As an important tool for coexistence, the use of livestock guardian dogs can be essential to a farm’s protection of its stock from predators. Healthy, well-treated livestock guardian dogs can work throughout typical winters in North America, including temperatures that dip well below zero. LGDs are marvelously equipped to handle these very cold temperatures, but as temperatures continue to be extremely low day after day, owners need to continually monitor their working LGDs just like their poultry and livestock. Under truly severe conditions, all animals may require several checks and assessments each day, as well as special considerations.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture quotes this guideline for working LGDs:
“At about -32°C, medium-sized dogs (under 32 kg) start to take action against the cold by shivering or increasing their metabolic rate (burning energy to produce heat). Larger dogs, such as LGDs that weigh around 45 kg, can withstand even lower temperatures before reacting to the cold.” (-32C = -25.6F, 32 kg = 70.5 lb, 45 kg =99.2 lb)
Most importantly, you need to conduct a personal assessment of your individual dog in its specific situation. Although moving dogs inside and outside frequently is not good for their coats or their acclimatization to cold weather – you may need to provide temporary support to an individual dog. Removing the dog from exposure to the wind is essential, as well as a dry coat and bedding. A deeply bedded stall with a heat lamp or similar setup may be needed for a short period of extreme weather or for a dog that is unable to cope for various reasons. Take care not to overheat the dog or interfere with his ability to continue to work outdoors. Owners of multiple LGDs may chose to rotate them through a warmer location.
LGDs are capable of full time outdoor living as long as they meet the following body and health conditions; have adequate shelter; dry bedding; extra quality calories; water to drink; and are not showing any symptoms of distress.
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. This refers to dogs that have been moved from the warmer south to the north or from indoors to outdoors – not the normal weather changes. Healthy dogs can adapt to weather changes.
Age - Very young (under 8 weeks unless with dam in good shelter) and older dogs may be vulnerable to cold if they are unable to regulate their body heat or have a meager or poor coat. At 8 weeks an LGD pup should weigh 35-40 pounds and have a fluffy double 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 that soak up water may lack the needed water resistance. A clean, dry coat provides better insulation than a dirty or wet coat. Extremely matted or dirty coats are problematical for many reasons. Dogs with proper dense coats can lie on snow without melting it significantly.
Health - Dogs in poor health, underweight, or recovering from surgery, injury, or illness need special consideration.
Nutrition - Outdoor living dogs need more calories in cold weather, high quality food, and extra 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 helps provide insulation, although dogs should not be overweight.
Signs of distress:
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.
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. In an emergency, call medical professionals. Immediate care includes removing the dog from the cold, warming, and drying the coat.
Basic Winter Care for LGDs
Although many working farm dogs are well equipped for living outdoors they all need shelter from cold, rain, sleet, wind, 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. Bringing your stock into a shelter will encourage your dog to remain with them out of the wind.
Although they may use it only rarely, it is best to provide all working LGDs 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. Bales of straw can provide windbreak around the house.
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. A good house is essential for young dogs who are not in with stock at all times
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 and refilled often.
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/