My chow chow, Nani, is covered in long, orange fur. I’m not. Children often stop Nani and me on the street to remark on how fluffy she is. No one has ever commented on my fur.
Now, abundant body hair on a human is normally a bad thing, but on below-zero days, I find myself staring enviously at Nani. A quick glance at her thick coat is also a reminder that my canine companion is ready and willing to brave the elements, even if I’m not.
So, on cold winter days, how do I give Nani the exercise she needs without making myself miserable?
The first step is knowing how much exercise your dog requires. Veterinarians agree that every dog has unique needs, but a general rule of thumb is two or three play sessions a day, totaling at least 30 minutes. Some dogs will require more, and some dogs might need less.
Veterinary behaviorist Gary M. Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, dip ECVBM-CA, says, “You have to know your dog—both the individual dog and the breed. Is it a herding dog, or a retriever? Speak to your veterinarian if you don’t know what exercise requirements your dog might have.”
A dog’s age will also play a role in how much physical activity it requires.
Knowing the breed can do more than tell you how much exercise to give a dog. It can also tell you what kind. If you have a retriever, your pup will likely enjoy a game of fetch. If you have a sled-dog breed, you will want to exercise the muscles used for this activity. And if you have a herding breed, your pet will need to run and chase.
Dogs should also have a chance to play with humans and other dogs, along with opportunities for enrichment and mental stimulation. At one point in time, all dogs had to scavenge or hunt for their food, so toys and games that encourage dogs to work for their food can be both mentally and physically satisfying.
Some of these games include using food toys to deliver meals or treats, or having your dog search for food and treats around the house at your command. Here, again, you can look to your pup’s breed—and personal preferences—for clues to favorite activities.
Setting up an exercise and enrichment schedule for your pet can seem complicated, but just remember to include enough exercise, social time and opportunities to go to the bathroom. Once you understand your dog, create a loose schedule to meet those requirements. Pets thrive on consistency and predictability, according to Landsberg, so try and maintain a daily routine that meets both the needs of you and your dog.
How Cold Is Too Cold?
How do you know if it’s safe to take your dog out in winter weather conditions? Radosta says this: “The first thing I would say is your dog has a fur coat on. Most dogs want to go out there. So unless you’re caught in a blizzard, you need to get out there.” Landsberg agrees.
Breeds with thick coats and long hair can generally tolerate cooler temperatures better than short-haired ones. If the conditions are extreme, there are things you can do to make sure your dog is safe and comfortable.
For example, on very icy days, boots can help. Radosta also says, “Sometimes dogs will get ice balls on their feet, so bring a plastic spoon to scoop out the ice balls. Protect the ears and toes for dogs that aren’t as furry, or if you’ll be out for a very long time. When you go inside, wipe your dog’s feet off and make sure there’s no cracking in the pads.”
But whenever dogs are shivering or lifting their paws, then it’s time to go inside.
When it comes to winter exercise, first figure out what conditions your dog can tolerate (see sidebar).
Now you’re ready to figure out a winter-exercise routine for your dog. If you’ve determined that you have a low-energy dog, then your schedule probably doesn’t require any big adjustments. But for a high-energy dog that isn’t cold-tolerant, or if you’re not, you’ll want to make some changes.
You can spend more time indoors by playing games with your dog and providing more opportunities for brain boosting, again looking to your dog’s breed.
For example, veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, suggests, “You can set up low-cost carpet runners and throw a ball up and down the hallway. The runners will reduce slips. You can also set up an agility course in your garage or basement.” Inexpensive runners can be found at any home goods store, like Target, Sears or Walmart. Additionally, most pet stores have basic agility kits, which you can take down and store when not in use.
If you provide more brain-stimulating activities, you may be able to get away with less physical exercise. Doggie day care centers or dog walkers are other options.
But if it is you who wants to stay indoors and not your dog, you might want to wage a war against the voice in your head that tells you to stick with the familiar. Then, follow the old guidelines about starting a new habit: Post your resolution somewhere you can see it, do it every day, tell people you’re doing it and think about joining a group to stay motivated. You and your dog might end up with a new favorite hobby.
If you and your dog are both hardy and have lots of energy, then there are a ton of fun things you can do outside to meet the dog’s needs. Most dogs love winter hikes, and letting your well-trained dog off leash as you cross-country ski can be a blast. Work with a reputable trainer to determine if your dog will come on command.
Sled-pulling is another great option in the winter if you have a sled dog or a stocky dog. You can search on the term “weight pulling” and the name of your city or state in a search engine to find clubs in your area that offer this activity.
Giving your dog the right amount of exercise in the winter is really not that different than in the warmer months. You will have to make some adjustments, but if you do it right, you and your canine friend will end up loving your new routine.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter January / February 2012, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2011 AAHA. Find out more.