Yesterday, East Coasters prepared for the blizzard of the century. I learned of the storm’s potential severity while at the supermarket—all the bread was gone. All of it. Why bread? Do people just sit at home chomping on bread during snow days? “Alright kids! Finish sledding so you can come inside and finish your loaf!”
Dogs do not spend snow days at home eating bread. For many dogs, new snow is a Very Big Deal. But why? I asked a few canine science experts why dogs love snow. It turns out that when it comes to snow, dogs might be a lot like us. Here's what they said:
Patricia McConnell: Predators love their big, new play room
"Why do dogs love new snow? Good question. Let me answer it with another one: Why do kids love snow? Why do some adults? I remember growing up in the Arizona desert and seeing Christmas cards with snow and feeling deprived. Truly deprived. When it did snow once in Tucson everyone was crazy with excitement.
"I honestly don’t know why snow is so exciting to dogs, and kids, and adults who don’t have to shovel it. But maybe because it’s new and different (predators love change, prey animals hate it), and it turns the world into one big play room for animals that love to play. (I’m thinking too of river otters who love to play in snow. So do bears.)
"So, who doesn’t like snow as a new toy, unless you have to shovel it, hate where you are snowed in, or are a hawk who goes hungry because the field mice and voles can hide from you so well under the blanket of white?"
Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (Blog, Facebook), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Zoology, Author of The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs (Ballantine Books)
Gordon Burghardt: Remember back to childhood
"Many animals from temperate areas seem to really enjoy frolicking in the snow. I think it relates to the sensory qualities of snow and the bracing effects of cold weather. I think when watching dogs, for example, in snow we are not too far off in comparing their activity to that which we experienced as young children ourselves."
Alexandra Horowitz: Pleasure in a changed landscape
"My dogs both do find the snow to be the bee's knees, as have all my dogs—at least until the icy patches form between their toes. The question of 'why' is a bit imponderable, but if I must ponder I'd say that here, dogs might be more like us than we'd expect: there is a pleasure in a changed landscape, a topography re-shaped by fallen snow. Dogs like the 'new', of course, and what could be more new than their entire world covered with this icy blanket. Smell is changed, too, and we can for a moment see some of the otherwise invisible markings (like tracks or urine) which are so engaging for dogs.
"More than anything, I suspect that the very sensation of snow on the body is engaging for dogs. Have you ever run through the shallow waves of the sea? Why does kicking up sand and seawater make us happy? I can't say. But it is clear that it does.
"While on snow: research found that dogs have exceptionally good venous anatomy in their paws, which leads them to do better in the snow than we might think (i.e. more blood flow, warmer toesies). This to those owners who boot their dogs not to save them from salt or ice-between-pads, but because they put boots on themselves."
John Bradshaw: Habituation be gone!
"I suspect that part of the answer lies in how quickly dogs habituate to objects that they play with. Snow changes the sensory characteristics of everything it touches—visual appearance, obviously, but also, and perhaps more importantly, scent. Thus snow has the potential to renew a dog's interest in its (over-?) familiar surroundings, and switch on exploratory behaviour.
"Of course there can also be a social dimension, which most dogs find highly motivating—for example, dogs chasing snowballs thrown by people.
"Much of dogs' solitary play seems to be connected to predatory behaviour—but I can't imagine how snow could be incorporated into that narrative.
"One final thought: dogs' ability to turn up their metabolism as the temperature falls means that snow will cause them far less discomfort than it can do for us!"
John Bradshaw, PhD (Blog, Twitter), Visiting Fellow, University of Bristol, Author of Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet (Basic Books)
Stephen Zawistowski: Nature's enrichment
"Dogs like snow because it is cool and different. When we do enrichment for dogs, we provide individual items to increase variety in their environment. Kongs with peanut butter and kibble in paper bags provide a change from the everyday. Snow changes everything: what a dog sees, smells, hears and feels as it runs/swims through the snow. Knee-deep snow is up to a dog's chin. When I watch dogs run and play in snow, it reminds me of kids in a ball pit, diving in and burrowing and having a blast."
Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Science Advisor Emeritus, ASPCA, Author of Companion Animals in Society (Cengage Learning)
Paul McGreevy: Ask the sled dogs
"Seasoned sled dogs rarely show the enthusiasm for fresh snow typical of novice players. This suggests that the value of novelty is critical. Just as they do for the dog visiting the beach for the first time, the joys of opportunity and exploration abound for the virgin snow dog.
"Fresh odors to sniff, novel tactile experiences to enjoy, unusual outlines to mask familiar objects and even the prospect of hiding within the very fabric on one’s surroundings. What’s not to love?"
Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, The University of Sydney, Faculty of Veterinary Science, Author of A Modern Dog's Life: How to Do the Best for Your Dog (The Experiment)
The above canine science experts write copiously for both academic and general audiences. I recommend looking into their books and writings if you are not already familiar.
Up next, you guessed it, Why Some Dogs Hate Snow.