While many of us have watched our dogs happily capering about in snow and participating in the Canine Winter Olympics, it is no secret that dogs love to get close to heat sources. Space heaters, central heating vents, or even fireplaces, our furry buddies clearly love them and want to be as near them as possible. Build a fire, and Duke is right there to encourage you. Drag Muffin's bed closer to a heating vent and she'll love you for it. But even farther than that; dogs can get so close to heat and fire sources as to raise concern in their owners, sometimes getting so close and spending so long there that they begin to pant. So is this behavior dangerous? And if so, can anything be done about it?
The Root of the Behavior
It isn't just dogs that like heat. Within reason, most living creatures, warm-blooded and cold-blooded, simply prefer a warmer environment to a colder one. Even humans prefer warmth; that's one reason why Florida beach vacations draw more customers than Alaska skiing vacations do. Additionally, dogs have higher body temperatures than humans, so they're actually comfortable in temperatures that we would find on the hot side (and conversely, what we find comfortable seems cool or even cold to our dogs). Since dogs like higher temperatures, you may well find that your dog is drawn to any heat sources in your house, especially in the colder months. Even better, if you light a fire in the fireplace or start heating the oven and then relax nearby on the couch or in a seat, your dog will be only too happy to hang out with you and soak up the plentiful WARMTH in the room.
Some common-sense precautions should be observed here, especially with respect to fires and space heaters with exposed heating elements. Discourage, and never encourage, games or horseplay near such heating sources. A dog's wagging tail could easily smack into the heat source and either cause burns (or worse, catch fire!) or knock burning embers out of a fireplace. You should also never leave a fire or heating source unattended to begin with, let alone when a dog can approach it. And it should go without saying that smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are a must if you have a fireplace; doubly so if you use it and triply so if you also have a dog or two. And ensure that you keep your fireplace, stove or central heating unit properly maintained. Don't risk letting smoke or carbon monoxide pose a threat to your dog.
Speaking of common sense, don't assume that your dog has
any. In fact, just as humans can fall asleep in the sun and wake up
sunburnt, dogs can fall asleep near heat sources (or in the sun) and wake up
with painful burns that can require a trip to the vet. If your dog
huddles up to the heat at a distance you find disturbing, consider getting up
every hour or so and encouraging him to come with you to the kitchen for a
drink of water. The break from the fireplace or heater might alert your
dog to a developing burn.
Encouraging the Behavior
All it really takes for a dog to snuggle up to a heating source is, in fact, a heating source. If you provide one by starting a fire or switching on a space heater, or if the sun is streaming through a window, your dog is likely to find it sooner or later and to commandeer a space nice and close to it. Tales of doggie determination to hog the heat range from laying down on central heating vents (and letting the warm, forced air bathe their belly in a luxuriant, balmy breeze) to actually crawling underneath a wood stove and staying there.
Given that, you might consider steering your dog toward particular spots that keep him a safe distance from the fire or heat source. Instead of lettting Buster flop down three inches from the fireplace, put up a secure screen (to prevent sparks and embers from flying out and to prevent canine tails from flopping in) and a soft, inviting doggie bed that's a little farther from the fire and a little closer to you. Encourage your dog to check out and use the bed, and discourage him from sleeping directly adjacent to the fire.
You can also consider purchasing space heaters with certain safety-related features. For example, overheat cutoffs and tip-over switches provide extra safety by simply cutting the power completely if the unit gets too hot or if it is inadvertently knocked over. And while units with exposed heating elements often have metal grills over them to prevent contact with the hottest parts of the heater, give some thought to heaters without exposed heating elements at all. For example, ceramic-element heaters; they take longer to heat up, but have no hot parts that a dog or child could possibly touch and burn themselves on.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Keep in mind that indoor air during the winter months is often very dry, which can increase risk of dehydration. Add in a dog that's determined to suck up every degree of heat he can expose himself to, and you've got a recipe for canine dehydration. Forestall this by providing plenty of clean, fresh water and perhaps even an extra water dish in the winter months. It's also wise, before the weather turns cold each fall, to review the signs and symptoms of canine burns, as well as first aid and further treatment steps. While a dog owner can certainly perform first aid for their dog in case of burns, you'll want to consult with your vet to ensure that the burns aren't serious. If they are, your vet will need to take charge of the treatment. If only first-degree burns are present, your vet will be able to provide you with clear, simple treatment instructions.
Fireplaces have been beloved by man and dog alike since the Stone Age. Stoves and space heaters are modern fireplaces that canines and humanity find just as useful. As long as there's winter, humans and dogs alike are going to rely on fireplaces, stoves, and space heaters to make the season more comfortable. But despite that reliance, make sure that your dogs don't get too chummy with your heat source. Take a few precautions so that you can all enjoy the heat with as little risk as possible.