With the fading light of summer upon us, it's time to start thinking of activities to keep your dog busy all fall and winter. Something I learned long ago is that my dogs are happiest with a balance of mental and physical activity. Here are a few of our favorite things.
Hide and Go Seek
This children’s pastime is a great way to play with your dogs – plus it’s simple and requires almost no training! It’s great if your best friend has a good understanding of “stay,” but if not and there’s a friend or family member to help, the assistant can hold the pup’s collar until you say “go!” Now's the fun part. Go hide! Some of my favorite spots include the shower, behind the drapes, in an open closet, and behind the couch. Be creative! Once you're safely hidden, call out to your dog either by name or a quick “OK!” Then you wait, as quietly as possible. Their search will likely amuse you; try to hold your laughter so as not to give yourself away. Once my dogs passed me in the closet three times before my amusement gave me away. Leo and Vegas enjoy searching for their mom immensely!
Find a Treat
Another activity that's fun year-round is the "Find it" game. Even if your dogs don't know what those words mean, they'll quickly figure it out. I always begin with soft, fragrant treats I can break into small pieces. Again, you're going to take advantage of your dog's ‘stay’ to play this game. If they don't have a great stay and you don’t have a buddy to hold them, you can use a crate or x-pen to keep them in place.
A couple of guidelines: 1) Consider your dog's height. What can s/he reasonably reach? 2) Breakables. I often use bookshelves to tuck treats into little nooks, but at 120 pounds, I have to be very mindful of Vegas’ enthusiasm for the game. 3) Small dogs don't want to get an upset tummy. If you play this game a couple of times in a row, you could be delivering quite a few treats. Be mindful of the size of the treats in relation to the size of the dog.
Now, with your dog(s) safely out of the way, hide the treats. If this is your first time playing this game, I recommend keeping hiding spots very simple. Once the loot is hidden, release the hounds! Their sense of smell is highly attuned, and they will likely begin sniffing the air. For the dog that acts bored or confused, casually approach one of the hidden treats. See if he catches on. If you have to, point it out and use the command “Find it." By now they'll be off and running.
Leo and Vegas adore this game. I especially love listening to their noses at work. Some dogs will be very systematic in their approach, searching left and right, evenly over the hiding area. Others will dart here and there, highly enthusiastic in their cookie quest. Watch and learn; it’s wonderful to see them think and follow their instincts. And one last thought: if you have more than one dog, and there is ANY concern over food aggression, play this game one at a time. Make this game fun, positive, and safe, and it will be a staple in your relationship for years to come.
There's a wonderful pair of DVDs on the market by Debbie Gross (WizardofPaws.net). They’re called Get on the Ball, and they show how to exercise your dog using inflatable fitness equipment. From simple items like fitness balls from an athletic store to more complex and dog-specific items sold at places like FitPaws USA (FitPawsUSA.com), you can work on a vast array of activities with your dogs that will tire them physically and mentally while providing a multitude of other benefits.
If you have an old air mattress, you can inflate it and teach your dog to walk on it. This develops the core and strengthens muscles. It requires concentration. Varying the volume of air and firmness of the mattress changes the balance required to remain stable. For shyer dogs, you may need to build up to many activities, but even starting with simple steps, the activities will build your dog’s confidence.
Last but not least, a new favorite activity for Leo and Vegas is shaping. This is a concept based on allowing your dog to think for herself. In a nutshell, you don't give her any outward queues as to what you expect; you just wait for her to offer something and reward any movements toward the desired action.
A simple way to begin is trying to get your dog to get into a shallow cardboard box. Choose a box of an appropriate size in a room with minimal distractions. Armed with a pocketful of treats (and a clicker, if you use one), set the box in the middle of the room and sit down. Wait for your dog to interact with the box. If he looks at it, reward. A sniff is worthy of a reward. Nose nudges, head bumps, paw smacks, all of these interactions call for rewards. She is thinking about the box and wondering what it means and asking you to direct her. Meanwhile she is thinking! Thinking is tiring, and a tired dog makes for a happy home. Eventually she may put a paw into the box. This is right on track to climbing in!
Leo and I play this game and he’s gotten to the point where he will get on the box, in the box, and even lay down in a box that barely accommodates his body. He has great fun, and we enjoy the learning process together. One final tip: keep sessions short — five minutes or so at a stretch. You can do multiple sessions, but give your pup a break in between. This will keep her wanting more.
Wishing everyone an enjoyable transition into a beautiful autumn and winter. Happy playing and learning with your dogs!
Kennedy Morgan works in the construction industry by day and enjoys coming home to her Great Dane, Vegas, and Pomeranian, Leo. Her household is also indentured to a 14-year-old tortoiseshell diva cat, Capri. They enjoy walks, hikes, beach trips, agility, and learning new things, and are often seen out and about on the west side or at local dog sporting events.