By Katie McClellan
Nothing says a winter wonderland better than the Norman Rockwell image of a contented pet curled up next to a warm fire, as family members relax close by with mugs of hot chocolate in hand while a fresh blanket of snow coats the landscape outside. But let’s be honest, how long does that warm and cozy feeling last?
Most of us anticipate that first snowy day as a harbinger of holiday cheer, time spent with loved ones, and the coming of the New Year. But by January 2, the misery sets in and it can hit some of us pretty hard. It’s no different for our pets. While they may not experience seasonal affective disorder per se, the colder weather and shorter days can affect them.
“Animals are affected by our moods and emotions,” says Sherry Woodard, dog training and care consultant at Best Friends Animal Society. “Even if we don’t think they will get blue from a lack of sunshine, they will react to their humans being sad or blue.”
With this in mind, we at Tails would like offer up a piping hot mug of winter fun to chase those blues away. Here are just a few suggestions on how you and your four-legged friend can rejuvenate your January and put a little early spring into your step.
Ask Minnesotans how they keep themselves and their dogs fit during the long (and in Minnesota we mean long) winter months and they’re likely to offer up a pair of skis, a harness, and a line of tether. Skijoring or “ski driving” refers to a sport in which humans are pulled over snow or ice by an animal or a vehicle.
In Scandinavia, where skijoring originated, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns originally participated in the activity in both sporting and recreational levels using snowmobiles, horses, and even reindeer. Over the years the sport has gained tremendous momentum in the United States as a bonding activity for people and their dogs living in the Midwest and the Northeast.
“It’s fun exercising together and it’s truly a team sport,” says John Thompson, co-author of Ski Spot Run and owner of Skijor Now, an online resource for skijor enthusiasts (www.SkijorNow.com). “It’s also a great way to embrace winter rather than heading to the gym without your dog.”
Getting started is easy; all you need is a winter wonderland and few pieces of equipment. “It is relatively inexpensive, assuming you already have a dog and ski equipment,” says Jim Benson, president of Midwest Skijorers. “You only need a few additional pieces of equipment [including] a properly fitting dog’s harness, a belt for you, and a gangline/tugline that connects from the belt to the harness.”
Both Thompson and Benson agree that it’s a great way for both you and your dog to enjoy Old Man Winter. “It is a cooperative sport that creates a special bond between you and your dog,” Benson says. “Your dog gets to get out of the house and run trails and he enjoys pleasing you.”
Many people have formed clubs and meet-up groups as a way to socialize and hang out with other dog people. “It’s a phenomenal social activity,” Thompson says. “It’s amazing how the dogs allow [guardians] to break the ice.”
“Let’s dance,” were the words famously sung by David Bowie in his 1983 classic tune of the same name. Bowie may not have been singing those words to his dog, but you may be once you try a little doggie dancing.
Musical canine freestyle, as it’s officially referred to, is a sport in which dogs and their people use music and intricate movements to display creativity, athleticism, innovation, and originality and also to enhance the humane/canine bond. It is performed competitively and as a recreational activity, and the best part is it’s done indoors. “It’s a great way to be a responsible pet [guardian] and have fun with your dog,” says Patie Ventre, founder of the World Canine Freestyle Organization, a nonprofit devoted to promoting responsible pet guardianship through the sport.
According to Ventre, it’s simple and can be practiced at home. “Start with ‘The Spin,’” Ventre says. “Take a special treat and put it in front of your dog’s nose. Move the treat in a circle. Then you do it again and again.” Eventually your dog will start moving to this rhythm and as long as you reward her, she’ll follow your movements over and over again. Alternatively, you can try moving toward or away from your dog with a treat in tow. As she moves forward and backward in unison, you’ll notice that you’ve created a little dance. Add music and voila! You’re canine freestyling.
“Dogs are social animals and people by nature are social,” Ventre says. “You just need a sense of humor and the desire to bond with your pet.” More tips and techniques can be found at www.WorldCanineFreestyle.org. Another good reference is the book Dancing with Dogs by Mary Ray and Andrea McHugh.
But not everybody has a dog big enough to whisk him through a winter wonderland or one that feels like dancing. Come to think of it, some of us even have cats and other pets also in need a little winter loving. The good news is that there are some even simpler ways to beat the blues.
Try getting creative with the daily rituals you practice all year round with your pets or just spend a little extra time enjoying the things that they already love. “I do house games like hide and seek for food and toys or head-to-toe massage,” says Woodard, who has cats and dogs in her life.
Shelby Neely, veterinarian and owner of The Gentle Cat Doctor of Haverford, P.C. in Ardmore, Pennsylvania doesn’t think indoor cats are as susceptible to winter blues as their outdoor counterparts. “Indoor cats probably get the spring and summer blues if anything,” she says. “When it’s warm outside, their natural urge to be outside becomes more dominant.”
But Neely agrees that special attention should be paid during the long winter months. “Having a special soft, warm cat bed is particularly enjoyed by cats more in the winter than other times,” she says. “The diet, overall, may be cut back a bit due to inactivity, but adding special treats will keep the kitty in a better mood and more content as will new toys, catnip, and increased attention by the [guardian] through playtime, brushing, and cuddling.”
There’s no need to bow wow the cold-weather blues. Winter playtime is in full swing for pooches in Chicago. Head over to one of the Barking Lot’s two locations for some indoor fun with Fido. Each Saturday through February, from 4 to 6pm, pooches and their people are invited to kick up their heels at the 3,000-square-foot indoor (climate-controlled) playrooms. Admission is $10 per dog. Make sure you call ahead and have your proof of vaccinations. If you’re looking for some human fun while your pup gets a workout, check out Of Mutts and Men, Roscoe Village’s indoor dog park. While Rover romps with his pals, you can get in a game of pool or chess, or just lounge on the couch with a cup of joe. A day pass costs $3, and monthly membership is $40.
– Lauren Lewis
The Barking Lot
2442 W. Irving Park Rd &
616 N. Washtenaw Ave, Chicago
Of Mutts and Men
2149 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago