Winter running with dogs

Winter running with dogs

Winter running tips for dogs (and their humans)

I grew up in Minnesota, and I spent 12 years in North Dakota where I owned a dog walking business. Let’s just say I’m used to cold weather!

I took dogs on running sessions in all weather through my business. Sometimes it was -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and we still ran. No big deal. Just another day! Over the years, I covered more than 5,000 miles with dogs at my side.

And so, this post includes my tips for running with a dog in the winter. I’ll start by listing some of the most common questions I receive about winter running with dogs.

Running with dogs in winter

When is it too cold to run with a dog? Winter running with dogs

For the most part, serious runners are a tough bunch. They aren’t scared off by the cold. They’re often up before dawn, running 8 or 10 miles before work. But I still get this question – When is it too cold for a dog?

That is a tough question. What do you mean by “too cold”?

(Here I am in my creeper face mask.)

Winter running with dogs

If you mean the current temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re wondering if your dog might get a little chilly, he’ll probably be fine as long as you’re going out for an hour or less.

I didn’t even bother to put coats on the dogs in Fargo unless it was below 10 degrees or so. Anything above that in January was a heatwave! 

Can my dog run if it’s below 10 degrees?

This depends on the dog (and the human). Obviously Midwestern dogs have adapted to the cold just like their owners have adapted. When it doesn’t get above zero for 10 days at at a time, you just kind of deal with it.

On the other hand, 10 degrees is going to feel very cold for dogs in other parts of the country, just as it will feel cold to their humans.

What I learned from years of running in the cold is that as long as you keep running (vs. walking), nearly all dogs are fine for a 30-minute run even when it gets down to -10 degrees or so.

I definitely ran with dogs when it was colder than that, but once it dips below -10 degrees I start looking at the individual dog in front of me. You also don’t want to be out for more than 20 or 30 minutes in the extreme cold.

Winter running with dogs

How to know if it’s too cold to run with your dog

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How old is the dog? Puppies and seniors tend to get colder quicker, plus they may not be the best candidates for running.
  • How long are you going to be running? A half-hour should be fine in most temps unless it’s below 0.
  • How much fur does this dog have? Obviously a Boston terrier is going to have a harder time than an American Eskimo or a husky!
  • How much body fat does the dog have? Lean, muscular dogs tend to start shivering sooner than dogs with more “width.”
  • How much energy does the dog have? Usually when a dog is a bundle of energy, she’s going to do OK in the cold for at least short periods. Her heart rate will be up from the excitement of getting out, and her body will warm up from the workout.
  • Is this dog used to the cold? Obviously a Minnesota dog will be used to the cold compared to a dog that recently moved to a cold climate.
  • Does the dog need a coat? (more on that below)
  • Does the dog have sensitive paws? Does he need booties?
  • When in doubt, skip the run or leave the dog home.

One thing that also helps is to use a hands-free dog leash because it’s hard to hold a leash (and poop bags) when you’re wearing gloves or mittens!

Does my dog need a coat in the winter?

Your dog probably doesn’t need a coat while running as long as it’s 20 degrees or warmer. Of course, if you notice your dog frequently shivering or if you regularly plan to be out for more than 45 minutes, a coat might be a good idea.

I typically did not put a coat on my black Lab mix Ace, but I do put a vest on my weimaraner these days.

We live in Montana now, and my weim has such short hair and very little body fat. Plus, we regularly go on training runs that are several hours in the mountains as we train for ultra marathons. So yes, a coat is very helpful for our current dog!

My weimaraner Remy in the snow

Just know that most dog sweaters and fleeces are cute as far as a fashion statement, but they don’t do a whole lot as far as warmth. I recommend Ruff Wear’s dog coats or a hunting vest. More on both options below.

How to get my dog used to wearing a coat

Remember that it’s unnatural and uncomfortable for most dogs to wear a coat. A coat makes some dogs feel very submissive since the material is placed over them.

This was definitely the case with my Lab mix Ace. I knew he would much rather be cold than wear his coat. When I put his vest on him, his whole body posture changed. He cowered and held himself lower to the ground. 2018 update: Ace has passed away.

My dog Ace wearing his dog coat in the winter

If you buy a coat for your dog, don’t make fun of him when he wears it. Instead, give him treats and praise and head out for a walk or something fun! Tell him what a good boy he is in his stylish jacket! All the other dogs will be jealous!

In the book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz wrote how dogs generally don’t need to wear coats (they have their own!).

“Both dogs and wolves have, clearly, their own coats permanently affixed,” she wrote. “One coat is enough: when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they do not cover themselves with natural materials.”

She went on to describe how a coat presses against the back, chest and even the head of a dog, an uncomfortable feeling to them.

“There are occasions when wolves get pressed upon the back or head: it is when they are being dominated by another wolf, or scolded by an older wolf or relative.”

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some dogs love the coats we put on them. They may associate the coat with a walk or with affection from us. Others just learn to put up with it, as they put up with so many other obnoxious things from us – hugs, for example.

Remy and me in the snow winter running

What kind of coat is best for my dog?

If you do invest in a dog coat for warmth (vs. a fashion statement), I recommend you go to a sporting goods store that carries winter gear for hunting breeds.

I bought an Avery camouflage hunting vest for my dog Ace 10 years ago and now Remy wears it so it’s lasted a long time!

Avery dog vest dog coat for hunting dogs

Dog hunting vests are ugly, but ours does keep Remy’s core warm when necessary. It’s made for Labs to wear while duck hunting, so it’s no joke. Remy wears it while we run in the mountains, and Ace used to wear it on our  cold-weather camping trips when we were not moving around as much.

If you want something more stylish, we love the dog coats from RuffWear, and they come in different colors.

Ruff Wear dog coat

Does my dog need boots in the winter?

For winter running with dogs, your dog most likely will not need boots unless it’s below 15 degrees or if you’re going to be out for a few hours. Dogs’ feet are actually very tough and as long as you’re moving,  your dog’s feet will probably be OK.

There’s always an exception though. My weimaraner’s paws get cold when it’s below 15 degrees or so. I’m going to buy him some Muttluks dog boots. If your dog is holding up his paws when out in the cold, then that is an obvious sign that his feet are cold and he might also benefit from dog booties.

See my Muttluks dog boots review.

Dog boots Muttluks dog boots

How to prevent snow and ice buildup between a dog’s toes

It’s much more common for dogs to need boots to prevent snow and ice buildup between the toes than protection from the cold. For winter running with dogs, this is very common with medium-haired and long-haired breeds. The snow sticks to their fur and can easily freeze.

The longer the dog is out, the more snow builds between their toes and this can be very painful! The snow keeps getting packed tightly until it becomes a frozen ice chunk stuck to the poor dog’s foot.

Do dogs need boots in the winter?

A thin pair of dog boots is enough protection to keep the snow and ice from gathering between your dog’s toes. The lighter the boots, the better. Remember, they’re not necessarily for warmth. And dogs really don’t like to have anything on their feet.

I’m linking to a brand called Pawz dog boots because this is a product I’ve found very effective for some of my dog running clients.

These boots are not designed to keep a dog’s paws warm. They are designed to protect paws from chemicals and rough surfaces, and they’re pretty durable. The boots are very thin, like a sock, but they’re made of natural rubber and are therefore waterproof. They are meant to be disposable, so the dog wears each pair maybe 5 or 6 times and then you throw them away.

You get 12 boots in a pack, so they last awhile, and each can be worn several times. They’re 100 percent biodegradable, according to the company. And they’re also great for dogs that tend to shuffle their feet and wear down their paw pads.

When is it too cold to take a dog running?

Protect a dog’s paws from chemical de-icing material

I also recommend a light pair of boots for your dog if your running route has unavoidable portions of streets or sidewalks with chemical de-icing materials or salt. This can obviously irritate a dog’s paws, and it’s not all that great for him to be licking off his feet afterwards, either. Again, go with the lightest pair possible. You could use the Pawz dog boots above or a lighter pair of Muttluks.

Most dogs won’t need protection against jagged or potentially sharp ice on the road, but if this is a concern for you, that might be another reason to consider a thin pair of dog boots.

How far should I run with a dog in the cold?

When is it too cold to run with a dog? When in doubt, skip the run or go shorter than normal.

If you’re willing to brave the cold, I recommend you keep it to 30 minutes whenever it’s around the zero-degree mark or below. If needed, you could head inside to warm up for five minutes, and then head back out to finish the run. I’ve done that plenty of times.

I’ve also kept my route closer to the house than usual. The dogs and I have done plenty of laps around a couple of blocks on cold days just so we can easily head home if needed.

I recommend you do not run for more than 30 minutes with your dog unless you really know what the dog can handle. Sure, if you’ve had the dog for years and you’ve gone running in the cold together every winter, then you know what your dog can handle.

If this is your first winter together, just stay on the safe side and ease into your winter running.

Winter running with dogs

Other tips for running with dogs in the cold

  • Give your dog enough water when you get home. Winter weather brings really dry air in some areas. Just because your dog is not panting doesn’t mean she’s not getting a good workout. I’m often sweating like crazy on sub-zero runs due to over-dressing! (gross, right?)
  • Start out on the safe side and slowly build up your dog’s tolerance for the cold.
  • Consider other exercise options such as a treadmill, dog agility or even obedience training when it’s too cold to walk the dog.
  • Pay attention to your dog. Let him tell you if he’s too cold. Is he lifting his paws? Is he shivering? Does he appear concerned? Or, is he acting happy go lucky by offering play bows, giving a big “smile” and trying to eat snow?
  • Heat is far more dangerous for most dogs than the cold.
  • Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you can’t exercise your dog. More often than not, the owner uses “it’s too cold” as an excuse. Try 10 minutes. I’m guessing you and your dog will be just fine.
  • Invest in winter gear for yourself and your dog if it will make the two of you more likely to exercise.
  • Consider dog daycare in the winter to get your dog exercise and socialization

See my post: How to exercise your dog indoors

My dog and I running in the winter

When should professional dog walkers cancel their appointments due to the cold?

When is it too cold to run with a dog? As a professional dog runner in Fargo, my idea of “too cold” was not always the same as my clients’ idea of too cold.

On crazy-cold days, I would simply touch base with each one individually and ask them what they thought was best. There is always a week or two in January where it’s just insanely cold, even for North Dakotans!

I would say something like, “I’m still planning on running with Juno today as usual, but if she gets too cold we will head inside early. Let me know what you think.”

This gives the dog’s owner the opportunity to respond either way. She might say, “OK, great. Do what you think is best.” Or she might say, “It’s too cold. Let’s skip today.”

If the owner told me to go ahead and run, I used common sense by considering everything I said earlier in this post. Every dog is different, and honestly, it’s never too cold for some dogs.

OK, runners, I want to hear from you!

How do you decide when it’s too cold for your dog?

Let me know in the comments!

This post contains affiliate links.

Related posts:

Ultra marathon training with dogs

22 thoughts on “Winter running with dogs”

  1. I love the tips here. I lived most of my life in Michigan or Alaska and always had extra furry dogs who never seemed cold. Now I live in Texas with a GSP who shivers if the temperature drops below 50. This year we’re going to Michigan for Christmas, and I was planning to get her some kind of blaze orange hunting jacket for running/outside play while we are there (LOTS of hunters in my folks area, and my dog looks like a small deer). I wondered if the fancy poofy jackets/booties ($$$$) were worth it, but it sounds like the hunting jacket will be plenty. Thanks for the tips!

  2. I’ve only had dogs with thick coats, so the cold hasn’t been a huge concern for me for exercise/playtime. My dogs have always spent most of the day outside, weather-permitting. When it’s a question of whether they can spend all day outside I get a bit more cautious depending on the temperature/precipitation/age, but if we’re just talking about going outside for a walk or playtime, *I’m* always the one that wimps out first.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That’s a good point. I’ve taken my dog on long hikes in the winter, and he’s gotten very cold by the end. Short runs are always fine, but being outside all day is another story.

  3. We got our dog at the start of July, so we’ve not had a winter together yet. He’s very, very short haired (I can see his freckles through the fur on his tummy), and I’ve been trying to plan what we’ll need to keep him comfortable through the winter. I’m hoping that in large part he’ll adjust to winter running as I usually do… run through the fall so your body/lungs gradually adjust as the temperature drops. This is a very helpful post. Thanks!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I’m sure he’ll adjust pretty well. A coat might not be a bad idea for him though since his hair is so short.

  4. I live in Utah and it can get pretty cold during the winter. No doubt you know exactly what I mean living in North Dakota. I have a small dog harness that I use and that’s it. It does depend on the dog but there usually isn’t a need for extra articles of clothing for your dog.

  5. Thank you for the review on the dog booties!!

    D.O.G. is a lab/husky(?) mix and he’s fine if its 10 or -10. Belle, my pointer/terrier mix is another story. I have found that a simple sweater will get her through most of the winter with booties. She also has an extra pad on a back foot so a booty is a must. Thank you for the review on the booties! I’ve seen them before and thought no way, but I might just have to try them for this winter. It’s either make them or buy them and I like the idea of a pack of 12 for about what I can pay for 8 fleece and elastic ones. Will have to look into these!

    But in Alaska, dogs are out every day of the year, though some people do let there little dogs pee on pads inside in winter if its too cold. Max and Missy have their doggy door and any temp they go to the bathroom outside! 🙂

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      One thing with the Pawz boots is if the dog has long nails, I notice the nails will poke through and the boots won’t last as long. So trim her nails first if you do end up using them.

  6. Thanks for this timely post. It’s starting to get colder here by the day and it’s already tempting to stay in doors and skip that evening walk. I think it’s the combo of cold and the darkness that sometimes makes it easier to skip. And let’s not forget the wind!

    Our golden is getting up there in years, but still loves to go on walks any day of the year. Last year we noticed she lifted her paws up much more frequently and earlier on during our winter walks, so it’s hard to know with older dogs when it is too cold. She lifts them up due to the cold I believe, not ice/snow buildup. Does she need boots? But then you said they aren’t really for keeping paws warm…

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I think it makes a difference whether you are walking vs. running. Ace’s feet seem really sensitive when we walk as well.

      They do make dog boots that are for warmth, however I think a thin pair is all most dogs would need to give them a little layer between the cold ground and their feet.

  7. I live in the Los Angeles area where it NEVER really gets cold but I recently acquired a chihuahua mix dog and was told they are “naturally cold and shiver” unless you put a coat on them. My new dog did exactly what you described, her whole body posture changed, she cowered under the fleecy coat and was frozen in place! She would not move. Her own fur coat is very short and she is hairless on the belly and neck area. I do walk her and my Corgi everyday, sometimes twice a day; I live in inland a bit so it is “colder” than LA itself, but still, does she really need a coat to walk? She likes to snuggle with it in her bed, but not attached to her! Every one else around here has coats on their small dogs when they walk now.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      You know your dog best. I would think that a Chihuahua would get pretty cold, especially while walking vs. running. But on the other hand if she’d rather not wear her coat, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. It’s not like the temps will be any colder than what, 35 degrees or so? I guess she can come home and snuggle up after her walks 🙂

      I definitely see a lot of Chihuahuas wearing coats around here (San Diego) as well.

  8. Coats in San Diego, that’s just funny. 🙂

    Thanks for this post. It took me a little while to get used to the idea that most big dogs do so well in these chilly temps. Mostly because I am so cold myself! My lab/newfie mix will go out when it’s -10 and just plop down in the snow like it’s nothing. Crazy. Last year when I adopted my bull terrier mix it was that cold and the snow was crusted and as she had just been transported to Minnesota from Georgia (better situation for adoption) I bought her cheap boots temporarily as her pads were getting bloody from the snow. But they certainly toughened up quickly!

    Hoping we have a fair winter this year! Enjoy the warmer climate.

  9. Thanks for your informative article. It gave more practical advice and specifics than anything I’ve found so far -even the vet sites. Most just say don’t go out when it is cold. I wanted to take my lab/coonhound (with long ears and short coat) out for a 2 hour hike tonight at 0 degree F. My vet friends said it is a bad idea because of the frostbite risk. She’s a tough active girl and I think something like 15-30 minutes might be OK but decided against the longer hike.

  10. Commenting on a one-year-old post, but here goes.

    Ever have any issues with your dogs’ ears or nose being damaged? This is my first year venturing out in sub-zero temperatures with a dog (in MN), and that’s one area I’m nervous about. My dog seems to be impervious to cold in general, but I can’t imagine ears get a ton of blood flow, and the nose obviously has no insulation at all.

    Oh, and one note about coats – while I agree that fur is a remarkable insulator, it’s negated in part by moderate to high wind. I run around a lake, and when we get to the leeward side… hoo boy, the coat comes in handy.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Hi Paul. I’ve never had any issues with a dog’s ears or nose, but I’ve heard many vets say those parts of the dog are the most at risk for frostbite, more so than paws. I guess all you can do is use your best judgement.

      I would run with some dogs (Labs, huskies, pitbulls, etc.) for a half-hour or so no matter how cold it got (-18 F or so was probably the worst), and they were always OK. We were running, not walking, so I think that makes a slight difference. I definitely wouldn’t want to be out longer than that on some of those brutally cold days.

  11. I think I get colder before my crazy pointer when it’s really cold here in Minnesota!! I make sure to keep an eye on his body language and I check his ears if they are cold it’s time to go home usually! He hates coats and boots and seems just fine without!

  12. I took my dane/lab mix for our first winter run. We did a mile in single digits. At the time I figured she goes out to potty and is out there for 5+ minutes, so running for 10 probably can’t be too harsh. I was concerned near the end as we neared home but felt her when we got inside and nothing felt cold. Her ears were cool, but actually quite warmer than they usually are after coming in from the backyard. I expected her paws to feel chilly but they were barely even cool. Not sure I’d want to push her any longer out there, but a mile was a great exercise for both of us. Quick and painless and she seemed to enjoy herself.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Glad you enjoyed your run, it would be unlikely that she would get too cold when you’re only out for 15 mins or so.

  13. I’ve found most double coated breeds ( ACD, Husky, Labrador) tolerate the cold well, the first thing on them that gets cold is the paws, especially if they are walking on ice. The shorted coated and smaller breeds are more likely to benefit from a coat- it should cover the chest , belly, and hindquarters- plus allow the dogs legs to move freely.

    Staying hydrated is extremely important in the cold, carry a small water bottle and offer water often to the dog.
    A very small first aid kit is a worthwhile addition, even for shorter runs.
    I use “mushers secret” paw wax year round, it helps with snowballs in paws , protects against hot pavement, and keeps the pads very soft and pliable. Non toxic, natural waxes.
    I often hike in the woods, so I use bright orange or red for my dogs gear.

    For running I would use an “x” or “y” style harness, like sled dogs wear- Never use a no pull style harness or one that goes directly across the dogs chest, as they can cause joint and muscular issues when the dog moves. If the owner needs more control of their dog while running I suggest a properly fitted training collar.

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