Often times winter can seem overwhelming. With shorter daylight, darker nights, and colder temperatures you may find yourself dreaming of sunshine, wildflowers, and warmer climates. Being shut inside, with the windows closed, can really take a toll on an individual. This is especially true for our furry companions that love to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. But winter doesn’t have to be all bad.
I’m not going to try convince you to LOVE winter, but I hope I can convince you that trying a new winter activity with your dog can be a great way to beat the winter blues. For us, that winter activity was downhill skiing. Our snow loving dog Winnie is still relatively new to downhill skiing so here are some tips that we’ve learned along the way.
Before you even consider taking your dog skiing make sure you are comfortable and knowledgeable with the risk that comes with backcountry travel. Start with backcountry education courses and then work on acquiring proper gear (Avy shovel, probe, beacons, etc.). No gear for you or your dog that we talk about will help with route planning or safely navigating and assessing avalanche terrain! If that all sounds a little intimidating, don’t fret, there are other options! Some ski resorts in the USA do allow dogs on the slopes before and after operational hours- regulated slopes are a nice alternative to backcountry travel. Also, you can find many dog friendly groomed cross country trails across the country that are outside of avalanche danger.
Like any new activity you expose your dog to, remember to start small. We made the mistake of thinking Winnie would easily pick up the skills of downhill skiing after she’d done so well with off-leash biking. Turns out a spinning wheel is far less of a temptation for Winnie to herd than two sharp sticks attached to my feet moving through snow are! If you find this out the hard way like we did, don’t give up – go back to the basics and take things slow.
Make sure your dog is fluent in voice commands. Responding consistently to “heel” will be important for the uphill trek and portions of the hill where there may be flat cat tracks where other skiers may desire to pass you. If a skier or snowboarder is coming down the hill as you are going up, create a safe distance between your dog and them. We choose to keep Winnie on a bungee leash on the uphill just to reduce any temptations she may have to chase or get in the way of another recreationist. When she’s following her “heel” command we shower her with treats to reinforce the behavior.
To get your dog used to staying with you but not on top of your skis it’s important to teach them what the boundaries are. At the top of a hill practice your “sit” and “release word” command with your dog. Once your dog is in a sit you can slowly distance yourself from them in your skis. Use your release word once there is a safe distance between you and your dog. Start by only moving a few feet from your dog and release them, then increase that distance over time. Reinforce with treats if they are following your commands. The sit and release behavior chain can continue to be utilized the entire way down the hill. Remember don’t get too far ahead of your dog & vice versa, don’t let your dog get too close to you (your edges are VERY SHARP). Stop frequently, especially when you are first training, so that you can get your dog back in a sit position to practice another trial of ‘sit’ and then ‘release’ as you move away from them. Be patient, this training can take a lot of practice. When we started training Winnie, it was helpful to have 2 humans along for the trip. One human to instruct the ‘sit’ and ‘release’ commands and the other, to stay with Winnie during her ‘sit’ and then to follow behind her if she were to need further assistance.
Once you’re cruising along remember your other basic trail manners. Don’t leave a garbage trail behind and clean up your dog’s poop. Nobody wants a brown streak on their skins, skis, or boards – that’d be a real stinker!
We can’t talk about skiing with your dog without talking about gear. A lot of the gear that you use hiking or camping or snowshoeing with your dog is the same gear that you can use on the hill. Below are a few critical things that we’ve found helpful on our adventures.
Touring up a hill usually means you’re moving at a much slower pace than the adrenaline thrill of the downhill. Know what temperatures your dog can handle. If your dog is small and has a short, single layer coat, be prepared to keep them warm. If your dog has a long coat, watch for snowball buildup on their body. Although Winnie, a double coat breed, rarely shivers or appears to get cold, we put a coat like Ruffwear’s Powder Hound on her to keep snow from building up on her chest since she doesn’t stand very high above the ground! Most dog coats come in bright, reflective color choices. If you have the option to select a bright color, do it. Everything starts to look the same on a hill of white snow so it’s nice when your dog stands out like a fluorescent highlighter!
Snow is cold! Can you imagine walking bare foot through it for an extended period of time?! If your dog is holding up one of their paws or having large amounts of snow accumulate in and around their paws, chances are they might be cold! Put on some paw wax, pack a pair of booties or gaiters and you’ll be able to extend your time on the hill while keeping your dog comfortable. Winnie performs best in her Backcountry Paws gaiters. These are a step up from booties and closely mimic what a human gaiter does to prevent snow, ice, and water from getting in. They are also conveniently inter-connected so the chances of them going missing in a deep pile of pow is highly unlikely. We have Winnie wear these on the uphill trek to keep her legs and paws free of snow before she sprints down the mountain!
Going uphill can get exhausting! Take a break at the top before you begin your descent down. For short breaks it’s nice to have a pad, lightweight cot, or blanket available to put down for your dog to rest on above the snow.
Before you leave for your snow day adventure be proactive and make sure you know how far you are from an emergency vet. Save their number in your phone so you can call as soon as you have service. Remember, the further you go in the backcountry, the harder it becomes to seek professional veterinary assistance.
Make sure you brush up on your basic dog first aid and pack a first-aid kit that has enough supplies for both you and your dog! Alcott conveniently packs enough supplies for you and your furry best friend in their Adventure First Aid Kit. Stuffing your kit with some extra gauze and/or vet wrap will come in handy in the event that your dog acquires a cut on the hill, and you need to stop the bleed. If you are looking to build your own first aid kit or want to brush up on some basic skills check out First Aid for Fido on the Trail.
With a little planning, preparation, and research, you and your dog can be on your way to beating those winter blues. You may end up pushing those thoughts of sunshine and warmer temperatures to the side. You may even find yourself regularly searching mountain forecasts while simultaneously praying for snow! Don’t say we didn’t warn you now!
About the author: Callie and Winnie call the PNW home and enjoy adventuring any chance they get. Check them out on Instagram @life.with.winnie