I was asked by our editor to write an article on foot management for fall training conditions.
Depending on where you live, this can be a bigger problem than dealing with snow-induced issues.As with anything else, you won’t recognize trouble unless you bother to look for it, and if a dog is underperforming be sure to look at those feet to see if there is something wrong.
Foot managment starts before the dog wears a harness. The substrate of your kennel has a tremendous impact on foot health. Dogs kept in wet, muddy kennels are not going to have tough, healthy feet. Sand drains well and makes for a drier, cleaner environment, but when it freezes it can be very abrasive and file the nails down on active dogs in a hurry.
Dogs kenneled on sand often do not have feet that can stand up to any kind of gravel training trails for very long. Dogs kenneled on gravel, which also drains really nicely, often have really tough feet. The down side to gravel is that it can be more challenging to do the daily poop cleanup, it is expensive, and some dogs will eat it and develop GI obstructions.
Small gravel (pea gravel) can also be compacted to a hardness that is akin to concrete, which is something I would avoid; you have to refresh this smaller gravel frequently if you want to use this.
Dogs kept on wooden decks (often because of rock eating) seem to have the same level of foot toughness as dogs kept on sand. Decks can be very slippery; spreading a little sand can help diminish this. I discourage any sort of concrete, patio blocks, etc as a kennel substrate. While it’s easy to keep this dry and clean, these unforgiving surfaces are very hard on the joints, and most of the kennels I’ve seen with this design have dogs that have saliva stains (and occasionally acral lick sores) on their feet and/or carpal joints.
I think the dogs lick these areas persistently because of chronic, low level soreness.Proper feeding and deworming programs also affect foot health. Buildups of hookworm larvae in the soil of poorly managed kennels can migrate through the skin of the feet and cause chronic dermatitis.
Major deficiencies in Zinc affect foot health, but the better commercial feeds use easily absorbed sources of zinc, so don’t be too quick to throw zinc supplements at your kennel if you a feeding high quality food already as Zinc excess is just as detrimental as zinc deficiency. Proper balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in your feed are a positive influence on the health of feet and nails as well.
Speed of training, surface, size of the dog, gait, and how hard a dog works are the primary contributors to worn or damaged feet in the fall. I think the ideal surface for most any fall training is grass (trails mowed into fields or seeded woods trails); it is not abrasive, it’s forgiving, it can handle a freeze.
This surface requires work to maintain it; pounding dog feet and ATV wheels will tear it down to mud in a hurry unless someone takes the time to seed it and mow it during the off season. I’m amazed when I talk to mushers in the fall who have access to this surface telling how they have to go out and trim toenails because they aren’t being worn down.
Training as I do on rather abrasive sand, a nail trimmer is something I need only when the snow comes! One downside to grassy trails: frosty, frozen or wet grass can be slippery enough that a even small team can take off with your rig very easily.Sand is a good forgiving surface, but it has a few downsides: it beats the heck out any metal parts on your towline or rig, and when it freezes, it will file a dog’s nails and pads down to bleeding in a mile if they are running fast.
Deep sand can also cause fissures of the pad webbing (same as snow).Dirt and gravel can also be very hard on feet, frozen or unfrozen. Stone bruises on pads are hard to detect but can make a dog very sore. Worn pads and nails, broken nails, and lacerated pads are all a possibility if dogs without tough feet travel too quickly across this sort of surface.
Blacktop and concrete should be avoided at all costs, unless for very short stretches for trail access issues. Even if the feet can hold up to it, it is very hard on all the shock absorbing tissues of the body.Speed of training has a huge impact on what constitutes a “good trail,” whether we are talking snow or no snow.
Distance teams averaging 9 to 11 mph with some stretches at 16 mph are going to able to tolerate a lot more diverse conditions than a sprint team that doesn’t get below 12 mph and is averaging anywhere from 15 to 20 mph on dirt. Dogs traveling long distance need to develop some sense and skill at picking their way through poorer trails. Applying that angle to a sprint team is different. It is not a problem to ask a sprint team to slow down for a very short stretch, but if they are worth their salt at all they are going to try to push the pace back up pretty quickly, and are apt to get hurt if they are held back for long.
Frozen gravel or sand may be fine at 10 mph, but it can abrade the nails and pads down to bleeding in a hurry at 15 mph plus.Dog characteristics that contribute to foot wear include: large size (in my team anybody from around 58 lbs. and up is more likely to have wear issues, especially on the back feet), strong work ethic (pulls hard) usually leads to increased wear, and gait.
Smoothly gaited dogs wear the hind middle nails first; roughly gaited dogs will often affect one of the side nails to large extent.Toe nail wear is often the predecessor to damage to the pad itself; as the nail grows shorter, it will leave the front tip of the pad exposed to more trauma as the foot strikes the ground. A typical finding on dogs who have nails ground down to the quick is that the front corner of the pad is worn, cracked or missing.
My advice is not to the let the toe get to that point in the first place: take care to protect the feet before the nails are back to the quick and you will have significantly less down time.There are several ways to do this. First of all, pay attention to your dogs’ feet! You will find that certain individuals on your team tend to be “red flags” for foot wear (those big hard driving sorts), so watch them closely as the fall progresses. I start taking action before the end of the nail is down to the quick margin.
My approach depends on the dog and the conditions. I’ll talk booties first: booties and sprint dogs are not a match made in heaven. The typical thin ballistic cloth booty, as well as the old fashioned polar fleece variety, will be worn completely through by most sprint dogs on dirt in about 5 miles. I do use them on my smaller dogs, but in general I prefer what many manufacturer refer to as a “tough boot,” typically made out of 1000 denier Cordura; they will get a few hookups on them before they are completely trashed.
I also use a product from that is a double layer of polar fleece with a sort of naugahide outer layer (manufactured by Kondos); this boot can also take a beating. Sprint musher Dori Hollingsworth makes her own durable “dirt” booties out of leather; if you have a good sewing machine and the time, this is an excellent idea. At this time I am not aware of any outfitters that make or sell a leather booty.Please remember that boots are not a panacea for foot protection, especially in sprint teams.
There are a several situations I can think of that are risking bigger problems using boots: trails with unpredictable changes in depth (sand, for example) or ice patches under a thin skiff of snow can spell disaster for a dog running at high speed with no nail traction. It is one thing to universally booty a distance team and run them at slow speeds over all sorts of terrain. Trying the same approach on a dog team going 20 mph might save you pad, nail and web damage, but if the dog slips out on an icy patch at high speeds you are likely to end up with a biceps tendonitis, a severe pectoral or pectineal muscle strain/tear, or worse. The dogs trust you not to put them in situations that will cause pain and injury. It is your responsibility to apply judgment to the decision of whether or not to booty, run barefoot, or not run the dog or dog team at all.
For dogs that don’t perform well in boots, or who start to have rubbing and hair loss from booty wear, I have used a product called Soft Paws. It is a glue-on soft vinyl nail cap. For the average sled dog, the sizes that fit best are the Large to the XX Large.
They are easily trimmed to fit over the edge of the nail, only require a few minutes to apply, and are suprisingly durable. Use caution that you do not use too small a size, as constant pressure on the nail bed can cause damage. You must also be careful applying these on any nails that have exposed quick, as there is potential for infection. I scrub the area with a chorhexidine scrub, dry it thoroughtly (the dog is kept insided in a clean crate while I’m doing this), and apply the nail cap. The cap cannot be used if the nail has fracture off completely, as it is held on by the healthy nail horn. This product is sold through several different pet supply catalogs and has it’s own website as well.
It comes with few tubes of glue that are safe to apply to sensitive nail tissue. One other note: never ever use “superglue” to attach any sort of nail cap or bandage material. It gets very hot and can traumatize the exposed tissue. Injury to the pads can often be prevented if you take action before the nail gets too short; but if you have thin pads, or a small divot in the front of the pad with no bleeding, then you can usually booty the dog and run them through it.
If you have raw tissue or a laceration it will require more attention. Most small scrapes and dings will heal with rest; I will crate the dog or keep them boxed in the truck for a week or so because the dog will heal faster if she stays off her feet and out of the dirt. I will then resume training with boots. Lacerations with gaps or large holes in the pad may need veterinary attention; if the dog has sliced all the way through the pad then suturing is often warranted as well as antibiotic therapy. Small cuts are often not sutured as the material tends to pull through pad when the dog bears weight on it, but may get infected if not cleaned and medicated properly.
I’m not a big fan of “blow out patches” for pad injuries. The general idea is to use surgical glue to attach a patch of bandage material, such as elasticon, to protect the tissue underneath. They don’t to stay on very long and they allow a signficant amount of dirt, feces etc. to seep through the bandage into the wound underneath.
Dawn Brown, D.V.M. graduated from the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University and practices small animal medicine and surgery at Carthage, New York. She has been racing since 1982, currently 6 and 8-dog limited class speed racing in the lower 48, Canada and Alaska.