A winter Sunday in Litchfield, Connecticut. The air snaps crisp and cold beneath a milky gray sky, and here and there, the sun slices through the clouds, casting long shadows and bright splinters over the high hills of Mattatuck State Forest, a rugged expanse literally in our backyard. A nor’easter rolling through New England left behind eight inches of fresh powder, the stuff of snowshoers’ dreams, and it is time to begin our annual ritual of snowshoeing with Maggie and Truman, our happy-go-lucky Labs.
On this day, our canine companions bound ahead as we float along on the snowy surface, picking our way up and down one undulating ridge after another. We seldom share this place with anyone—our Gortex shells and the dogs’ reflective vests are usually the sole bursts of Technicolor in a black-and-white world.
Snowshoeing with dogs? You bet. There are few finer ways to spend a winter day with your best four-legged friends than a trek on snowshoes along your favorite trail or a heart-thumping workout through high-octane terrain. Rare is the canine who doesn’t enjoy a romp in the white stuff, and with a little common sense and cold-weather know-how, those new to the activity can keep their dogs safe and healthy, whether they’re exploring an untrammeled wilderness area, the groomed trails at a touring center, even a snow-covered public golf course.
This ancient form of over-the-snow transportation—Native Americans are said to have used snowshoes more than 3,000 years ago—is one of the fastest-growing winter activities for those who live in or visit the country’s snow belt. And for good reason—as a sport, it doesn’t get much simpler. While snowshoeing might conjure up images of plodding along on tennis-racket-like contraptions, 21st-century equipment combines state-of-the-art design with high-tech materials such as lightweight aluminum, composite plastic, even titanium. If you can walk, goes the adage, you can snowshoe.
But does your pooch have snow-hound potential? “You need to consider whether your dog is healthy to start with,” says Dr. Peter Humphrey of Torrington Animal Hospital in Torrington, Conn. “Heart-related or respiratory problems can have an impact on a dog’s stamina.” Most fit and trim dogs will do fine, he says, but remember, they don’t walk on the snow like you do. “Walking through deep snow is physically demanding,” notes Humphrey, who recommends a shorter-than-usual first outing, since “you may end up with an exhausted pet that you have to carry back.”
And while your canine may be furry, exposure to the elements can lead to problems like frostbite or hypothermia. Puppies and elderly dogs are especially susceptible; watch for shivering, slowed breathing or dilated pupils, signs of a dangerous drop in body temperature. And, unless you have, say, an Akita, Husky or Malamute, breeds who are “dressed” for the cold, your dog might also benefit from the added insulation of a doggy coat. We pack plenty of snacks and water, and examine our Labs’ paws frequently for the ice and snow that can clump between pads. Companies like Ruff Wear and Planet Dog offer canine first-aid kits, protective booties, collapsible food and water bowls, and cold-weather apparel you may want to consider adding to your gear.
At the icebound riverbank, we stop and sip hot cocoa, and as the warmth of this winter staple courses its way to our toes, the dogs make quick work of emptying their water bowls. Then it’s time to be on the move again. Above our heads, snow clings tightly to the hemlocks and the bare branches of sugar maples as we follow crumbling stone walls, relics of long-ago grazing pastures, then cut through thickets of mountain laurel, the hushed quiet broken only by the crunch of our snowshoes, the panting of the dogs and the occasional call of an owl.
If you don’t have access to a wintry wilderness, you and your pal can also coexist happily with fellow outdoor enthusiasts. First, check that the trail system you’re planning to visit is dog-friendly, and, if so, find out what the rules are. Some charge a fee; others allow dogs only in certain areas, or require them to be leashed. Other trail users will judge dogs and owners by your actions, so practice good etiquette, such as picking up after your pooch, keeping him under control and—this is critical—staying out of the way.
Nothing will rile a cross-country skier quite like grooved tracks obliterated by snowshoes (I still remember the barely concealed disdain of those whose tracks I tromped through with my brand-new Tubbs) and dog paws. “That’s what people pay to ski in,” says Llona Ney Clausen, manager of the Nordic & Snowshoe Center at Tamarack Resort in Donnelly, Idaho, where four-legged guests are welcome on all 22 kilometers of groomed trails.
If dogs are allowed off-leash, Clausen says, they should respond perfectly to voice commands. “If your dog can [be depended on to respond to your verbal commands], regardless of distractions, you may not have to have him on a leash,” she explains. “The biggest problem will be, of course, when a dog meets another dog.”
In our beloved forest, the afternoon light is fading as we navigate one last ridge; the maples, the river and the rambling stone walls are studies in gray. The dogs have fallen in behind us, their way of saying it’s time to go home. At the trailhead, we shoulder our snowshoes and shuffle toward the house as the moon rises through the trees like a plump yellow balloon. Maggie and Truman are—you guessed it—dog-tired, and in moments, will be snoring and twitching in front of a blaze roaring on our big stone hearth. During the dog days of winter, we’re certain, snowshoeing is part of their four-legged dreams.