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 some ideas for active games you can play that will tire out your dog, engaging her (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 one another 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 he found. Soon, your dog will know what’s expected during this game and be excited to sniff out the prize. Keep adding 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 — such as a favorite toy, or even a person! — and then put her somewhere she can’t see you. Hide the item, then go get your dog and tell her to find it. Give her vocal clues if she needs help, such as “gooooood” when she gets closer or “uh-ooohhh” when she 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 she finds the hidden object, make a really big deal out of how brilliant she is. Make the praise worth all the effort she put into tracking down that object. Eventually, she’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 or 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
Training your dog to perform new tricks such as high-fives or lying down is great mental exercise. However, training her to do tricks that require physical skill exercises 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 such as perfecting his handstands, balancing on tiny or wobbly objects for a long time, going up and down step ladders and other tricks that have her panting and lying down to rest after a while. One of the things you can do with your dog to get started is training her to go under, over and through objects.
Set up an item such as 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 jump over it. Clicker training is especially effective for this since your dog has to work out what you’re asking of her, using your click and treats as a guide. Once she knows how to go over, under and through, you can ask her to do combinations before she earns her 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 and 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” such as 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 rewarded only 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 buildup, such as saying, “Reeeady … ready … GO!” and let your dog dash up the stairs as fast as she can to retrieve the toy. Let your dog come back down the stairs at her 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 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 each other. 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, treat only 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 her 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
Cleanup 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 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.