Sadly, we are likely to see tragic news articles about dog owners who enter water or who have gone onto ice to help their pet who is in distress and have got themselves into trouble. Thankfully, at this point in my life (and I hope to keep it this way!) I can only imagine what it would be like to see your beloved companion struggling after entering water or even worse, falling through ice, and the decisions you will suddenly find yourselves faced with.
But water does not have to be frozen to present a significant risk to life – cold water can impact on you and your dog’s physical capabilities. Being a strong swimmer in a swimming pool does not equate to you being able to swim well in cold water. Cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature.
For human beings without specialist protective clothing, in water between 0.3 to 4.5C you can lose dexterity in under three minutes, exhaustion and unconsciousness in 15-30 minutes and your expected time of survival is 30-90 minutes, assuming you can still breathe.
In water between 4.5 to 10C (the vast majority of inland water in the winter) you can lose dexterity in under five minutes, exhaustion and unconsciousness in 30-60 minutes and your expected time of survival is one to three hours.
This basically means in under five minutes, you may not be able to grab and hold onto anything passed to you and you will require physical rescue.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said: “In the last ten years, over 20 people have drowned after falling through ice into water, while many others have had to be rescued and revived. Looking at past incidents it appears that the individuals most at risk are young children and males of any age. “However, over 50 per cent of ice related drowning involved an attempted rescue of another person or a dog. “In many instances, the dog managed to scramble ashore unaided while the owner did not and it is therefore prudent not to throw sticks or balls for dogs near frozen water, if they do get into trouble, do not attempt to rescue them by venturing onto the ice!”
It does amaze me how much access we give our dogs to large bodies of water, such as reservoirs, lakes and ponds and the myriad of waters-ways we have, without truly understanding the dangers that lurk beneath the surface of the water.
Would we consider letting our children run around water unsupervised, especially in the winter? I’m sure we would not be throwing them into water to get them to swim or throwing items for them to retrieve, but we will regularly do this with our dogs!
Don’t be fooled by benign looking brooks that just about flow in the summer – because of the increased winter rainfall, these can be raging torrents in the winter and we can expect our local ponds, rivers and lakes to be significantly deeper than you would expect.
However, it’s not always human actions that put our dogs at risk with water and ice – they can do it all by themselves. Dogs will wander onto frozen lakes and rivers for a number of reasons, not least it looks solid and there is often an interesting array of water birds stood on it – you can’t blame the dog for being interested in the opportunity for a chase!
So, what can you do to help prevent finding yourself in this situation?
The easiest thing is to keep your dog on a lead – when on a lead, it does not really matter how well trained your dog is or isn’t, it cannot get into trouble. Instead of a lead, you may consider using a long training line, if you do put a line on your dog, make sure that it is a floating line that remains on the surface, as a line that sinks presents a significant risk, should it get snagged. If you were to try and retrieve your dog by pulling it in, you are very likely to pull them under and drown them.
Now some of you will be saying, I must let my dog off the lead, he needs the exercise, so if this is you and you want to let them run, why not avoid walking your dog during cold snaps in areas where there are known water hazards?
If you live on a boat or have no choice but to be around water, why not consider a life jacket for your dog too? Should they fall into water or through ice, the extra time and assistance this provides may well be enough for the emergency services to attend and carry out a rescue for you.
Make sure your dog is wearing a collar or harness as should they need to be hooked or pulled to assist getting them out of the water, a rescuer will need something to hook onto or grab.
If you do decide that you are going to enter the water, I would strongly caution you not to, but if you do, firstly contact the emergency services and tell them exactly where you are. If they cannot find you, they cannot help you.
As dog owners are generally outdoor people, what should you do if you come across somebody who is in water or on or through ice? What can you do without putting yourself at risk?
Call for assistance from the emergency services.
Do not attempt to go out onto the ice yourself.
Instruct the casualty to keep still to maintain heat and energy.
Try to find something that will extend your reach, such as a spare dog lead, pole, branch or item of clothing.Throw this or reach out to the casualty with it. Then, making sure you are stable on the bank, by lying down or getting someone to hold onto you, attempt to pull the person to the shore.
If you live in areas with lots of water hazards, why not carry a throw line with you for this purpose, it could even just be in your vehicle.
If you cannot find something with which to perform a reach or throw rescue, try to find something that will float to throw or push out to them. This will help to keep the casualty afloat until assistance arrives.
Throughout your rescue KEEP OFF THE ICE, continue to reassure the casualty and keep them talking until help arrives.
If the rescue is successful, the casualty will need to be kept warm and treated for shock. All casualties should be taken to hospital even if they appear to be unaffected by their ordeal.
Remember there is a significant chance that your dog will get out on its own!
So, if we go back to the opening paragraph – would you risk your life for a dog? Well, when it comes to water and ice, there is no need if you keep your dog on a lead!