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When the weather outside is frightful, exercising your dog isn’t always delightful. Plenty of dogs and their people revel in the snow and head out to go snowshoeing or skijoring, but if you would rather snuggle by the fireplace, take heart: There are plenty of indoor ways to challenge your dog’s brain and body and have fun with him at the same time. Games, puzzles, tricks and exercise — think “doga” and “pupilates” — are all great activities that can help him burn off energy. Here are some of my favorites.
One of the easiest ways to get your dog moving and thinking doesn’t require any equipment at all, just some small food dishes and a crafty mindset. Take his normal amount of kibble and divide it among several dishes and send him off on a scavenger hunt. You might let him watch you hide the first couple and then let him use his nose to find the rest.
Play the muffin-tin game. Place a treat in each cup of a muffin tin and cover some of them with tennis balls or other dog toys. See how long it takes your dog to uncover the treats. Another option is to put a meal’s worth of kibble into a puzzle toy. When your dog pushes it or removes key pieces, he gains access to the food. These types of toys can keep dogs busy for hours.
If your dog enjoys these canine hide-and-seek games, you might want to look into nose work, which can be done year-round, indoors or outdoors. Once you and your dog learn the basics, you can play any time. For those long winter days when you're trapped in the house, you can place treats or bits of kibble in areas where your dog might have to stretch up to seek out the scent — on a windowsill, for instance — or stretch downward, such as beneath a chair or table.
Got stairs? Walking up and down them helps build strength and body awareness. If you want to really get fancy, teach your dog how to walk backward up the stairs or a ramp. Even just backing up on a level surface is good exercise, though. “Anything that involves backing is really good for dogs,” Dr. Otto says.
Did you know that rolling over is a good strength-building exercise for dogs? If your dog knows this trick, have him roll over two to three times in each direction.
Tug is a great strength exercise. Hold the toy parallel to the floor so your dog is pulling straight back. This helps him work his front and back legs at the same time.
“Bird dogs” are also good for building strength, especially core power. Pick up one of your dog’s paws so he must use his other three legs to support himself. Pull gently. Do this for both front and back legs, one at a time. Pull each front leg gently forward and each back leg gently backward.
Other good strength and body-awareness exercises are “puppy push-ups” — repeated sits and downs — and stepping through the rungs of a ladderor 4” x 4” pieces of wood laid flat against the floor.
While summertime standup paddleboarding is months away, your dog can still hone his skills indoors. Have him walk across a sofa cushion, inflatable bed or air mattress. The unsteady surface will require him to shift his weight, which will help to strengthen his core and improve his balance. Other ways to do this include having him stand on a BOSU or balance disc or to put his front paws on a large physioball. If you have two BOSUs or balance discs, set a board on top of them and have your dog “walk the plank.” Have him practice balance exercises for three to five minutes several times a week, or even daily if he’s in good shape.
No matter what activities you choose, pace yourself and your dog. My colleague Dr. Cindy Otto, a veterinary sports medicine specialist at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, recommends avoiding the “more is better” approach — there’s no need to exhaust your dog. “This type of exercise will really tire dogs mentally and physically,” Dr. Otto says.
Finish every workout session with a nice cooldown. Take a slow walk, do some more stretches and give your pooch a rubdown. By that time, you’ll both have earned a break.
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