Pets

How to keep your dog entertained indoors

Helpful advice for keeping your pup happy and healthy when they can’t spend as much time outside.

Helpful advice for keeping your pup happy and healthy when they can’t spend as much time outside

A woman kneeling on the floor of her living room, training her dog. The dog is sitting in front of her and is giving her its paw for a treat.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Image)

As a dog owner, you know a walk provides much needed physical exercise and mental stimulation for your pet. But what about when harsh weather conditions or a pet's limited mobility makes it challenging to go outdoors? 

It's all about "trying to replicate some of those experiences that they would have outside," Lee Niel, an associate professor at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, told CBC Life. This will help keep their bodies in good condition, and limit potentially destructive feelings of boredom and frustration. 

Engaging your pup's mind and body will also build up their confidence, says Dr. Colleen Fisher, a veterinarian and certified dog behaviour consultant based in Brandon, Man. 

"Dogs, cats, any of our little critters that we have at home, they always feel their best when they are engaged for a purpose," she said.

With this in mind, Fisher and Niel shared simple, budget-friendly ways to keep your dog entertained indoors — and ultimately help them live a healthier, happier life year round. 

Try some basic training exercises

To provide your pup with the mental stimulation they need, both experts recommend incorporating some simple training exercises into your day-to-day. 

Touch targeting, when you ask your dog to come to your hand in return for a treat, is a good place to start. "We get them used to directing their activity for [those] few minutes at a time," Fisher explained. Then, as they progress, you can ask them to focus even more of their attention by mixing things up. 

"We ask them to do a 'sit' or a 'down,' or we do a touch, and we keep them guessing a little bit [about] what we're going to ask for next so that they're maintaining their focus on us," said Fisher.

Think beyond store-bought toys

When it comes to toys, it's important to get creative. After all, Niel noted, if a dog isn't kept engaged, "they're going to find 'toys' throughout the house which you don't intend for them to interact with."

Fisher suggests using open-ended items such as empty boxes to entertain your pup. "Are they going to put their feet in the box or are they going to put their nose in the box? … Maybe they just want to tear the box up. That's fine, too." 

Once your pet decides what works for them, see if there's a desirable behaviour to build from that action, she added. For example, can you teach your dog to take individual toys out of a box and put them back in once they've finished playing? 

Niel also mentioned that hiding some treats in an empty box and "letting them rip into it" can be a simple but fun activity to keep them mentally stimulated. 

"I think a lot of people get sort of focused on, 'Well, I can't afford to buy a ton of different toys.' But there's lots of things that you can use your imagination and come up with at home to keep them busy," she said.

Tap into their instincts

Fisher encourages owners to try playing hide-and-seek games with their pet. They can be especially satisfying for hunting breeds, but even if they're not a retriever or hound, your pup still may enjoy following their nose. 

"Certain breeds do have very clear needs," said Niel. "But it's good to think of the individual dog because you might be the person that has that one dog within that particular breed that really has a high need for stimulation."

And there's no need to rely on store-bought educational games and toys, Fisher said. Have your dog search a room for a favourite snack or item; hide scented objects around the house; or try putting some treats in a towel, tying a knot and having your pet pull it apart. 

Support their social life

Niel urges owners to consider opportunities for interaction with other dogs when their pet must spend an extended period in the house. "Because dogs are a family-oriented species, making sure that they have social contact is really important," she said.

Options for this type of indoor interaction include doggy daycare, training classes and, if your dog is on the younger side, puppy classes. The latter are more about proper socialization than obedience, Niel explained, and offer pups the chance to interact with one another and new people at a critical time in their development. 

Adapt activities for senior dogs

Your dog's age is a crucial consideration when you're planning indoor games and activities. If you have a senior dog — or a dog of any age with limited mobility — Niel recommends using puzzle feeders to hide treats and keep them mentally engaged when they can't go for their usual gentle walk. 

Tearing up a paper bag or box, even just for a few minutes, can also be very therapeutic for these dogs, said Fisher. "It gets them off the couch, gets them moving a little bit and uses that mental energy that's so important to help with their general mood."

According to Fisher, dogs with orthopedic conditions like arthritis can also benefit from being lightly active indoors during the winter months, like walking from one mat in the living room to another to retrieve a toy. "Getting those joints moving can be very therapeutic for these guys and can be very helpful as far as pain goes," she said. She encourages pet owners to speak to a vet about what activities are right for their dog.   

Signs of a happy, healthy, well-adjusted dog

Fisher notes that when dogs don't get enough engagement, they can develop a tragic condition called learned helplessness. 

"They know they're not going to get this stimulation, this positive reinforcement that they crave," she explained. "[So] they shut down and don't respond well to normal things that would make a dog joyful because they have no expectation that good things are going to happen for them."

If your pet seems particularly lethargic or isn't engaging in the way you'd normally expect them to, Niel recommends taking them to a vet to rule out any health issues, and then trying out different ways to get your pup more excited about the world.

How will you know if you've established an indoor routine that's stimulating enough for your dog? One sure sign is that they'll seem more relaxed, but Niel and Fisher say there are plenty of other indicators, too. 

"Happy, healthy and well-adjusted dogs have regular sleep patterns. [They] will have regular interactions with family members. They will be engaged — not showing those destructive behaviours," explained Niel. 

Physical signs of happiness include bright eyes, relaxed lips and ears that are pointing forward, said Fisher. A happy dog will also softly pant with their mouth open and assume a natural body position that is slightly leaning forward. 

According to Fisher, it's a great sign if your pup brings over a toy expecting you to join them in a play session. "A happy dog is a dog that doesn't always need your attention but is comfortable asking for your attention because they can predict that you're willing to give it to them on a regular basis," she explained.

And, of course, there is the most well-known sign of joy from your best friend: a wagging tail.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacqueline Martinz is a Toronto-based writer. Her writing is often focused on issues impacting education, politics, philanthropy and animal welfare. When she isn’t writing, Jacqueline loves exploring the city and staying active with her dog, Oliver. Connect with Jacqueline through her website, jacquelinemartinz.com.

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