Winter is coming and with it lots of well-meaning folks saying that all dogs need to come inside. However, many hardworking farm or ranch dogs need to be outside in weather of all types, especially livestock guardian dogs who need to protect their charges day and night. These breeds are hardy and well-adapted to outside living even in winter.
Besides proving acceptable shelter and care for the winter, there are guidelines you can use to assess a particular dog’s ability to be outside for extended periods in winter. Proactive preparation demonstrates your concern for your working dog will also help you answer any potential concerns or complaints.
Winter Assessment for Outside Dogs
Acclimatization - Being outdoors continuously from warmer weather into winter helps a dog adapt his body and coat to cold weather. Dogs cannot be thrust suddenly from warm to cold temperatures, but require time to adjust.
Age - Very young (under 8 weeks unless with dam) and older dogs may be vulnerable to cold if they are unable to regulate their body heat or have a meager or poor coat.
Coat - Only double-coated dogs with water resistant outer hair and dense undercoats are suitable for living outdoors. Although long hair is not essential; slick, very short, or single-coated dogs are not adapted to very cold weather. Dogs with poor working coats or cottony soft coats may lack the needed water resistance. A clean, dry coat provides better insulation than a dirty or wet coat. Dogs with proper dense coats can lie on snow without melting it.
Health - Dogs in poor health, underweight, or recovering from surgery, injury, or illness may need special consideration.
Nutrition - Outdoor living dogs need more calories in cold weather, high quality or energy food, and sufficient fat calories.
Size - The body mass of larger dogs allows them to cope with colder temperatures more successfully than smaller dogs. Muscle mass and a small fat layer also help provide insulation, although dogs should not be overweight.
Dogs should be monitored closely in extremely cold weather and checked for good body condition and any signs of frostbite on ears, tails, or paws. Areas of potential frostbite can feel extremely cold to the touch.
Signs of distress or hypothermia may include one or more of the following:
Reluctance to move, weakness, abnormal stiffness, or slow, shallow breathing
Remaining in a tightly curled position
Reduced alertness or listless behavior
Ice on coat due specifically to snow melting and re-freezing, due to loss of body heat.
In an emergency, call medical professionals. Immediate care includes removing the dog from the cold, warming, and drying the coat.
Although many working farm dogs are well equipped for living outdoors they all need shelter from cold, rain, sleet, or snow. LGDs are often on patrol or watching from higher locations; but when they do bed down or seek protection many owners have observed that they prefer to be with their stock where they can share a windbreak or shelter, dry bedding, and body heat. Although they may use it only rarely, it is best to provide all working dogs with an optional shelter of their own. In some localities a doghouse may be required.
Wooden doghouses are warmer than plastic and dark colors absorb heat in winter. The doghouse should be raised off the ground at least a couple of inches. The house only needs to be large enough for the dog to stand comfortably, lie down, and turn around. Smaller entrances are better for keeping out wind and weather – about three quarters of the dog’s height. Doors should be offset to maximize the wind- or rain-proof area and be covered with a flexible flap. It is usually best if the door faces south or east, depending on local prevailing winds. The roof should be slanted to facilitate drainage. Plans are available online for insulated dog houses including removable interior walls, which can block wind or reduce a too large space to help conserve body heat. Tunnels or baffles can also be created outside of a pre-made house. The best placement is a high and dry area. The entire house can also be placed inside a larger building or shed.
Dry bedding such as wood chips, straw, or hay is preferable to blankets or rugs that can become wet and then freeze. Replace all bedding when it is wet.
Efforts may be needed to prevent dehydration in winter. Heated buckets are useful in freezing temperatures. Buckets can also be placed in insulated boxes.
Check or build up of snow or ice. Prevent exposure to non-safe deicers. Some dogs may need a protective coating of a paw wax protectant.
Cold Weather Resources
Potter B., C. Richardson, and C. Wand. “Livestock Guardians Dogs and Their Care in Winter.” Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs Ontario. March 2010. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/sheep/facts/10-033.htm#handling
Yin, Sophia DVM. “Cold Weather Safety for Dogs: Insights from a Sled Dog Veterinarian.” https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/cold-weather-safety-for-dogsinsights-from-a-sled-dog-veterinarian/