Coats and sweaters may be necessary for cold weather–but your dog won’t automatically like them. Here’s how to teach your dog to wear a coat.

A grey, white and black dog wears a yellow raincoat and looks happy with mountains in the background on a wet day
Photo: Enna8982/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD

What’s your favourite thing about winter with your pets?

A storm last Friday blew most of the leaves off the deciduous trees all at once. It felt like a sudden change to the season. Now the temperatures are colder, although there’s no sign of any snow in the forecast yet. There’s a strong El Niño this season and typically here on the west coast of BC that means warmer temperatures and more precipitation over the winter. 

After we got Pepper 2.5 years ago, I discovered the joy of sweaters and coats for little dogs. My previous dogs, Ghost and Bodger, were both pretty big (okay, very big in Ghost’s case!) and had thick fur coats. They did not need sweaters. But because Pepper is small, he now has a little wardrobe of coats and sweaters, including a glittery reflective sweater for in the dark and a blue fair isle sweater for cool but dry winter days.

He’s a very portable and handleable little dog and I would guess that he already wore coats and sweaters with his previous owner; he certainly had a raincoat at the shelter because they gave us it when we adopted him. So getting him in and out of these garments is quite easy.

He loves the snow and given that he’s a senior dog it’s nice to see him bouncing (just a bit) in it. But he is very short, so the snow has to be quite shallow. Once it’s up to his chest, that’s too much, and then we have to shovel a path for him.

What if your dog needs to wear a coat but they aren’t used to it? Here are some tips.

  • If you have a puppy and live in a cold or wet climate, get them used to wearing coats and/or sweaters while they are still young. The sensitive period for socialization is between 3 and about 12-14 weeks, and it’s important to use this time to give puppies positive experiences with everything they might come across later in life. (Read more about the sensitive period here: The sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens).  
  • Choose a coat or sweater that is easy to put on and take off. If your dog is used to wearing a harness, pick something that fastens in a similar way as this will be easier for your dog to get used to. Don’t start with a sweater that you have to wrestle over your dog’s head and then struggle to get their arms into sleeves. Instead, pick something with straps that are easy to fasten, like a coat with Velcro straps that fasten over the chest and under the tummy. (You can build up to the over-the-head sweaters once your dog is used to something easier).
  • The very first time you introduce a coat or sweater is the most important. Use special treats (and be generous with them) to help make it a really nice experience for your dog.
  • For many dogs, if you’ve picked an ‘easy’ coat/sweater and they are used to wearing a harness, it will be relatively easy for them. But every dog is an individual, and some dogs will need more time and training than others, so pay attention to how your dog is reacting. 
  • If you see signs of stress, such as lip licking, looking away, or growling, slow down and take a step back. You will need to follow a gradual plan that breaks it down into different stages. Start with putting the coat on the ground, let your dog choose to approach it, and feed them lots of treats. The next steps will depend on the specific style of coat, but you could start with putting it on the head, then move on to also putting it on the body, and finally to doing it all up and having them wear it. 
  • Only move on to a more difficult step when you are sure your dog is happy with the step you are on. It’s normal to have to move back and forth a bit in a training plan, so don’t worry if you need to take a step back sometimes.
  • If putting the coat on involves your dog putting their head through something, you can start by holding it up with the opening facing them and feed them a treat through it. Don’t move it over your dog’s head when they’re not expecting it; let them come and get the treat. Think of it as being a bit like a contract: you’re offering a treat if they come to get it, and you’re not going to suddenly change the rules and make it harder for them by moving the coat. Gradually change where you hold the treat so that over time they are putting their head through the opening. 
  • Take account of the whole experience. For example, some dogs don’t like the sound of Velcro so you might have to get them used to that first. Have the coat on the floor, open the strap to make the Velcro noise and then feed your dog some yummy treats. Do this before you start to think of putting the coat on your dog so that they don’t get a sudden surprise when you undo the Velcro when the coat is on them.

Some dogs don’t really need to wear a coat. If they don’t need to, and you don’t want to spend the time training them, it’s okay for them not to have a coat. After all, they already have a beautiful coat of their own. 

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 
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