ice pavement
A bigger consideration than temperature is ice. Icy pavements can cause considerable damage to your dog’s paw pads and can also be hard to walk on – and the rock salt mixed with sand or gravel that’s used to de-ice roads and pavements can cause dryness, chemical burns and cracking to paws (and also to noses if your dog is an enthusiastic sniffer) and so should be avoided.
For the hairies, snow can ball up on the legs, feet and in between the toes. Paw balm or boots can help prevent this if it becomes an issue with your dog on those rare (and thanks to climate change, increasingly rarer) snowy UK days.
Tips for Winter Walking
- Remember that whatever your dog’s view of the cold is, they still need just as much exercise, stimulation and enrichment on cold days as they do every other day of the year – otherwise they will get bored, depressed or frustrated.
- If you have a breed that is happy in the cold, wrap up warmly yourself and enjoy your usual long walks. Play games and keep active so your dog stays warm.
- Watch out for snow drifts, ice, grit, antifreeze, frozen ponds and other winter hazards – and remember when crossing roads or walking around traffic that drivers might not be able to stop as quickly as usual.
- Use a reflective collar, harness and lead – and wear reflective clothing yourself – so you can be seen.
- If you have a dog who is very much a hot house flower, or an older dog or young puppy, replace their daily walks on the colder (below freezing – or cold, wet and windy) days with indoor games, training, enrichment, problem solving tasks, and your company.
- If you don’t like going out in the cold and the wet, that’s fine but see above. Your dog needs just as much stimulation on days when you don’t want to venture out – and they’ll enjoy interacting with you on training games, sniffaris, and enrichment toys far more than you dashing out and dashing back in again on a rushed dog walk that you hate every minute of.
- When you come home, dry your dog off with a towel, as lying around wet is when they are most likely to get chilled – and if it has been snowy, check their paws for balls of snow between their toes.
The reality, however, is that in most cases, our dogs are far happier to go out on cold winter days than we are – and often we use them as an excuse not to just put a few more layers on and enjoy a wintery walk.