Guide Dog Mobility Instructors Team, CNIB Guide Dogs
During the winter season, making accommodations for your guide dog to help them feel more physically comfortable can increase their motivation and enable them to perform at their best, even in harsh conditions. Try arranging transportation to your destination if the conditions outside are unsafe; however, this is not always possible.
Labradors and golden retrievers have double layer coats that are built to withstand cold conditions. Their soft undercoat is weather-resistant and acts as an insulating layer in the cold, while the outer coat of dense, coarse and longer hairs provide water-resistance and more insulation.
Dogs are susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite (ears, tail, foot pads) in extreme circumstances. It's important to avoid the extreme cold for long periods of time, and keep the dog dry as much as possible in the cold weather.
Your dog's willingness to go out and work for you will be affected by the weather conditions. If your dog's willingness is absent, it is up to you to keep the dog motivated and encourage them to keep focused. Be extra encouraging and positive sounding to help get the best performance from your dog and reduce any stress the dog may be feeling.
Good footwear is not only important for you as the handler but can also be helpful for your guide dog. Having boots for your dogs is necessary if the sidewalks you use are salted. Salt can sting your dog's feet when it reacts with dampness. Consider a balloon type of boot, as most dogs become accustomed quickly to wearing them. They are considered disposable (although generally good for many uses) and more cost effective than others. Some dogs will not like larger, bulky boots and may refuse to walk altogether. Work with your dog to determine the best, most comfortable fit.
If your dog has a thinner fur coat, it could benefit from wearing a coat underneath their harness, adding a layer of insulation from the cold. Be familiar with your dog's level of body sensitivity; certain dogs may be quite uncomfortable with having a coat put on them and may be better off without.
Snow accumulation can be a barrier to travel in winter. Snow-covered sidewalks, hidden curb edges and snowbanks blocking the way, can make guiding work more challenging for dogs. Knowing where to stop at intersections and negotiating the most appropriate line of travel when crossing can be more difficult, but with practice and reinforcement, your guide dog should be able to negotiate these situations effectively.
When your dog is confident in the area they are working, they can perform quite well, even if changes need to be made to the normal route because of snow blocking the way. If the area is unfamiliar to your dog, then they can get confused as to where they should be, potentially putting the team in danger. A sighted guide may be necessary to reinforce routes until you and your guide dog are fully confident.