Getting Your Dog to “Go” in the Snow
Dog trainer Karen B. London’s tips for helping your pet do their business on snow days.
Sign up for The Wildest newsletter for updates
There are plenty of activities that dogs delight in on snow days — launching themselves into snow piles, kicking up powder doing the zoomies, and burying their heads in it when they pick up a scent. But pee or poop on that white stuff? Nope, it would seem your dog has to draw the line somewhere.
Some dogs hold it for a painfully long time, while others will simply poop in the house après-walk (even if this is something they would never do when the weather is more to their liking). You’re not alone — this is a common problem, especially for dogs who have never experienced snow and for small dogs who struggle with the cold to any degree. And there are a couple of reasons for this reluctance.
Why Dogs Hate Pooping in the Snow
First, most dogs learn at a very young age what surfaces are appropriate for bathroom use. As a puppy, whether they’re potty trained on grass, leaves, concrete, or pee pads, that’s what your dog will likely prefer for the rest of their life. When dogs encounter snow for the first time, they often just don’t know that it is okay to pee or poop on it. So, while raising a puppy in the dead of winter has its challenges (read: miseries), those who learn their housebreaking skills at this time are less likely to balk at the snow each season.
The other issue is the obvious one — it’s cold! There’s the cold air itself and the cold snow in their paws (and on their legs and bellies and…well, everywhere). If your dog is unfamiliar with snow, it’s not a fun feeling. Small dogs aren’t always fans of the cold under any circumstances, but can barely keep their heads above the snow after a blizzard. So that they would be particularly resistant to head out at all, and unable to relax enough to go once they are outside, is understandable.
What You Can Do About It
Luckily, there are things you can do to avoid a long winter of cleaning up accidents on the carpet. One method is to shovel a pathway from the door to the potty area — a patch of grass or, better yet, a spot protected from the snow such as under a balcony. Most dogs are more likely to do their business if a snow-free zone is easily accessible to them.
1. Give Them Some Privacy
Some dogs have shy bladders, but others will appreciate a show of solidarity. You may not want to accompany your dog out in freezing temperatures, but you may also find that it leads to success. It could take several outings, though — if 5-10 minutes have gone by and your dog still hasn’t gone, bring them back inside, but on a leash so they can’t sneak off behind your back. Though this method takes considerable effort, it does work for most dogs. Some dogs struggle when their yard is blanketed with snow but are more inspired to go to the bathroom on walks through the neighborhood. Leading your dog to areas where other dogs have already gone (seek out that yellow snow!) may encourage your dog, too.
2. Train Them to Pee or Poop on Cue
Training your dog to pee or poop on cue can embolden them to do their business 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. Start this process by reinforcing when they go to the bathroom by giving them a treat every time. But don’t wait until your dog comes running back to the house to give them the treat, or they’ll think they earned it by returning to you (also behavior you want to encourage, but a trick for another time). Stand near them as they go, then give them the treat the instant they’re done so they connect potty time with receiving a reward.
3. Teach Them a “Go Potty” Command
After your dog has made that connection and looks expectantly to you for a treat, add in a command or hand signal such as “Go potty.” Take them outside as usual and give them the cue. With enough practice, a dog will learn what you’re asking of them when you say these words. Keep this up so they know they did the right thing…and that you’re happy about it. Once you’ve got them peeing/pooping on cue, you can give them the command in areas where they may hesitate — in the snow and beyond! It’s just one more way in which training allows you to communicate with your dog and make it easier for them to understand what to do.
Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.