Chances are you’re spending a lot more time at home these days. Even if your daily routine hasn’t drastically changed during the COVID-19 crisis, one thing is certain: keeping your family pet busy with positive activities is a win for everyone. Dr. Meghan Herron, our nationally-recognized Veterinary Behaviorist, is sharing her favorite 15 activities to keep your dog engaged at home.
1. Take a walk
Even if your dog gives their best sad eyes for that last potty break of the night or acts like walking on wet grass is like treading on glass, most dogs are more tolerant of cold and wet weather than we give them credit for and will enjoy a jaunt around the block no matter the forecast. If your dog has been a couch potato during your 8-hour workdays up until now, they may not have the stamina for a long hike right off the bat. Ease them into longer walks over time, especially if they’re overweight and/or a senior citizen. Most young, healthy dogs can start with 15 to 20 minutes of brisk walking and work up to one hour at a time within a week. Be sure to take breaks as you settle into a new exercise routine!
2. Play a game of “go get it!”
If you’re stuck at home and have a fenced yard, an unfinished basement, or a long hallway, work with the space you’ve got! Stand in one corner of the space facing the opposite corner, and simply throw a toy as far as you can while excitedly telling your dog to “go get it!” Most retrievers and other toy-motivated breeds will readily “get” the toy and bring it back, but that’s not necessarily the point of this exercise. It’s about sneaking in some extra steps! If your dog just grabs the toy and moves to another area to enjoy it on his own, arm yourself with multiple toys to get his attention. Call him back over with another toy, and when he returns repeat the “go get it!” and give it a toss. If your dog just stares at you as if to say “Oh no, YOU go get it…” then try switching to something edible. Packaged treats work well, or you can make your own by cutting up cooked chicken breast into half-inch cubes and freezing them. Then play the game one treat at a time, calling your dog back before throwing the next one. You can even ask him to sit just before you toss it to add a quick obedience session and practice good manners.
3. Create your own scavenger hunt
This game requires a bit of legwork and can be done indoors or outdoors – you just need a bit of space and plenty of hiding places. First, choose your edible loot. Some dogs are highly motivated for regular hard treats, while others have a more specific palate, so use what you know they’ll enjoy most. Next, with your dog out of sight, hide the treats around the scavenger hunt space. Pick easier hiding spots for the first couple of rounds. Tuck them in the grass, next to a rock, underneath a pillow, in the corners of the deck, or at the perimeter of the fence or wall. Once the hunt is prepped, lead your dog into the area. For the first few sessions, start by tossing a treat near where an item is hidden and say, “find it!” to lead their nose in the right direction. Repeat the process until your dog has found all the hidden treats. With a few repetitions, your dog will be able to hunt for treats just by pointing your finger in the general direction of the hidden gems and saying, “find it”.
4. Learn to love the doorbell
Whether you have a new puppy who has no idea what a “visitor” is right now or your adult dog sounds the alarm when your Amazon delivery arrives, now’s your chance to train your dog that when the doorbell rings, GREAT things happen. Start by standing inside and ringing the doorbell (or knocking on the door) yourself while in full view of your dog. After the knock or ring, toss your dog a couple of his favorite treats. Repeat. Once your dog catches on and gets super excited when he hears the knock or ring, ask him to sit before you toss the treat. After several sessions, start the game from the outside of the house. Ring the bell or knock, step inside, ask your dog to sit, and then toss the treats. Repeat, repeat, repeat until your dog automatically sits as you open the door! If you live with someone else, take turns being the “visitor” and the person inside managing your dog. If your dog has a history of door-dashing, you may want to tether him to a sturdy piece of furniture with a 10- to 20-foot leash so there’s no risk of escape during the exercise.
5. Build a dig box
Living in quarantine with a Husky, Jack Russell Terrier, or any other breed obsessed with digging? If so, create a dig box that allows your dog to appropriately engage in the behavior they so desperately love. Fill a kiddie pool with sand or a raised garden box with fine gravel. Avoid using dirt or mulch that may mimic your flower beds or any other part of your yard you don’t want them disturbing. Start by showing your dog a few of her favorite toys and then letting her watch you bury them in the designated dig area. Then say “dig it up, girl!” and praise her when she digs up each item. When she’s mastered that, hide the items in the dig area when she’s out of sight, and let her discover the loot herself. If you are indoors, fill a kiddie pool or shallow playpen with plastic balls to make your own ball pit. This also makes for a great redirect activity if your dog has a history of digging in undesirable parts of the yard or house!
6. Name your toys
Start with a favorite toy your dog already knows the name of and take him through a review session. For example, if your dog loves his ducky toy, place it a few feet away from him, point to it and say, “get your ducky!”. When he grabs it, praise him and let him play with it for a few moments as a reward, and then offer him a small treat. Repeat until he knows the drill. Next, bring out a second toy and set it on the floor about a foot away from his favorite ducky toy. Repeat the game of “get your ducky!” a few times with the second toy close by. When he’s mastered the task a few times in a row, stop pointing at the ducky and just give him the verbal “get your ducky!” cue. Then, switch your focus to the second toy. Ask him to “get your ball!” and point to the second toy. When he correctly grabs the ball, praise him and reward him with a small treat. Repeat. When he seems to have it down, tell your dog to “get your ball!” without pointing to it. When he’s mastered retrieving both toys correctly with only verbal cues, start switching up your commands until you know he can identify each toy without any visual hints or pointing. Over time, switch out one toy for a new toy, giving it its own name repeating the process.
At times, even experienced dogs may get the commands wrong, even when it seems to have clicked. Never scold or reprimand him– this is supposed to be fun! Simply withhold your praise and the treat, give him a few moments to think about it, and try again by repeating the command. If needed, bring back the visual pointing cue for an extra hint. Remember, every dog learns at his own pace!
7. Box in a box
If you’re eating at home more than usual these days, you likely have lots of food boxes in your recycle bin. Line up a few boxes according to size and find the smallest box. Place a few treats or pieces of your dog’s food inside the box, fold or glue it shut, and stick it inside another box that is just a bit bigger. Drop a few treats into this layer and close the box. Then, drop this box into a larger one, adding a few more treats inside. Repeat until you’ve created your own food puzzle! To make it even more challenging, if there is a big size differential between the boxes, stuff some crumpled newspaper in between the layers. When the puzzle is complete, add some newspaper for added unwrapping entertainment and let your dog go to town!
Inspired by a college drinking game from the ’90s, this game is sure to turn your dog into an instant Police fan. All you need is a recording of their hit song “Roxanne” and 27 small treats. If you have a small dog, try using puffed rice cereal or even dry kibbles from their food bowl. Then, play the song and every time you hear the word ‘Roxanne,’ toss your dog a treat. Singing along is a must! Repeat your sing along every day for a week, and you’ll create an instant recall just by turning on this song! BONUS TIP: If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, play this game during a storm for a yummy distraction!
9. Outdoor scent hunt
Dogs are natural predators and while not every dog is a highly skilled or motivated hunter, they all have an instinctual interest in prey scents. Buy the scents of various animals, such as rabbit, duck, deer, and fox, online from hunting and sporting stores. (Note: While there are skunk scents out there, unless you’re doing specialized training to rid your dog of any interest in skunks, I wouldn’t encourage a scavenger hunt for this scent!) Wearing gloves, dab several drops of the scented liquid or wax onto an old stuffed toy or newspaper that you can crumble up and hide. Place a different scent in various spots of your yard every other day and see how long it takes your dog to sniff them out. The first few times you play, try dabbing a few drops of the scent in a trail that leads to the object until your dog gets better sniffing it out. Hounds, including beagles, will be especially good at this game!
10. Indoor scent hunt
Dogs have an amazing sense of smell, and giving them a chance to use that ability while stuck indoors is a great form of enrichment. Pick a few of your favorite scents, such as essential oils like lavender, peppermint, and cinnamon. Start by dabbing one of your dog’s toys with the oils. Teach her the name of the toy (see activity #6) so she’ll easily fetch it for you, even from a distance. Then, put her nose to the test and hide the scented toy in another room when she’s not paying attention. You can also create a scent trail leading to the hiding place by dabbing drops of oil on cloths or post-it notes. When you’re ready, call her to you, let her smell the oil on your hand, and say “go get your toy”. When she finds the item, praise and reward her with treats. Each time you play you should need fewer and fewer trail markers, until she learns to seek out the scent just at your request. When she’s mastered one scent, mark another toy with a different oil and repeat the game. Eventually, your dog can have multiple scent hunts and sniff each one out individually at your cue.
11. Popsicle time
Unless you have a large tarp and an area that you can gate in, this messy game is best played outdoors. Find a large, fun-shaped gelatin mold or cake pan – bunt pans work, too! Fill it with low-sodium chicken, beef, or vegetable broth and carefully place it in your freezer overnight. If your dog has more of a sweet tooth, try using diluted apple juice. The next day pop it out of the mold and let your dog enjoy their own flavor-packed popsicle! The larger and thicker the mold, the longer the icy treat will last, especially for a large breed dog.
12. Puzzle toy meals
Is mealtime your dog’s favorite part of the day? There are tons of food puzzle toys available for purchase to stretch the fun out a little longer than the typical 30 seconds it takes to chow down. Choosing the best food puzzle for your dog depends on a few things: a) how motivated your dog is to work for food, b) if he prefers dry or wet food, and c) if he’s a destructive chewer.
One of the most common puzzle toys is the Kong. Stuff it full of your dog’s dry food followed by a cap of wet dog food, peanut butter, or cream cheese and then pop the entire thing in the freezer. Once your dog works his way through the frozen food plug, he can bounce the toy around until the dry food falls out. The more wet food you put in the cap, the longer the toy will last. Try making a mixture of wet and dry food for a more experienced dog. Note that black Kongs are the most durable, but some strong chewers may still be able to destroy and eat the parts. If that’s the case, make a cardboard version using an empty toilet paper or paper towel roll stuffed with food and frozen. It won’t be as challenging, but if your dog eats parts of the toy, they should dissolve and/or pass right through! Kong also makes a Wobbler toy, if you prefer to feed all dry kibble. A Wobbler toy can take some practice, but most dogs figure it out just fine. For dogs that may find the Kong too frustrating, try the Busy Buddy Twist & Treat! It’s a softer, less durable toy, but you can control the level of difficulty it takes for your dog to access the food.
13. Read a book
Dogs are social creatures and often soothed by familiar voices. Reading to your dog helps encourage a relaxed state of mind, and it stimulates your brain too! Dogs aren’t picky about the plot and don’t have a preference in genre, so read what suits you! If you have a child at home, encourage them to read their assignments or a book to the dog. Kids who are just learning to read may feel less pressure reading to their furry friend than to a grown-up, too. Too busy for books? Read your work emails aloud!
14. Doggy massage
The healing power of touch holds true, even for our canine companions. Start at the base of your dog’s head, making 2 to 3-inch circular motions with your thumbs or the tips of your fingers. Circular movements with soft pressure tend to have the greatest effect. Work your way across your dog’s head to the tips of her ears. Then work your way down her neck and shoulders, over her back and to her hips. Avoid her feet and tail, as many dogs don’t enjoy those sensitive areas being touched. Always start your motion in the same direction as the hair growth. If your dog is not accustomed to touch, keep it brief and stick to less sensitive areas, like her neck, shoulders, and chest. Stop immediately if your dog looks fearful or pulls away. Just like people, some dogs simply aren’t fans of massage. To make the most of it, give your dog a massage after she’s had some exercise, flexed her brain with some reward-based training, and it’s time to settle down with you. Visit Tellington TTouch Training for a comprehensive massage program created just for dogs!
15. Self-care time
As much as our dogs love us, they need their alone time too. Giving them their own space, particularly as the day winds down, can really help calm your dog. Set up an area that is just for them in a corner of your main living space or just off the main area of your home. Play classical music at a low volume near a dog bed that’s large enough for your dog to fully stretch out on her side. You can even plug in a D.A.P. diffuser that emits appeasing pheromones to fill the space with comfort and security. Finally, and most importantly, respect this space and leave your dog alone any time she retreats to this area.
Dr. Meghan Herron is a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist and is Improving the lives of shelter dogs™ by serving as Gigi’s Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach. As a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), she is one of 70 veterinarians in the country, and one of only a few in the animal welfare world, with this unique specialization in both the medical and behavioral care for animals.