It’s a challenge that almost all dog owners share. How do we exercise our dog when it’s too hot or too cold outside? Luckily, there are plenty of good options for activities you can do indoors to exercise your dog physically AND mentally.
I know what many of you are thinking: “Sure, I’ll just have my big crazy dog running around destroying my house! That sounds like a fantastic idea!” Don’t despair! You absolutely can exercise your large dog indoors without having them bouncing off the walls. In fact, there is a huge benefit to practicing lower energy activities with your pup.
With high energy breeds, we tend to believe that a tired dog is a good dog, and while there’s tons of benefit to getting some good high level exercise, over-doing it can cause issues as well. Not only can we end up with physical ailments associated with over exercise, but over stimulation can also lead to a myriad of behavioral issues. When we use high energy activities to exercise our dogs to exhaustion we end up with a dog who has two modes: crazy and asleep. This is how we get retrievers, who play fetch for 3 hours, fall asleep and wake up just as crazy as they were before!
Practicing activities that are mentally stimulating and require a low to moderate energy level can help us train our dog to be calm without having to be exhausted. The result is a pup who will still happily run a marathon with you, but who can also hang out on a rainy day without bouncing off the walls.
Here are 5 ideas to get you started:
Find the Treat
Put your dog somewhere they can’t see you or have a partner hold onto them. Get a handful of treats or kibble and hide the food around the house. Make sure it’s easy to find at first. Now, take a treat or piece of kibble to your dog and let them smell it, but not eat it. Give them a cue to “go find it” and toss or place it near where the other food is hidden. Let your dog find the rest of the food using its nose!
Once your dog gets the hang of it, you can start to get more creative with your hiding places. Put their food under or inside boxes, crumpled up in newspaper, or up on window sills; the options are endless!
Teaching your dog to deliver messages is really quite easy. Start by teaching them how to go to different people in the household. Have the dog with you and have a partner ready for your signal. Cue your dog: “Go to ________” and then have your partner call them and give them a treat. Now, reverse the action and have your partner send the dog to you for a treat. Gradually increase the difficulty by having your partner move farther away when calling the dog. Next, you can hide and call the dog. Finally, don’t call the dog at all, so the dog has to find you himself. Soon you’ll be able to deliver items to different people in the house, using your dog, either by teaching them to carry it in their mouth or attaching it to them via collar or backpack. Fun for the dog and useful for you!
The term “shaping” in training refers to a style of teaching new behavior where you break down your goal into tiny steps, reinforcing each one until you achieve the final product.
Shaping can be a great way to teach new tricks. Playing free shaping games like Karen Pryor’s “101 things to do with a box” is a fantastic way to exercise your dog’s body and mind, increase confidence and help them understand the shaping process, which will come in handy when teaching new behavior in the future.
This game is best played with a clicker for more precise timing, but you can use your marker word as well. Start by presenting your dog with a novel item. This can be a toy, cup, box; anything at all! Be ready to mark and reward the second you put your object down. You want to mark ANY interest at all, even just a glance in it’s direction. If your dog has never experienced shaping before, they may be a little confused at first. Try putting the object behind your back and presenting it again.
Once your dog is engaging with the object. You can start to pick and choose what you reinforce. In the video, I choose to reinforce picking the object up with her mouth. I also could’ve chosen touching it with her paw or rolling it with her nose. Your options will be different based on the object you’re using. With a box, for example, you could reinforce getting all the way inside of it or even flipping it over.
Teaching your dog to “target:” or to touch an object with a certain part of their body, can open a whole new world of training options. Some are useful, like going in and out of a kennel or the car, but let’s focus on the fun ones.
Teaching to target is easier than you might think. I suggest using a clicker for this, but a praise word can work too. Simply take whatever you are using for your target (your closed fist works well) and hold it right in front of the dog’s nose. The dog will naturally lean forward to touch it, as soon as they do, either click or praise, and treat. Once they’ve learned to touch it right in front of their face, move it around. Up, down, to the left and right, further away and behind them; train every angle before moving on to the next step.
Now comes the fun part: tricks! Use your new target to teach your dog how to weave in and out of your legs, spin in a circle, jump through a hoop and go over or around obstacles, simply by having him follow the target. Get creative! Build a living room agility course and have your dog follow his target through it. The possibilities are endless.
Once you’ve taught your dog to target with his nose, you can start to train him to balance. Not only does balancing teach self control and body awareness, but it also helps build muscle and flexibility in a way that running and romping don’t.
There are tons of products on the market specifically for canine balance and fitness, but to get started you can use a few pillows stacked on top of one another or a tightly rolled towel.
Simply use your target to lead your dog into putting his front two paws up on what you want him to balance on. Click or praise as soon as he does it and give him a treat. You can raise the difficulty by having them balance just their back feet, front and back on two separate platforms at the same time, (appropriately spaced for their body length). For small dogs, have them balance all four feet on the same thing. Make sure you’re working at a safe level for your dog and be ready to steady them if they slip.
Lacking space or equipment? Paws 4 Fun can help! Rent out one of our state of the art indoor dog parks. Our puppy playground equipment is perfect for practicing target training, or try out some beginner agility moves. While you’re here, your dog can take a dip in the pool or go for a romp in our supervised daycare yards for a well-rounded mental, physical and social enrichment-filled day!
Each of these activities are not only a great way to exercise your dog mentally and physically, but they will also work wonders in building your relationship. So, grab your dog and some treats and start playing!
Ashlee Osborn, CPDT-KA