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“Help! My dog won’t “go” in the snow!” Some dogs hold it so long that it’s worrisome and others simply choose to go inside the house, even if this is something they would never do when the weather is more to their liking. Elimination problems when there is snow are common, especially for dogs who have never been in snow and for small dogs who struggle with cold to any degree. There are likely at least two reasons why dogs show a reluctance to eliminate when snow covers the ground.
Most dogs learn at a very young age what surfaces are appropriate for bathroom use. While still puppies, they experience certain substrates such as grass, leaves, concrete, or indoor training pads or litters, and those are what they are likely to prefer for the rest of their lives. When dogs encounter snow, they often just don’t know that it is okay to eliminate on it. Puppies who learn their housetraining skills during a snowy winter are far less likely to have this problem. So, even though I consider raising a puppy in winter to have its miseries, an advantage is that the dog is less likely to balk at eliminating in the snow each winter.
Another issue for dogs with the snow is the obvious one—it’s cold! There is the cold air itself and also the cold snow on their paws (and on their legs and bellies in some cases!) For dogs unfamiliar with snow, especially small dogs who are not fans of cold under any circumstances, they simply hate the feeling of cold and snow. This makes them resistant to head out at all, and unable to relax enough to go once they are outside, which is perfectly understandable.
Luckily, they are ways to help your dog so that eliminating in the winter is still something that happens on the ground outside rather than on the carpet inside. One method that many use is shoveling out a patch of grass for them along with a path from the door to the potty area. I’ve had clients who have tried to minimize the work involved by shoveling a path to an area protected from the snow such as under a balcony or even under a trampoline. Most dogs are more likely to head out to take care of business if it’s easier to walk there and if there is a snow-free area available to them.
Many dogs do better if you go out with them. Not everybody wants to head out with their dogs in freezing temperatures to wade through the snow together, but if you find that it leads to success, it may be worth it to you. In some cases, several outings may be required. You can go out with your dog, and if he doesn’t eliminate within 5-10 minutes, take him inside with you, keeping him right with you on leash so he can’t sneak off and “go” in the house. After another 5-10 minutes, head outside together to try again. You can repeat this many times, and though it takes considerable effort, it does work for most dogs.
Some dogs struggle the most to eliminate in the yard when it’s snowy, but do better on walks through the neighborhood. If it’s not so cold that your dog’s paws can’t take it, walks may inspire your dog to eliminate. Being away from the yard is helpful, and the activity may make your dog’s need to go more urgent. Leading your dog to areas where other dogs have already gone (yellow snow has its benefits!) may encourage your dog, too.
Training your dog to eliminate on cue has helped many dogs potty in all sorts of new and confusing situations, including snow, but it’s most helpful to teach your dog this skill before the weather is working against you. There are two steps to this training process:
1) Reinforce elimination behavior by giving your dog a really great treat every time he pees or poops. Don’t wait until your dog comes running back to the house to give him the treat or he’ll think he earned the treat by running over to you. Stand right near him as he goes and give him the treat the instant he is done eliminating so he connects going potty with receiving a treat.
2) Once you have done this many times and he begins to look at you expectantly for that treat after eliminating, add in the cue. Take him outside as usual to eliminate and give the cue you want to use to tell him to eliminate, making sure to say it before he goes. Common cues are “Hurry Up”, “Get Busy” and “Go Potty.” With enough practice, a dog will learn that when you say the cue, he should take care of business. Continue to reinforce him with treats once you have added in the cue so that he knows he did the right thing and is happy that he did.
Once your dog can eliminate on cue, you can give him the cue in situations where he might not be sure that the area is acceptable, such as in snow or in a rocky area without grass. It’s just one more way that specific training allows you to communicate with your dog and make it easier for him to understand what to do.
Does your dog resist going potty in the snow? If so, how have you handled it?