As we settle in for the typically more sedentary wintry months ahead, it’s important to assess the exercise and enrichment needs of our dogs. For many dogs, warmer weather promises opportunities for long walks, exciting Frisbee and ball play, or hours just basking under the sun with their humans in the back yard. But these colder months indoors can be a real drag for our canine friends as they are for many of us. So what can you do this winter to keep your dog active and occupied?
Of course, the best option for many families is simply to bundle up and head outside anyway – go walking in a winter wonderland! Many dogs love snowy weather and find it exhilarating to leap and then dive their noses into the snow, fox-style, or to chase snowballs, launching into the air to catch them and seeming to delight as the balls break into powdery pieces all around their faces. If your dog seems to shiver continuously in the cold or tries to go back indoors as soon as you let him out, try a well-fitted dog coat to provide the extra warmth that might allow him to enjoy the brisk weather. Some dogs also can collect uncomfortable icy balls between the pads of their feet or have paw pads that become irritated by cold earth or salty gravel used to melt snow near roads, so keep an eye on those tootsies too!
Luckily, there are plenty of exciting games and enrichment options you can provide indoors during inclement weather as well. For many dogs, interactive toy play with their owner will beat solitary play any time of year, so ramp up your tug of war and toy chase games inside the house this winter. Many owners ask whether tug of war can make dogs aggressive. Luckily, there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. In fact, one study demonstrated no increase in aggression after tug of war, even when dogs were allowed to “win” (that is, get the toy) every time! Unless your dog is already possessive of toys and will stiffen, show teeth, growl, snap, or bite when approached with a toy, you should be able to safely play tug of war to your heart’s content all winter long. (If your dog already is a toy guarder, you should contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or board-certified veterinary behaviorist for assistance.) Of course, it’s always a great idea to keep a treat in your pocket and surprise your pup every once in a while by asking her to Drop the toy during tug of war and providing a surprise treat trade when she does so.
Many dogs also can become quite good at Hide and Seek for treats in the house, and this is a game that is great for teaching self-control and waiting. Teach your dog first to Sit and Stay, and then build the Stay to the point where you can lay a treat down on the floor while she remains in position until you release her with an “OK!” or “Get it!” cue. When she can do this reliably, start laying down a few treats in a row before you release her with your “OK!” cue. You can ultimately build to the point at which your dog can Stay as you hide treats all over the living room then release her to locate them using her nose! You have now turned an obedience exercise into an exciting scent-based search and find game, and your dog will thank you for it. You can conduct this exercise identically using a stuffed animal or tennis ball for those dogs who love their toys as well as treats. In fact, you can even play Hide and Seek with yourself, teaching your dog to come find YOU when you call her from across the house after teaching her to Stay as you move out of sight.
For those times when you cannot interact with your dog to keep him occupied, consider increasing the number and type of chew toys, bones, and activity feeders or puzzle toys in the house. There are a seemingly endless variety of these available online and in pet stores and many owners find themselves perpetually on the look-out for those that are the most durable, fun, and engaging for their dogs. Although these items can put a strain on the wallet over time, especially for dogs who love to seek and destroy toys, it may be the best option for families with limited time for interactive play or exercise in the winter months.