How to Keep Your Dog Fit and Active During the Winter

Depending on where you live, winters can be harsh, which means you and your dog spend a lot more time indoors. Here are some tips for keeping him fit, active and safe during the cold weather months.

Once the weather turns colder and the days get shorter, most of us spend more time inside — and so do our dogs. Whatever the season, however, regular exercise is important for maintaining your canine companion’s health and fitness. This means getting him outside when conditions and temperatures allow, and finding ways to give him indoor exercise when they don’t. Read on for tips on how to keep your dog fit, safe and happy during the winter months, along with suggestions for activities you can do together.

Why year-round fitness is important

“It is crucial that we keep our dogs mobile, to prevent them from stiffening up and gaining weight,” says veterinary surgeon Dr. Linda Simon. “Not only that, but exercise and keeping active are important for mental health, and prevents dogs from becoming depressed or apathetic.” This is especially true for older dogs who may be dealing with conditions such as arthritis.

Some dogs just don’t like winter

While some dogs love going outside to romp in the cold and snow, others hate it. A lot depends on the breed, size, and coat length of the dog. Smaller dogs such as pugs, dachshunds, and Chihuahuas like warmer weather. Basset hounds also prefer to stay put during the winter because their short legs and stocky frames make it hard to get through the snow.

Tip: Even big dogs like great Danes tend to shy away from cold weather because of their short hair and reduced ability to stay comfortable in harsh temperatures.

Winter health risks to be aware of

Although you may think your dog is being a bit dramatic when she’s reluctant to go outside in the winter, veterinarians and other animal experts caution that lengthy exposure to cold temperatures can be harmful to your canine. Coupled with low windchills, sub-freezing temperatures can lead to frostbite of the ears, paws and the tip of the tail.

The paws are most prone to injury during winter. “Heat loss is typically prevented through a ‘countercurrent heat exchanger’ that extends from a dog’s paws, allowing the body to remain warm even though the paws are exposed to the cold,” says pet travel expert, Lisa Porter. “However, there is a temperature point at which this inherent system of heat preservation does not work. Because paws are served by a network of nerves and blood vessels, walking a dog when it is extremely cold subjects him to paw injuries that can cause pain, bleeding, and cracking.”

Additionally, the salt used to melt snow and ice on roads and sidewalks can cause burning and pain to a dog’s paws. She may show signs of discomfort such as holding up her feet, limping, excessive licking or vocalizing. When walking your dog during the winter, it’s always best to avoid salted surfaces.

Tip: It’s essential to keep a close eye on your dog and her behavior when taking her on outdoor adventures, especially in the winter. If she’s shivering or showing signs of stiffness, such as slowing down or stopping, it’s time to head back inside.

Outdoor activity tips

Rather than taking your dog on a long hike, try keeping walks shorter and focusing more on play and letting him sniff around and use his senses. In other words, quality over quantity. This limits the length of time he’ll be exposed to the cold and damp, yet ensures he’s getting adequate activity and stimulation.

If your dog is a reluctant winter walker, try taking him to an interesting new place such as the beach or a park, and allow him to sniff around and explore for a short period of time. This helps beat wintertime boredom while giving him needed exercise.

Indoor winter fitness activities

When the weather is especially bad — or if your dog just doesn’t like winter or is of a breed that can’t be outside much in the cold — you can still keep her fit and engaged by exercising her indoors.

  • Simple agility courses can be created with household items such as boxes, stepstools and chairs.
  • You can play fetch with your dog up and down the hallway, or engage her in a game of hide and seek.
  • If your dog is a social butterfly, make a play date with another dog belonging to a friend, family member or neighbor. Doggy daycare is another good way to help ensure your pooch is getting sufficient exercise and playtime.
  • Mental simulation is also important during the winter; keeping a dog’s mind active helps her stay happy and curious, and you don’t need the outdoors for that. Puzzle treat games or a classic Kong stuffed with peanut butter are favorite ways to enrich a dog’s mind and keep him stimulated.

Tip: Scent work is another fun option — just hide some high-value treats around the house and invite your dog to search them out.

Winter doesn’t have to mean letting your dog turn into a couch potato. Outdoor activities are still an option as long as you keep his safety and comfort top of mind. And with a little imagination, you can give him exercise inside the house as well. Keeping him fit, both physically and mentally, is important, no matter what time of year it is!

Laurie Riihimaki is a full-time freelance writer and editor covering a range of topics from animals and holistic medicine to fitness and personal development. Her theatre background in Boston, London, and New York City have helped her create a fun voice that she utilizes in her writing. When not writing for work, Laurie puts time into developing novels, poetry, and personal essays. And when she isn’t writing, she is directing, acting, painting, exploring nature, reading, or spending time with her family and dog.

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