Sheila, Day Hiking Ambassador
The leaves have fallen. The temperatures are dropping. Darkness comes early. These signs do not cause us despair, but rather excitement, since they mean Winter is almost upon us! For the past 6 years, I have truly become a snowshoeing fanatic , getting out on the trails 4 or 5 days per week. And on these adventures, no matter what the weather or conditions may be, I always have my faithful snowshoeing companion Gryphon with me.
Snowshoeing is just one of the many winter activities my husband and I share with our dogs. Our experiences have taught us quite a bit about the best practices for safely and successfully having our dogs accompany us on our outings. We seem to always have fun, the dogs bounce around in anticipation when they see us getting the Tubbs Snowshoes gear packed, and snowshoeing has become our primary winter recreation. Every dog is different, and environments and conditions may vary, but here are a few tips that we have found helpful.
We use trekking lines/belts with our dogs while hiking and snowshoeing…these are the same lines that we use for skijoring, and work well for hands-free hiking. Since we use snowshoeing poles, trying to hold onto a leash would be problematic. The dogs wear the same harnesses that they use for hiking. This is our choice, as we feel it is the way to keep our dogs safe in often hostile winter conditions. Gryphon has excellent recall, but I like to know he is on-trail, near me, and not encountering hazards that an off-leash dog faces. If you choose to allow your dog off-leash, be sure that you have solid voice control over your dog, and always carry a short leash in case you encounter a situation where that may be indicated. I have trained Gryphon to come to a whistle…when the wind is howling, a voice can be lost, but a whistle may be more easily heard by a dog.
Dogs feet (and ears and tails) can become frostbitten! Monitor your dog for any foot discomfort during an outing , as the signs of frostbite on a dog may not be immediately observable. If your dog is walking while trying to keep his feet of the snow, you may need to intervene. If your dog has furry feet, you may clip the hairs between the pads, to prevent build-up of little snow-balls. There are various types of protective paw-wax available; I always carry paw wax and an applicator rag in my pack, so that I can apply, or re-apply it as needed. The wax is a part of the K9 first aid kit that is always in my pack. I also have fleece musher’s boots that I put on Gryphon if the temperature is below 10 degrees or so…. these simple boots usually provide him with just enough thermal protection that he can stride on without issue. There are also various heavier duty dog boots available, which we have tried…but for us, musher’s booties do the trick.
In really bitter cold conditions, we have jackets that we can put on the dogs. These can provide just a bit more insulation for our short-haired dogs, and also keep the dogs drier when there is snow falling.
Be sure to be a responsible dog owner. If your dog “does his business” on the trail, please be sure to remove the business from the trail. I am a trail monitor for a local trail network, and we actually collect data on the incidence of folks not picking up after their dogs, and seek to educate trail users of the need to keep trails clean. We all share the trails, and no one on snowshoes wants to “step in it”. If you allow your dog to hike off-leash, you should be careful to note his activity, so that you Leave No Trace.
Even during a cold winter snowshoeing activity, your dog will get thirsty, and will need to be hydrated. Eating snow is not the answer! Carry a bottle of water for your dog; I use an insulated bottle, which can be carried in my pack. Your dog will also burn up a lot of energy while plowing through the snow. Be sure to have good quality treats to feed your dog during your outing.
In our area of the country, hunting season often overlaps with snowshoeing season. Hunter orange dog scarfs, vests, and lines can be used to increase your dog’s visibility…and be sure you are also clearly “oranged up”.
Remember that you are responsible for your dog, and you should help to make the snowshoeing trip a fun and safe one for him, as well. Keep your snowshoe hikes appropriate for your dog’s level of fitness, experience, and age. Though we hike regularly all year, once we are into snowshoeing season, we start off with easy snow hikes, and work our way up to more strenuous excursions. If we are in deep, unbroken snow, we take turns breaking trail; I think the dog actually appreciates the chance to take a breather from the heavy work! Gryphon absolutely loves going out with me when I snowshoe, but he is getting older, and I want him to stay healthy for many more years of winter fun.
Snowshoeing is a great activity for all members of the family, even the 4-legged ones. Enjoy the time you all spend together, and don’t forget to take lots of pictures!