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Posted on Mon, Dec 5, 2011 : 5:51 a.m.

Walking your dog in winter has inherent risks, but simple rules can make it safer

By Lorrie Shaw


flickr photo by vauvau

We're heading into the harsh winter weather here in the Ann Arbor area, and we've swapped our lightweight coats for heavier ones, and pulled out the hats and gloves in recent weeks.

The snowy mess outdoors is a consideration when it comes to our feet for obvious reasons —we want to stay warm and dry.

As bipeds, it's also a challenge trying to walk on snow and ice covered areas, and the risk of injury from a fall increases greatly this time of year. If you’re walking a dog, your risk of a slip and fall in winter conditions is even higher.

Being safe and smart when you’re enjoying the winter weather with your dogs on or off leash is a must.

For myself, there is one key tool in staying safe this time of year: the proper footwear.

Nothing beats my Betty Boots by Keen to keep my feet protected from the elements, and my YakTrax give me extra traction in winter weather — both are available at Mast Shoes. I can go from a wet sidewalk to snow-covered trail to icy country roads in rapid-fire succession, and can do so with more confidence because of what's on my feet.

But footwear is only one part of the equation when it comes to being safe while out walking your dog.

The other part of winter safety on dog walks is quite simply, the dog.

Case in point: when I'm out on daily walking rounds, all-to-often I see people struggling with their dogs, trying to get them not to pull, to listen to commands and maintain an even cadence. In more than one instance, I’ve seen the human get knocked off of his or her feet because of slick surfaces and unruly pooches — a pretty dangerous situation where the consequences are not limited to a possible injury to the human and the dog.

In one instance, said dog became physically separated from the human and ran off in all of the confusion. Luckily, the pooch was easily coaxed back to the owner, and all was well.

Rule number one: each dog must listen to the commands of their partner on the other end of the leash.

Don’t get me wrong. When I’m out with my charges, it’s really all about fun. I’m there to get them out for exercise and a good time — a chaperone, of sorts. Reading and leaving 'pee-mail' is par for the course and exceptionally good for canines, as is exploring things along the way — within reason of course.

The difficulty begins though, when the pooch you're with must constantly pull or tug, or when they yank on the leash when you’re trying to clean up after they've done their business.

If your furry friend is having trouble getting the message about what you expect when they are out and about, I can offer a little wisdom to help you persuade your pup —no matter the age —to behave a little more politely on a leash, and advice on basic walking tools that will keep both of you safe this winter.

Ditch the retractable leash. Your dog should be able to walk politely on a traditional leash before you ever consider using a retractable. (I use a six-foot one most often.) Unruly dogs can get wrapped around trees or snarled in bushes and are not easily controlled when on a leash like this. Worst case scenario: These types of leashes do snap easily, and that's last thing that you want.

Teach your dog to 'sit/wait' when you're cleaning up after it. This command is invaluable in so many situations, but it's especially handy when you're trying to pick up their waste. I often offer dogs a treat to munch on to keep them occupied while I quickly scoop.

Consider buying a harness. I provide these for dogs when they're in my care, as they are securely tethered to me once the harness is attached to the leash — no worry of them slipping out of a collar and taking off. A secondary benefit: when using a harness that uses a front-chest leash attachment like the Easy Walker from Premier, if the dog pulls, the harness tightens slightly across their chest and shoulder blades, (as opposed to their neck) and redirects their attention back toward you. I've used them on dogs that normally would pull constantly, and they get the idea quickly that pulling isn't a favorable thing, especially when coupled with teaching the next concept.

Loose leash walking or walking without pulling is a must. It doesn’t matter if you're on a sidewalk, on a desolate dirt road or on a hiking path. It's quite simple to teach, although I will admit it does take time to do. The key is consistency and patience, just like when you're working with your dog on basic obedience. Dogs learn best when those two elements are part of any routine. Knowing basic commands is so important for a dog and really should be taught alongside walking on a leash with manners. Click here for a great tutorial that employs an effective positive reinforcement method for loose leash walking.

Consider putting these things to work on your outdoor adventures with your pet, and you'll not only enjoy the time more, but you'll increase your chances of staying out of the emergency room this winter.

Lorrie Shaw is lead pets blogger for Catch her daily dog walking and pet sitting adventures or email her directly.


Heather Wasklewicz

Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 5:42 p.m.

Great article with some very practical advice for dog walkers! As a dog owner I know how critical it is to get out with the dog in all weather! I will recommend Stabilicers Lites ice cleats - they are designed for casual use like walking the dog. Perfect because they are lightweight, durable, excellent traction and made in Maine so you can expect high quality...long life. The fun part is they come in a variety of colors. Stay safe out there no matter what ice cleat you choose...your dog will love you for it!

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 1:15 a.m.

Heather - thanks for giving everyone the heads up on Stabilicers. We all need every bit of ammo for winter that we can get. As you said, it's super important to get out even in the winter with out pets. Thanks for your comment!


Mon, Dec 5, 2011 : 4:50 p.m.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! The article on loose leash training was the best I've read. It provides a few key details on making it an effective training tool plus the author spells out *why* the owner/trainer should execute these actions. For me, the 'why' is just as important as the 'what' when working with my dog. And ditto regarding good boots and Yaktraxs. I tend to wear out 2 to 3 pair of ice traction devices every season so consider purchasing more than one pair so you'll always have something to slip over your shoes. Also, don't forget about the dog's feet. I use Musher's Secret to prevent balls of snow forming between the dog's toes (clipping the fur between toes work too) and to protect their pads from salt and sharp ice.

Lorrie Shaw

Mon, Dec 5, 2011 : 11:27 p.m.

RunsWithScissors: Glad that you found the piece useful! There are different varieties of YakTrax and other traction devices, so talking with a knowledgeable salesperson will help one decide which is best. (I use YakTrax "Pro"). Please check back within a few days - my piece dealing specifically with winter paw care is coming up!