Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch
There are some amazing games by Nina Ottosson where your dog has to figure out the puzzle to find the treat. I have a few for my dog, and they're good for short-term, supervised entertainment. The only problem is that while these are entertaining, they're also food-based and don't require a whole lot of movement from your dog. The mental engagement is there, but physical exercise isn't. It's kind of like playing a board game while eating a whole bowl of popcorn and chocolate pretzels — you're entertained, but not staying healthy.
Here are six ideas for active games you can play that will tire out your dog, engaging him (and you!) physically and mentally so that being inside is every bit as fun as being outside.
1. Scent work with hidden treats
Teaching your dog to discover prizes using only his nose is a great game for the body and mind. While all dogs have a great sense of smell, sometimes they have to be reminded to use it, and this exercise can get your dog excited about solving the problem of the hidden prize. Set up a bunch of boxes or opaque containers (start with at least four or five) upside-down next to each other and, without your dog seeing you hide it, place a prize (a favorite toy, a bone, a treat, whatever works) under one of the containers. Next, encourage your dog to smell the boxes and as he (hopefully) pauses at the one with the prize, lift up the box and enthusiastically congratulate him on his discovery. Let him eat the treat, fetch the toy, or indulge in whatever prize your dog found. Soon, your dog will know what's expected during this game and be excited to sniff out the prize. Keep adding more boxes and space them at farther intervals to increase the challenge as your dog's scent work improves.
2. Hide and go seek
If your dog knows that "find it" or a similar command means to go look for something hidden, then hide and go seek is a great indoor game to have fun with that command. To play, just show your dog what it is you're going to hide — like a favorite toy, or even a person! — and then put him somewhere he can't see you. Hide the item, then go get your dog and tell him to find it. Give him vocal clues if he needs help, like "gooooood" when she gets closer or "uh ooohhh" when he gets farther afield. Give hints if needed, by pointing or walking toward the hiding place, until your dog really has a grasp of what this game is all about. When he finds the hidden object, make a really big deal out of how brilliant he is. Make the praise worth all the effort he put into tracking down that object. Eventually, he'll catch on to what the game is about and get faster and faster about looking and finding.
My dog loves this game and has become an expert. I put him in the bathroom and close the door while I hide an object, stomping all around the apartment to throw him off the track of where I went. Because he often checks over each location where he has found a toy previously, I have to get creative about where I hide stuff. Sometimes a toy is hidden on a bookshelf well above his head, in a drawer, at the bottom of the laundry basket, or sometimes it is in plain sight on his bed. As your dog improves, be sure to challenge him by getting creative with where you hide the toy and keeping his brain and body engaged.
3. Under, over and through
Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch
Training your dog to perform new tricks like high-fives or lying down is great mental exercise. However, training them to do tricks that require physical skill exercises both mind and body, making teaching certain tricks perfect for pooping out the pooch when inside on a rainy day. When my dog and I are stuck indoors, we work on things like perfecting his handstands, balancing on tiny or wobbly objects for a long time, going up and down step ladders and other tricks that will have him panting and laying down to rest after awhile. One of the things you can do with your dog to get started is training him to go under, over, and through objects.
Set up an item like a kitchen chair, a step stool, or some other sturdy object on legs. Next, teach your dog how to crawl under the object and stay there, crawl all the way through the object, walk around the object, and how to jump over it entirely. Clicker training is especially effective for this since your dog has to work out what you're asking of him, using your click-n-treats as a guide. Once he knows how to go over, under and through, you can ask him to do combinations before he earns his reward.
After the basics of learning how to go over, under and through are set, you can keep the game rolling. My favorite method for increasing the challenge and fun is letting my dog figure out what it is he should do with this object for himself, and he earns rewards (a click-n-treat) for creative behaviors. We call it "new trick" and we do it with all sorts of commands, but when the wooden stool is set up, he knows to use that as his prop. Each time he does a "new trick" like putting one paw on it, both paws, jumping on it, crawling under it, crawling under then backing out from under it and so on, he earns a reward — but is only rewarded for something new. If he repeats a trick, I say "you already did that" and he tries something else. It's a great way to keep the fun going!
4. Stairway dash
If you have a stairwell, make it a game to run up it and burn some serious energy. To get the most exercise from this game with the least risk to your dog's joints, start at the bottom of the stairs. Put your dog in a sit-stay and throw the toy up to the top landing. Make it more exciting by keeping your dog in a stay while creating a build up, such as saying "Reeeady…. ready….. GO!" and let your dog dash up the stairs as fast as he can to retrieve the toy. Let your dog come back down the stairs at his own pace, encouraging a slower return since it's the downhill climb that risks injury. After 10 or so repetitions of this, most dogs will be totally tuckered out.
NOTE: This is only for dogs who are more than 1 year old, or after their joints have finished developing. You can cause long-term injury playing this game with younger dogs as their joints aren't developed enough to take the impact.
5. Tag You're It
I play this game a lot with my dog as it encourages both running and practicing a lightning fast recall, since it makes coming when called a really fun game. You'll need a partner for this. Each of you gets a pocket full of treats. Start across the room from one another. One person calls the dog and rewards him with a treat, then the next person calls and rewards. Get farther back so that soon you're calling from different rooms, and then from all the way across the house or apartment. The more your dog runs around the house, the better! Since we're trying to maximize exercise and minimize food intake, once the game is going and your dog is excited, only treat every other or every third recall and use loads and loads of praise and excitement or a tug toy as a reward the rest of the time. You can increase the excitement your dog feels playing this game by calling to him and then starting to run away, so your recall is also a game of chase. This is a great game outside of the house too, so when the rain stops, keep it in mind for using it at the park or other places as well.
6. Teaching him to help you clean up
Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch
Clean-up time can be a lot of fun when your dog knows how to put things away! This game is easy — just scatter the toys all over the house and have your dog find each one and put it away in a basket to earn a reward. Start out by first training your dog to know what "put it away" means. Work on teaching your dog to pick up a toy, carry it to a basket or box, and drop it in the box. This alone will be a fun challenge for both of you if you're new to this trick. Then to play the game, scatter a bunch of toys in a small area, point to one and say "put it away" until all the toys are back in their basket. Increase the difficulty of the game as your dog gets better at it by scattering the toys farther around the room, scattering them throughout multiple rooms, or even hiding them!
7. Obstacle course
If you're going to do something, go all-in, right? Setting up an obstacle course for your dog and helping teach him how to navigate the obstacles is a lot of fun. A lot of work, sure, but you're stuck inside on a rainy day so why not! Here are some suggestions for what to use:
A sturdy milk crate, stool or other item to balance on
A kitchen chair to jump up on or run underneath
A box with two open ends that he can crawl through
A basket alongside a pile of toys he has to place in it
A pole on two stools or boxes that he can leap over
A hula hoop to jump through
A frisbee or ball to catch
Create a few obstacles and guide your dog through each, building up to go faster each time through. Make sure to reward your dog with lots of praise, tug games or other high-value rewards each time she gets through the obstacle course. Make it fun, rather than work. And you can make it as challenging as your dog needs. For example, you can work on having her pick up a toy and carry it with her as she crawls through an open-ended box or balances on a crate. Tailor the game to your dog's physical ability and the types of tricks she enjoys, and be sure to offer lots and lots of praise for her attempts at the obstacles. After all, this is all fun and games!
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Photo credit for dog's nose: Quayside/Shutterstock