by Kea Grace
For dogs, a huge part of remaining physically and mentally sound involves exercise and lots of it. Just like people, right? When the weather goes wild, so can an understimulated, bored, pent up dog. Yup, just like people too! Inclement weather often causes major issues with getting enough activity to keep a service dog focused, relaxed and happy. That’s why people with disabilities that rely on service dogs should learn about indoor energy burners and some easy alternatives anyone can use.
Service dog trainers and handlers everywhere know that top performance from a canine partner requires careful balancing of work, play and learning. Any deficits in a dog’s care can cause an avalanche of issues with a dog’s training or work, especially if the lapse involves nutrition, rest or exercise. Exercise in particular, experts say, has the biggest ripple effect on a dog’s behavior. “A tired dog is a happy dog,” canine behaviorists often joke. However, a lack of activity is no laughing matter, as it can disrupt even the most well-trained dog’s ability to focus and function.
Unfortunately for dog lovers everywhere, though, Mother Nature doesn’t consider your service dog’s exercise needs. Endless rain, gray skies and chilly temperatures often make going outside to exercise your service dog a real challenge. When inclement weather continues for days or even weeks on end during rainy season, it can get increasingly more difficult to meet your service dog’s need for a solid workout. Fortunately, though, there are tons of easy ways to exercise a dog indoors, some of which you may not have considered.
Use Your Dog’s Natural Play Style to Exercise Indoors
To discover ideas that might work for you and your dog, begin by examining your dog’s play style. Different breeds tend towards distinct categories of play, but every dog remains an individual. As an example, lots of herding dogs play chase games. Many bully breed dogs, however, prefer body slamming and full contact wrestling. What types of games and activities does your service partner enjoy?
Many play styles readily adapt to indoor activities. Pups who enjoy tugging, contact and wrestling games, or softer / solo play types entertain easily indoors. Think creatively and use items lying around the house. Maybe dining room chairs magically morph part of a maze or a blanket becomes a hideout for a chase game.
Full Body Motions Burn Lots of Energy (and Yeah, a Bit of Equipment Helps)
For dogs with more active play styles or those with higher energy, working on jumps, send outs or highly physical tricks offer plenty of opportunities to burn energy. Select activities that require your dog to use large muscle groups repeatedly. Some skills to teach that don’t require much space include high jumping through a hoop (adults dogs only), jumping rope, sitting pretty / begging, army crawling and standing on hind legs and turning in a circle (adult dogs only).
You’ll get the best results from full-body movements requiring balance and strength. Don’t expect perfection from the start. These tricks are like everything else in dog training — they take time and practice to master.
Consider buying a dog-safe exercise ball and learning some of the drills and activities designed to build power and stability while also increasing your service dog’s body awareness. Many of the stability-based movement drills for dogs require only the space for the ball (or disc, etc.) itself, plus room for the handler to sit or stand close by. If you really want to dig into this type of canine conditioning, then FitPaws USA sets the industry standard, especially for working and performance dogs.
Finally, don’t rule out treadmill training for your service dog. Especially for those critters who can just go and go and go, nothing beats a treadmill for quality indoor exercise. Dog treadmills exist, but they’re pricey. Human treadmills can work; make sure any human treadmill you use is long enough for your dog to take a full stride and has safety shut offs. Introduce the treadmill slowly and keep things upbeat and positive. Never tie your dog to the treadmill or leave a dog to workout alone.
Brain Games Offer a Great Workout
After exhausting more active options, enhance your service dog’s indoor exercise routine with plenty of mental stimulation. Scientists say mental stimulation is more fatiguing than physical, so bring on the problem-solving. Work on some tricky task training behavior chains like retrieves or message delivery. For dogs who are clicker trained, bad weather is a great time to break out shaping games, like the Box Game.
If you’ve never played the Box Game with your service dog, there’s no time like the present to introduce this wild and wacky free shaping exercise. The Box Game is specifically designed to build creativity and analytical thinking skills. It also aids dogs in learning to enjoy trying and offering new behaviors without getting “stuck” on defaulting to known skills.
Additionally, this simple and fun dog training exercise improves the dog’s focus, frustration tolerance and decision-making ability. Service dogs routinely utilize all of the skills taught with the Box Game. For many trainers around the world, the Box Game is a reliable favorite for engaging a dog’s mind and body in equal amounts. To play, you’ll need a box big enough for your dog to get in, a clicker, high value treats and an excited dog. Many dogs get quite inventive while playing the Box Game, so be prepared for your partner to offer unique solutions you never thought possible!
Puzzle Toys and Scent Work Can Help With Your Service Dog Tasks
You can easily harness a dog’s food drive or powerful scenting abilities outside of free shaping exercises. Play indoor hide and seek or start learning some nose games. Both activities can help with task training, especially for delivery, messenger or odor alert tasks. Stuff puzzle toys like KONGs or Tricky Treat balls. For an extra challenge, use one of the various puzzle toy recipes available online and freeze the toy before handing it to your dog. Peanut butter or mixes of kibble and canned food always work well. You can also stuff a toy with cheese and nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave. Let it cool before giving it to your service dog.
Use maze bowls or snuffle mats at mealtimes. It’s easy to make your own snuffle mat, but purchasing fully made snuffle mats is also an option. To increase the challenge offered by a maze bowl, use several smaller bowls instead of one large one. Pour water over your service dog’s kibble and freeze the bowl before serving.
If you have several KONGs or food dispensing toys, prepare several all at once so your dog can work for their entire meal. If special toys aren’t in your budget (or even if they are), two liter soda bottles, gallon jugs and PVC pipe with holes in it make great alternatives. Repurpose simple household items like empty paper towel rolls and small cardboard boxes. Anything you can safely hide kibble in that requires your dog to work to access it is fair game.
Chews and Other Forms of Enrichment
Puzzling through an entire meal’s worth of kibble is a great way to give your service dog a great mental workout. Once feeding time is over, don’t forget about bones and long-lasting chews. Stock up before inclement weather strikes. That way, you’ll not only have a handy source of entertainment, but you’ll also save yourself a trip out in the elements to purchase them.
Raw bones, Himalayan chews and smoked natural bones supply the safest past times for most dogs. Most vets advise avoiding rawhide for safety and health reasons, but if you opt to give your service dog rawhide, try to ensure the chew was made in the United States. If you do a bit of searching locally or purchase online, rawhide alternatives are easy to find.
If you need some additional entertainment or exercise options for your service dog, there’s an excellent group on Facebook called “Canine Enrichment” that’s dedicated to creative ways to work a dog’s mind. Their library of enrichment and mental stimulation ideas is second to none.
Originally published by Anything Pawsable, United States Service Dog Registry; reprinted with permission. | Feature photo credit: Dogspring Training