Sometimes it’s just too cold outside to go for a long walk or play fetch in the yard. But our dogs still need their exercise. What can we do to help our furry family burn through that cabin fever?
Did you know that a dog will burn more energy engaging in mental exercise than they do engaging in physical exercise? Well, it may not actually be more calories burned, but it does tire them out more to use their brain. Think back on your school days. I know I was far more tired after studying for an hour than after an hour of playing video games or watching a movie or hanging out with friends…. The same is true for our dogs. Using their brain is a better way to pass time than just running around – if our aim is to help them relax and settle.
I use a variety of mental enrichment activities to help my dogs feel like they’ve used their day well. Many of these activities involve food, of course, because most dogs love food and love working for food. Using puzzle toys such as Kong Wobblers or Snuffle Mats are a fast and easy way to make meal time more interesting. We can increase the challenge by using more involved puzzle toys such as those by Nino Ottosson or Ethical Pet. These toys involve the dog having to move objects out of the way in order to access bits of food hidden underneath.
Make Your Own Enrichment Toy
You can also be creative and make puzzle toys out of things you have in your house. Take a muffin tin and put a few kibbles in several of the muffin cups. Then cover every muffin cup with tennis balls or paper cups or crumpled newspaper. This invites the dog to move the object out of the way in order to access the treats underneath.
Don’t throw away the core of your paper towels or toilet paper. Instead, fold one end down and put some kibbles and treats inside and then fold the other end closed. Let your dog have fun shredding their way to the tasty treats. And if they ingest some of that cardboard paper, it’s generally considered safe and will pass along with the food.
One of my very favorite games to play with a dog helps to burn both physical and mental energy. I call it “Focus/Find It”. First I invite the dog to give me eye contact by telling him “Focus” and showing him a treat held just in front of my face. Then, once he’s looking at me, I tell him “Find It!” and drop the treat on the floor. Once he sees that the food is being dropped, I’ll toss the next couple kibbles a foot or two away. And build from there until I’m throwing the kibble down a long hall or across the room.
This encourages the dog to run after the food, use his nose to sniff out and find the kibble which as likely bounced and slid around and may not be partially hidden. Then he comes running back to you so he can look you in the face – all so you’ll throw the next kibble. If the environment allows it, I’ll even throw the kibbles in different directions each time to maximize the use of the space. In my 12 years of training dogs, so far this game has been a big hit with every single dog who has played!
Happy Snow-Day activities!
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.