Dog Days of Winter: Five Safety Tips for Walking Your Dog in the Dark

Winter’s early sunsets mean more dog walks at dusk and after dark—along with additional dog walking safety concerns. In low light or dark conditions, visibility reduces significantly: car and truck drivers don’t see you or your dog as readily as they do in daylight, and you see less of the path before you. It’s important to take extra precautions to keep you and your dog safe when walking at night.

Here are five strategies to help you walk your dog safely in wintry, low light conditions:

1. Make Your Dog Visible

For walks at night, make sure you and your dog are highly visible to drivers and bikers. Avoid dark clothing and outerwear when walking your dog at night. Dogs with dark fur are much harder to see at night than lighter dogs, but all dogs (and their humans) require safety gear for low light outings.

For Dogs:

For People:

    • Light-colored clothing and outerwear
    • Reflective outerwear (vests, coats)
    • Reflective safety gear, such as straps or wristbands
    • Strobe light attachments for your hat or jacket

Pick a few items of equipment from the list to wear each time you go for a walk with your dog. You may resemble walking Christmas decorations, but there’s less risk drivers won’t see the pair of you crossing a poorly lit intersection, or walking on the side of a road where there’s no sidewalk.

2. Keep Your Dog on Leash

Even if your best friend aced dog training school and responds to the recall command like clockwork, it’s wise to walk him on leash at night. He may get spooked by an unexpected noise, see something he can’t resist chasing, or suddenly forget his lessons and race away.

If he does run off, a reflective collar or an LED light collar increases your odds of finding him in the dark. Always make sure he has identification by means of a personalized dog collar, dog tags, and a microchip ID so people can quickly contact you when they find him.

3. Walk Your Dog Away From Cars

Walking with your dog to your left is the safest practice for daytime and nighttime outings. A dog should heel to your left knee, and in most situations the two of you should walk against the flow of traffic. When you observe this important safety protocol, your dog is in the safest spot, away from the curb and the cars. Walking him on your right side takes him closer to the curb where he can dart into traffic.

4. Stick to the Usual Routes

Explore unfamiliar territory during daylight hours. If you stray from the beaten path at night you may find yourself near intersections with hazardous traffic patterns or fast-changing lights, or walking past the property of a particularly unfriendly dog. If you live in the suburbs or the country in particular, you may wander into an area with few, or no, street lights, making it harder for passing cars to spot you, and increasing the chances of walking over something hazardous.

At night, walk on streets that are well lit so you can see your surroundings clearly, and drivers can see you and your dog. If you live in the country where there are fewer street lights, the back yard is your best option for evening exercise and bathroom breaks.

5. Protect Your Dog’s Paws

Pay extra attention to the path ahead when walking your dog in winter, when sidewalks are often sprinkled with ice melt salt. Many ice melt products contain ingredients that are dangerous for dogs, including sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and magnesium chloride. Your dog can ingest ice melts directly, or from licking his paws following a walk. Ice melt crystals can also cause small, painful cuts on your dog’s paws. In winter, consider putting dog boots on your dog for walks. These will protect him from ice melt, frigid conditions, and prevent him from slipping on ice. If he doesn’t wear booties, wipe and check his paws to get rid of ice melt between his pads, and look for cuts that need tending.

Dogs See Better Than Us in the Dark

Dogs have better vision in very low light than humans because they have more rods—the photoreceptors in mammalian eyes that determine low light (or scotopic) vision. Cats, well known for the acuity of their night vision, have even more rods than our canine best friends.

Dogs, cats, and many other mammals also have a mirror-like tissue behind their retina called the tapetum lucidum, or “shining layer.” Responsible for that ghostly glow you sometimes see in your dog’s eyes at night, the tapetum lucidum reflects incoming light back across photoreceptor cells a second time. Humans and many other primates don’t have this layer that improves night vision.

If you play games with your dog in the back yard after dark, you already know how much better your dog’s vision is than yours. While you lose sight of the stick or ball in the air or back by the fence, your dog rarely does.

Here’s how the comparatively poor night vision of people puts dogs at risk:

Drivers Can’t See Your Dog at Night

Though there’s no official data on the number of dogs and pets killed by vehicles each year, most accidents occur during the evening rush hour between 3 and 6 p.m., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The cause of this uptick in accidents is a combination of people rushing to get home after work, low light conditions, drowsy driving, drunk driving, and distracted driving. The National Safety Council (NSC) advises driving with extra care during the shorter days of winter when more cars are on the road after dark and visibility is compromised. According to the NSC website, “depth perception, color recognition and peripheral vision can be compromised in the dark, and the glare of headlights from an oncoming vehicle can temporarily blind a driver.”

You Can’t See Your Dog at Night

If your dog dashes through the front door when you return from work, or finds a hole in the backyard fence at night, tracking him down is a greater challenge than it is during the day. Finding a lost dog depends upon you, or a sharp-eyed neighbor, catching sight of your best friend.

Unseen Paw-Level Hazards

Your dog’s night vision is sharpest when light (from the moon, streetlamps, or house lights) reflects off moving objects, allowing him to spot prey at night, and protect himself from other predators. His night vision won’t, however, prevent him from trotting over broken glass, sharp rocks, or mounds of rock salt scattered across the sidewalk.

Though safety is a 24/7/365 concern for dog owners, there are certain times of year and specific conditions that call for added vigilance. Unlike tick awareness or your dog’s fear of thunderstorms, a low-light outing is an often forgotten risk. Keep it top of mind and outfit your dog for winter visibility, and you’ll skate through the winter safely with your best friend.

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