How to keep your “exercise restricted” pet mentally busy

Written by Cheryl May
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Activities When the veterinarian advises "leash walks only" and "no active play," it can be a difficult prescription to follow for an active, intelligent dog. Here are some things to do with your dog that don't require a lot of physical activity but that do exercise their brains.

Scent fun

Outside game: I assume your pup can move around a little. So instead of giving her kibble in a dish, scatter it on the ground and let her forage for it. Scatter according to her mobility. I promise you, she'll keep hunting with great interest long after all the kibble is gone. Then she'll fall asleep a happy hunter. (Margie English)

Inside game: find the cookies. A similar game to that above, except place hard treats (I use Charlee Bears) around the perimeter of the room, including on top of sofa cushions, behind chair legs, etc. I have used this as a game for rainy days when the dogs could not get to play outside in the morning. It is also a fairly quiet game for a dog that is under restricted activity.

Shell game. Use three margarine containers, or other small plastic containers. Turn them all upside down. Place a piece of food under one of the containers (hot dogs are easy, hard foods like kibble are more difficult). Move the containers around as the dog watches and tell him to find it. (Sherri Perkins)

Food activities

Marrow bones with tissue stuck to the outside will engage a dog for as long as it takes to work off the tissue and get out the marrow. He doesn't have to move around to do that. Then the dog falls into a happy sleep. (Margie English)

One thing I did while Ty was on crate rest was give her a new big raw marrowbone from the butcher, or a big compressed rawhide bone each day, which gave her a good hour or so of "chewing time" something to occupy her mind for a bit. I never, ever feed rawhide, but the compressed bones seemed fairly safe...CBRs can eat anything -- and rather quickly. (Sue Cone)

Other bones that also are good: big soup bones and beef neck bones. Be sure to purchase only raw bones, not cooked or smoked.

Fill a Kong with grated carrots and top with a small amount of canned cheese or peanut butter. Pop into the freezer. It will take the dog longer to get all the goodies from a frozen Kong. (Jeanne Saddler)

Teach the dog to catch food. Start with having the food very close to the dog's face and drop it into his or her mouth. Gradually increase the distance you drop the food. From Helen Phillips' column in the July 1999 Front & Finish, Section II, page 6.

Nifty behaviors

Teach the dog to stick out its tongue (Andi Vaughan taught Ramy to do this while she scents articles - too cute). I had to try it with Bang. I just held a really good cookie in front of her nose. When she licked her lips I clicked and gave her the treat. Added "tongue" after she would repeat the action by herself. Later we added the "stick out your" part. Another way to get a dog to stick our their tongue is to blow in their face. Bonnie Baker Put your toys away (in a basket, box etc.) (Bonnie Baker)

Wave or salute. (Bonnie Baker)

Nod your head "yes" or "no." (Bonnie Baker)

When Roo was injured and on restricted activity, a friend suggested I teach him some service dog tasks. It was great fun and kept his mind occupied. I taught him things like retrieving (and finding) the telephone, retrieving the TV remote, how to bump cabinets closed, and opening the refrigerator (I used a towel tied to the handle for him to pull. When I wasn't home, I took away the towel so he couldn't go shopping on his own). I also taught him how to turn a light switch on and off. Roo is too small to reach my light switches at home, but it's still one of his favorite things to do. Actually, many of these skills come in handy. (Lisa Gross)

Training practice

For tracking: glove indication. This is a good time to teach the dog to indicate the tracking glove or article. I started by placing a leather work glove on the floor. When the dog touched the glove with his nose, I clicked and treated. Gradually I increased the requirements for earning a click. At first, nosing the glove earned a click. Next he had to nudge it. Then he had to nudge it even more. Finally he had to pick it up and bring it to me to earn a click and treat. The first time he brought the glove to me, he earned a jackpot, a larger quantity of small treats. When I give a dog a jackpot, I always tell him the word "jackpot."

For advanced obedience: take and hold. Dumbbell, leather article, metal article, glove, and my index finger.

For agility: I just went through a long recuperation period with my golden after knee surgery. How about training your dog to turn his/her head right or left on command, with the idea you may be able to use those commands for turns and jumps later. You can train "watch me" games (dog has to look at your face no matter where your hands with food in them are or move). I also got butcher bones with marrow in them and parcelled them out every few days, plus a lot of kongs stuffed with carrots since I needed to watch her weight. It is a challenge. I did find my dog accepted the confinement better than I did! (Sionag Black)

Tricks and games

Here are some tricks to teach a recuperating dog:

  • Gimme 5 - shape having the dog place his paw on your hand. Using a clicker makes this go a little faster.
  • Shape the dog to offer paws for nail clipping
  • Shake hands
  • Speak
  • Smile
  • Play dead.
I had a border collie who had to be kept quiet and we had a great game that I called "name the toy." I used a ball, a stuffed bear and a wooden toy horse. The magic of this game is if she picked up the right toy when I said its name she got to play with it. It took me about a day to teach her the names. (Diane Hemphill)

This is a perfect time to teach object discrimination. Teaching the names of toys such as ball, rope, kong etc. If you do clicker this is a great exercise. If you don't do clicker just a "yes" with a reward. Start with one toy and when your dog consistently touches the toy add the name as a cue. When this is done consistently add a second object but still cue the first object. When your dog goes to the first object on cue ignoring the second object consistently he should know the name of the first object. Then start over with another object and so on. This takes a lot of concentration but little movement. (Pat Scott)

When my golden had hip surgery years ago, he was also crate bound. I found a great game with him. I could roll him on his back and "slap" his face...IN FUN! not a correction! He thought that was a great game. He would squeal and try to catch my hands in his mouth. While you may not want to try this with your dog, this game was so great for Wiley we play it to this day (and he's now 10). (Leah Spitzer)

Leah also suggests analyzing what things the dog most loves to do and finding ways to do those things in a more toned-down manner.

Management tip

Our 7 month-old german shepherd had surgery July 10 (ulnar osteotomy and lag screw) to repair UAC of right elbow. He has been on crate rest and must continue for three more weeks. It has been very hard to keep this very active boy confined; he just wants so much to play! We have found it very helpful to keep a walking harness on Nike instead of just a collar. He weighs 70 pounds (but he is very lean), and the harness gives us much better control over his jumping and prevents him from landing hard on the healing leg. The harness also doubles as a seat belt when he need to take him in the car. (Joan Vest)

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