Foot care for sled dogs in fall training

Attention to maintaining healthy feet in the first few weeks or months of training is a much needed, but often overlooked, aspect of animal husbandry.  What is needed in your kennel is largely governed by the surfaces your dogs train upon, the surfaces they spend the majority of their time living upon when not training and your efforts to provide top quality nutrition year round. 

High quality protein sources, correct omega three to omega six fatty acid ratios, and absorbable and balanced micro- and macromineral content go a very long way in promoting tough, healthy feet and nails.  Cutting corners on feed quality during the summer can add significantly to foot trouble in the fall. 



Dogs housed on sand, clay or other soft surfaces, as well as dogs that live indoors, will tend to come into training with “softer” food pads.  This is not going to be problematic if your trail surface is the same.  If, however, you take these dogs out on a gravelly trail, within three hookups you will need to be mindful of nail wear, pad wear, hairline abrasions and lacerations.  When my kennel was located on sand, I recall training one single time for a very short distance on a gravelly surface, and having to scrap the next days training run because every dog on the team was footsore the next morning.  They were just fine on sandy trails.  My friends’ dogs kenneled on pea gravel had no trouble whatsoever training on that surface on a routine basis.

Dogs housed on wooden decks are very variable in foot toughness.  The busy sorts may have fairly tough feet, but have significant pad wear present.  The quiet types may have feet that are soft and prone to injury on rocky surfaces.  As much as possible, let them have some running time all summer on other surfaces.

Dogs housed on gravel or other stony surfaces are usually going to have much tougher foot pads, and be the most resistant to injury.  They also may start the year with very short nails.  If you allow the nail to get too short, the front corner of the digital pad (toe pad) is more prone to laceration and wear, and the tendency of the pad callous to dry and crack in that area makes it a slow process to heal.

No matter what your kennel substrate is, make provision for drainage in wet fall weather.  If your dogs spend too much time standing around in wet conditions, it is going to soften their feet, and increase the risk of injury.



In the summer, don’t neglect those toenails.  Bringing dogs to the towline for their first fall hookup with claws so long and sharp that they could cut leather is begging for trouble.  If your dogs are kenneled on very soft surfaces, the calmer sorts are going to have some pretty significant nail growth.  I will typically trim nails once monthly for the dogs that need it.  If you let it get out of hand, the “quick,” i.e. the living portion of the nail, will tend to lengthen and be more susceptible to injury.   I do not recommend grinding the nails down to absurdly short lengths I have seen on a handful of show dogs.   Trimming nails too short is going to leave no cushion at all, and if you train on gravel, the nails will be worn back to bleeding in a matter of a couple of weeks.



Check your dogs’ pads, and pay special attention to your pacers and butterfly hunters.  They will often have very little pad callous left.  These dogs are going to need some cushion in the form of booties right from the first hookup, and are often helped by some down time in a crate to let their feet heal and regenerate callous.  I will typically crate (or load the dog in the dog hauler) any dog that goes into a frenzy of activity when I’m hooking a team that doesn’t include them.  By fall the butterflies are pretty well gone for the year so my “hunting dogs” quiet down dramatically.

Occasionally I see dogs that have keratinization defects of the foot pad or nails.  Keratin is a protein that makes up these tissues, and if the body fails to keep these structures in good working order, some painful, chronic conditions ensue.  Keratinization defects can be the result of a medical problem, or genetic in origin.  Examples of medical issues include autoimmune disorders like pemphigus and lupus, or disorders of zinc metabolism (particularly in Siberians), just to name a few.  If your dog has other changes to skin or mucus membranes such as crusts, sores or loss of skin pigment around eyelids, nose, lips, prepuce or vulva, this could be indicative of a medical issue that requires veterinary attention to get it properly diagnosed and treated.   If the only issue present is that the pad callous has exuberant growth that results is “strands” that tend to split and crack, an over the counter product called Kerasol may help.   

In very dry conditions in summer and fall, I will sometimes see very active dogs whose pads become sore.  I will notice they are not as active as usual or tend to walk their first few steps very gingerly.  Closer examination reveals only very dry foot pads with some fine, superficial “cracks.”  They are quite sensitive to pressure.   These dogs will respond dramatically to simply applying a moisturizer to the pad a few times daily, preferably something with a bit of lanolin in it.  As I type this, I am simultaneously cringing: I cannot count the number of times I have seen things like Bag Balm or Blue Kote inappropriately applied by owners to treat everything from abrasions to skin cancer.   


Training surfaces

Training on gravel can be really hard on feet.  Dogs kenneled on it can cope better and longer, but eventually the miles will start to wear nails and pads into the danger zone.  Even my sprint dogs will start having trouble if we don’t get a snow cushion with a couple of months of work on this surface.

Sandy trails are a very nice surface, it drains well, is forgiving, and not hard on the foot.  If you train on deep sand, be on the lookout for fissures (web splits), similar to what we deal with training on snow.  The other negative to sand is when it freezes it is incredibly abrasive to feet.  I have blown completely through brand new booties in less than three miles training sprint dogs on frozen sand.  If possible, wait until the surface thaws before training, or be prepared to go through an awful lot of booties.

Grass is a great surface for feet.  I actually know a few folks who train on grass and they still have to trim toenails on their sled dogs in the fall!  On a side note, it can be very slick when wet.  Your ability stop and stay stopped is drastically diminished, so be sure you use a vehicle that will hold the size of team you intend to train.  The same goes for fallen leaves.

If you happen to train on old rail line paths that still have cinder surfaces, strongly consider putting boots on your dogs that don’t have tough feet already.  It is amazing how fast this substrate will blister up foot pads. They will heal quickly, but will need a few days off to do so. 

A brief mention of pavement or concrete as a training surface:  Avoid it.  If you have to make a brief excursion across it during a run then it is not that big of a deal, but it is very hard on the feet and unforgiving to the other joints as well.   I would avoid it as a kennel surface as well.


Nail issues

Certain dogs are going to be more prone to foot injury in the fall.  For me, it’s usually my biggest, hardest driving males that get into the most trouble. Dogs with less than beautiful gaits may also get unusual wear on certain digits.

Ideally, you are checking feet and nails frequently during the fall.  It is always best to anticipate trouble and take action before it starts.  This is the time of year when I am most likely to put a boot on a sprint dog.  We are mostly going slow and I have fewer complications from the use of them. 

If I see toenails getting dangerously short, or I see a mild break or crack to the nail horn, I have used nail caps such as Soft Paws (or Soft Claws) to protect the nail.  It is a soft rubber nail cap that can be trimmed to fit and glued on the nail.  They are pretty tough and will stay on for several weeks before the wear off, during which time the nail is growing back.  If necessary they can be replaced.  These nail caps are not helpful if the nail horn has been mostly or completely torn; you need healthy nails to glue it to, and there is a risk of infection in these cases.  The nail needs to be cleaned and dried thoroughly before applying.  I prefer to use surgical glue to apply these.   I trim the cap to fit, fill it half way with glue, press it on and hold for a few minutes.  I will usually leave the dog crated for a few hours afterwards to be sure it sets.  Super glue gets very hot and can damage the nail and should be avoided.  Knowing how it feels to have too-tight glove on for too long, I am always a little nervous about these caps causing issues with pressure and pain, but I have yet to have an issue with that. 

If you have a badly broken nail, the broken portion needs to be trimmed back as far as possible, and the dog should be given at least three to seven days off for it to start to heal, and then run with a boot.Trimming can be extremely painful depending on the type of break, so you may need veterinary intervention to address this properly if the nail isn’t just dangling by a hangnail.  Pain relief and antibiotics may be prescribed for these cases. 

Injuries to the pad vary from superficial blisters, abrasions and wear that can be addressed with a boot, to deep lacerations that require suturing.  I typically will only suture pads if the wound is very deep or large.  Most of the time I am going to clean it thoroughly with chlorhexidine, flush it with sterile saline and try to protect it with a bandage and/or boot until it has healed enough to resume training. Time for this varies greatly depending on the nature of the laceration.  Sometimes antibiotics are indicated. 

I have never had much use or success with gluing “blowout patches” on minor pad wounds. They never seem to stay to stay on for long, and I’m too concerned about the possibility of infection getting trapped under whatever sort of moleskin or tape people have used for this. 

Be on the alert for hair wear or abrasion on thin coated dogs from using booties in the fall; dirt and grit trapped in the booties can really start to abrade the skin on top of the toes or along the sides of the metatarsal in hind feet. 

Generally speaking, most of boots I put on are only going to make it through a single fall hookup. I save any winter boots with small holes for use in the fall.  If you have boots tough enough to get through multiple runs, I suggest washing them inside out before using them again to minimize this problem. If you see it starting and the dog needs to continue to use a boot, a liberal application of a petroleum jelly based product like Paw-tect or Aquaphor will slow it down a bit.  Sometimes fleece booties can be less abrasive than ballistic cloth booties for fall conditions, and since freezing isn’t usually a concern, they may be better choice for a dog that needs footwear in the fall.


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