This is the time of year when our pets are lucky to be Austin animals.
In many parts of the country, winter weather means being cooped up indoors, watching out for salt, which can irritate paws, or enduring subfreezing temperatures for long stretches — all hazards familiar to Austin dog trainer Steve DeBono, who moved here from his native New York to escape the cold and indulge in wide open spaces.
In Austin, this is actually the time of year to embrace the outdoors, before the summer sizzle returns.
"We forget how hot it is in summer, and how tired your dog can get," said DeBono, who encourages dog owners to use open fields for play and training without the sun beating down. Dogs generally have a lot more energy in the cool season.
"You can walk for two hours, and they're not tired," said DeBono, who had a dog walking business in Brooklyn for five years and has been training dogs for nine years.
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He has ideas for adding a little oomph to your winter walks. He suggests creating obstacles — sit on a manhole, walk nicely around a tree, jump and sit on a bench — to engage your dog's brain and keep her focused on you.
"When your dog looks at you, acknowledge it," said DeBono, who bases his training philosophy on a method created by Suzanne Clothier called Relationship Centered Training (more at stevedebono.com). "Give her a smile and a ‘good dog.' "
He teaches clients to reward "tracking" behavior in their dogs, something he values even more than a strong "come when called." That means the dog is paying attention to where you are and follows along if you start to move in another direction. Fenced spaces are not the place to train this (use a 30 foot or longer line to work on these skills). DeBono likes unfenced parks and trails where the people and dogs are moving.
Don't forget rewards, which can be treats, a game of fetch, or a sprint if your dog loves to run, he said.
Use this time to enjoy your dog in the outdoors, before the triple digits are back (or in the case of my nonheat-loving dog, the upper 70s). Don't be what DeBono calls one of the saddest things he sees: the person absorbed in a cellphone while walking a dog that's looking hopefully at his person. "The dog is trying to communicate, and too many people are ignoring it," he said. "Be interesting."
Austin dog trainer Steve DeBono, a few of my dog-loving friends and I share some of our favorite places to go for longer walks or hikes in our mild winter weather. Be careful about overdoing it with your four-legged friends; they can be susceptible to "weekend warrior" injuries after long periods of relative inactivity. Consult with your veterinarian if needed.
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Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park, 12138 N. Lamar Blvd., and Turkey Creek in Emma Long Metropolitan Park, 1600 City Park Road, two popular off-leash trails. Most of Emma Long is on-leash, but Turkey Creek is about 2½ miles of off-leash trail that crosses water several times. Swimming can be another great way to wear out your dog in the winter.
Arbor Trails, at William Cannon Drive and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1): Love this never-too-crowded trail around an ever-growing shopping center. Ginger dog loves jumping on several benches and fancy concrete markers.
Barton Creek Greenbelt: This is technically on-leash, but not everyone abides. My PSA: I don't take my fearful dog to off-leash parks and complain that dogs run up to her. Please respect the leash laws; there are many of use who go where leashes are law for good reason.
Enchanted Rock, 16710 RM 965, Fredericksburg: Often too hot in the summer for a dog, DeBono said, and a great place to explore. Dogs must be on leash and are not allowed in park buildings.
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Southeast Metropolitan Park, 4511 Texas 71 E, Del Valle (just past the airport): I kind of hate to talk up this one - I've never seen a crowd there. It has paved area and a great trail with a bridge, up and down sections and even some stairs. As my friend and dog trainer Jess Forte said, "It's a killer every time I do it!" On leash.
Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park, 907 Slaughter Lane: It's on-leash, but volunteers are building an off-leash trail at one end.
Hill Country Galleria, 12700 Hill Country Blvd.: A 2-plus mile trail rings the Bee Cave shopping center. You have to look a little for where the trail picks up in a few spots; it's not always a straight jog across where it's interrupted by entrances to the mall.
Dick Nichols Park, 8011 Beckett Road: Another wonderful paved trail, with more primitive paths through the woods in the middle (well, primitive for suburbs - it's not a hard walk). On leash.
Does your dog need a coat?
Smaller dogs and those with thin coats might need a little extra insulation on colder days. DeBono says if your dog is shivering, try a coat (or go inside).