winter safety for dogs

Winter offers you and your dog lots of opportunities for outdoor fun and exercise. Just remember to keep his well being (and your own) in mind, especially if you live in or are traveling to avalanche country.

Few things are more peaceful and invigorating than playing in the snow with your dog. But if you live or vacation in a mountainous region further north, the risk of encountering an avalanche is high, especially in recent years, when climate change seem to be causing more of these events. Here’s how to enjoy the winter while keeping yourself and your dog safe from this hazard.

Avalanche awareness

If you’re planning to take your dog into mountainous backcountry, be sure to constantly evaluate avalanche risk, as conditions can change fast.

  • Avalanches are more likely during a storm and for 24 hours afterwards. The weight of the new snow can cause a slab of existing snow to break off. This is more likely when new snowfall is over 6”, and especially if it’s over a foot.
  • Try to plan your adventure on the side of the mountain where the wind has “scoured” the snow – usually the west-facing slopes – rather than the side onto which the snow has been blown.
  • Stay informed about how the snow pack has been developing in the region throughout the season. A stable snow pack means lower avalanche risk.

Preparation checklist

In addition to water, take along some food or good quality treats. A portable shovel made of plastic and aluminum will help you dig out if you and your dog are caught in an avalanche. Digging with a shovel takes less than half the time as digging by hand. Collapsible probes or ski-pole probes are also good to take along.

Bring first aid supplies for both you and your dog. “With dogs, the main injuries we see are cuts, whether from skis or something sharp hidden under the snow,” says Tricia Mines, a veterinary technician at Aspen Animal Hospital in Aspen, Colorado. “Some of the cuts can be serious, severing tendons or ligaments. It’s a good idea to carry an ace bandage to wrap a foot/leg if necessary.”

If you are venturing into potentially dangerous territory, don’t go alone. Take a buddy or two, and always have a mobile communication device with you so you can call for outside help if needed. Keep in mind that cell phones may not work in mountainous or remote regions.

Dress yourself accordingly. Consider your dog’s comfort as well. Breeds that don’t have a thick wolf-like coat are not prepared by nature for cold temperatures, so a good set of quality boots and a weatherproof coat are just as important for him as they are for you. In the event of an avalanche or other accident, they can make a big difference in helping you and your dog stay warm and dry while you wait for help.

Wearing a beacon or “transceiver” is critical in an area where there’s avalanche danger. Many dog parents choose to put a beacon on their companions too – just keep in mind that in the event of an avalanche, rescuers might find your dog before they find you, if they hone in on his beacon first.

Before venturing into unknown territory, consider taking an avalanche training course. It will help you better recognize avalanche danger, select less risky routes, and improve your chances of surviving an avalanche.

If the worst happens

Remember how airlines insist you give yourself oxygen before trying to help someone else? The same principle applies in the event of an avalanche. Focus on keeping yourself as close to the surface of the snow as possible. Let go of anything you are holding – including your dog’s leash – and drop your pack to make yourself as light as possible. Use swimming motions to keep yourself closer to the surface. Once you know you are safe, use extreme caution when locating your dog. If you are alone, call for additional assistance.

By taking steps to protect yourself and your dog, you can safely enjoy the peace and beauty that winter has to offer, no matter where you are.