Winter Workout Ideas for Athletic Dogs

By Kayla Fratt  •   5 minute read

Winter Workout Ideas for Athletic Dogs

With record-breaking colds hitting the United States this winter, many of us are left scrambling to exercise energetic dogs. Even if your Siberian Husky loves cold weather, it’s not safe outside for long in negative temps.

Whether it’s you or the dog that’s wimping out, winter makes exercising energetic dogs a bit harder. As the owner of an extremely energetic border collie and a Wisconsin native, I get it. Here’s our bag of tricks for exercising energetic dogs in the winter.

It’s Cold. Can I Actually Take My Dog Outside?

There’s a bit of a myth that dogs can’t withstand cold – “If you’re cold, they’re cold,” is common advice.

This is true in many ways, but it’s also important to look at your dog as an individual. My long-haired black Border Collie loves skiing and playing in the snow. My father’s 15-year-old Lab is currently begging him to play with her, and it’s –30 degrees in Wisconsin right now!

Short-furred and smaller dogs are more likely to want to avoid the cold. But northern breeds, fluffy breeds, and dogs who grew up in the snow are probably a lot tougher than you.

If your dog is still enthusiastic and not shivering, keep playing – just check on her paw pads frequently and ensure that you’ve got some hot liquids and warm clothes packed for bigger excursions.

Taking your dog for a wintery hike is very different from leaving your dog outside in freezing temperatures overnight!


Puzzle Toys: Indoor Entertainment

I am totally obsessed with puzzle toys for energetic dogs – especially when it’s cold out. Throw out your dog’s food bowl and set up an Easter Egg Hunt of puzzle toys – fill them with kibble and hide them around the house. The more hidden and the more toys, the more tired your pup will be!

I love puzzle toys as part of a winter workout for dogs because they don’t require going outside at all. They’re also low effort for you, the human. The downside is that puzzle toys generally won’t exhaust a high-energy dog – they can only be part of the picture.


Skijoring: Braving the Cold in Style

As an avid cross-country skier, I say that if temps aren’t dangerous, it’s time to get outside! Barley and I have done a few skijoring races and really love the sport. The sport involves teaching your dog to pull you on your skis, a la mushing or canicross. It’s great fun, but it does require that your balance is ready for a pulling pup.

We’ve seen Border Collies, Pointers, Greyhound mixes, Huskies, Weimaraners, Retrievers, and “shelter special mutts” at races – and been beaten by many of these breeds!

Smaller dogs might not excel at skijoring, but they might still enjoy a short wintry hike to play in the snow.

If skiing isn’t really your thing, that’s ok – rent some snowshoes or get some gaiters and go for a winter hike.

Your winter excursions with your dog don’t have to be long or far. Dress appropriately and the deep snow will do the hard work for you to tire out your pup.

Be sure to keep thin-coated dogs warm with a jacket. Barley and I don’t use booties, but we keep paw wax handy and I ensure that ice balls in his fur aren’t getting too big.


Nosework: Mental Exhaustion

Nosework is the sport of teaching your dog to sniff out hidden odors. It’s similar to what drug dogs, search and rescue dogs, and conservation detection dogs do for their jobs.

Start out using a bunch of cardboard boxes or other containers – these become the visual cue for your dog that the hunt is on. Lay the boxes in a line and lead your dog down the line on a leash. Initially, every box should have a little stinky treat in it. I use pepperoni or lunch meat.

Put your dog in a different room while you set up the hunt.

After a few sessions, ⅔ of the boxes will have a treat in them. Then ½, then ¼, then just one or two boxes. Keep leading your dog down the line. Every time your dog finds a treat, feed him another one from your hand at the location of the hidden treat. This teaches your dog to pause and wait for extra rewards from you – an important step as you switch from finding treats to finding scent!

Start switching up the arrangement of the boxes – a circle, a grid, scattered. Keep in mind that boxes in corners and near doors or air sources are extra-hard.

As your dog gets better and better at finding the hidden treats, start putting the boxes under tables, on top of chairs, in corners, and near fans. Different rooms, different buildings, and multi-room searches are other challenges.

My dog Barley is trained to sniff out fox urine, birch oil, and peanuts.

If you’d like your dog to sniff out a non-food object, start out by pairing that object with the food. Put the target scent inside of a tin and put the food on top of it. Keep feeding the bonus treat – this is where it’s important!

Gradually, decrease the size of the food on top of the scent. Be sure to make things easier again as you introduce a new scent! So if your dog was doing well with corners before, skip them for now.

Eventually, your dog will be sniffing out the target scent without the help of food. Once the weather warms up, you can even work on training outdoors!


Training Games: School is Tiring, Too

As a trainer, I can’t suggest ways to exercise your dog in the winter without mentioning training! Many “tricks” are excellent ways to exercise your dog (like lifting weights instead of cardio). The mental challenge of teaching new tricks can also tire out your dog quickly!

To tire out your dog with training, I recommend trying a few of the following:

  • Teach your dog to sit inside a cardboard box by shaping successive approximations of the end behavior.
  • Do the “Bring Sally Up” push-up challenge with sit-to-down repetitions for your dog. For an added challenge, have your dog do this on the bed or an unstable surface. This is a major core workout for your dog.
  • Teach your dog to back up or do leg weaves. These exercises teach body awareness and limber up your dog’s back.
  • Teach your dog a complex behavior, such as putting his toys away or grabbing a toy by name.
  • Make an indoor obstacle course and teach your dog to jump over, go under, go through, and go around different objects.

Most dogs don’t care much exactly what you do. It’s not so much that the walk is the highlight of their day, it’s that they love spending time with you and doing something active. While walking and sniffing is important for your dog, you can switch to other bonding activities and most dogs will be just as happy!

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