For a dog keeper trying to care for a pet in this Ice Age the stress is enormous. While four-legged friends bound through drifts or roll belly up on frozen piles, the cute photos on social media tell only half the story of a human left out of the picture holding the leash. These are the times that strain the bond between canine and human.
For example, dogs in fresh snow don’t cotton instantly to the stuff. They can become disoriented and confused because a new snow masks all the familiar scents and signposts. During my puppy Shorty’s first winter, I was clueless and frustrated the first time I took him out for a walk in snow.
He sniffed madly and kept getting into potty position but nothing happened. I lost patience. In a huff, I picked him up and carried him back inside, crying as I wondered aloud how I could ever keep a dog.
“I don’t know if this will work,” I said to the 5-pound puppy staring at me in obvious confusion. Turned out, the relationship endured for many winters and I got much smarter about dog ways. Most of my learning curve took place in the cold.
As sentient creatures with the capacity to smell up to 10,000 times stronger than humans, dogs are all about the nose. Only after early trackers leave pee markers in the white stuff do canines become familiar with the frozen fields. The paws, however, lag behind.
When layers of salt and chemicals are applied to roads and sidewalks, dogs have difficulty maneuvering. The ice-melting substances ooze between the pads of their paws and burn, causing pain and discomfort. On a winter walk in toxic slush, Shorty often held up a paw and refused to move. I carried an old dry washcloth or towel to swab his feet at regular intervals if we were walking in the road. Sometimes, I had to hoist him up and carry him.
Humans have a solution for toxic elements underfoot: heavy boots. Dogs, which depend on underfoot sensations, don’t do that. Try to put boots on a dog and you understand the meaning of folly. Nevertheless, canine emporia sell footwear for dogs such as moccasin-like paw protectors.
Of course, dog stores and catalogs also sell coats for dogs. I believe coats are superfluous and our dogs are happy nudists. Although short-haired Chihuahuas and Italian greyhounds might need more protection on the coldest days, your basic shaggy mutt eschews shoes and clothing. When my elderly dog started shaking in the cold, the veterinarian recommended a coat. Shorty struggled to shed all outerwear until I gave up.
I once tried a home remedy handed down by my elderly neighbor. Imagine paw condoms. She would buy a bag of party balloons, snip off the stems (and promptly discard them so her dog wouldn’t ingest). She slipped the balloon bellies over her miniature schnauzer’s feet and the pet happily trotted through salty slush with the bright rubber sheaths protecting the paws while still allowing sensation. This balloon technique has now gone main stream as Pawz Dog Boots — brightly colored rubber footwear in various sizes (pawz
For my dog, a foot bath worked best to clean dog paws after a walk outside. Keep an old pot filled with tepid water near the door. Immediately after you return with your dog, immerse one paw at a time in the pot to clean off ice balls clinging to the fur and cleanse feet of chemicals. Dry each foot thoroughly and everybody’s happy.
For human feet, I discovered Yaktrax after taking a terrible tumble on the ice a few years ago while walking the dog. Yaktrax, traction devices (www.yaktrax.com) that attach to the bottom of shoes or boots, are made of hard rubber and metal coils. The inventor reportedly modeled Yaktrax after leather coiled footwear assemblages worn by Sherpas in Himalayan snows. My Yaktrax Pros, permanently attached to a pair of old Uggs, have worked very well over the years, although this winter, being dog-less, I do not have many ice peaks to climb.
As I look out my window at pets and people negotiating their perilous paths, I admire those who have no choice but to take the dog out. The thanks from the animals come back in many deep and quiet ways — not only in the shining grass of April.
Monica Collins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.