Some years ago, Claire, my Border collie, was injured and required to “crate rest” for 10 days. As I was leaving the vet office, I told my vet that she was a working dog, to which he answered “it’s time for a vacation.” Clearly, he didn’t understand about working dogs!
If you have a high drive dog, and find yourself in this unenviable position of having to keep her quiet due to some sort of injury or illness, you know how challenging it can be. Following are some options for keeping your pooch mentally stimulated while limiting physical activity. In this manner, your dog may be (at least somewhat) less restless during convalescence.
NOTE: Not all of these exercises may be suitable for all dogs. Please consult with your veterinarian to determine which exercises would be best suited for working around your dog’s specific malady.
Find it: Start with teaching a simple “find it” by tossing kibble or treats to the ground where your dog can easily see them land then move to eat them. As she starts to understand, proceed to dropping a treat while she’s looking in another direction, and then tell her to find it. Once she is proficient at doing this, then you can take the treats and roll them into folds of a towel or old blanket. Put the blanket into your dog’s crate and encourage her to “find it” using her nose and digging into the blanket.
A related game is to hide the treats under cups. Set out three cups, with a treat under one of them. Ask your dog to “find it”, and see how long it takes her to choose the correct cup. When she finds it, give her a jackpot of additional treats. As she gets better at choosing the appropriate cup, start to reward her extra only when she chooses the correct cup on the second try or better, then eventually only give her extra treats when she chooses the correct cup on the first try.
Object discrimination: This is learning to distinguish between the names of different objects, usually toys. Start with a single toy, and ask your dog to take it, i.e. “take the ball”. Proceed to hand her the toy. If your dog doesn’t like to take things in her mouth, you can simply accept a nose touch to the item. Reward with a treat, and repeat. When she is readily taking the ball on cue, switch to another toy, i.e. “take the bone”. (Be sure the words you use are sufficiently different! Note that words like Phone and Bone may not be distinguishable to some dogs.) Use only the bone for a few days. Once your dog is proficient at taking the bone, try with both items – one in each hand – and tell her to take one specifically. At first, say the cue then move the correct item toward her a little bit to give her the hint. Be sure to move the item AFTER saying the cue so she doesn’t ignore the verbal cue and just take what you hand to her. Soon, you may stop moving and let her choose the toy. If she chooses correctly, she either gets the toy to play, or a treat. If she chooses incorrectly, take both toys away and just say “oops”. If she is incorrect, return to giving her the hint by moving the correct item toward her after giving the cue.
Puzzle Toys: Interactive puzzle toys are a great way to mentally stimulate your dog without quite so much work, for those days when additional training time is just not part of your schedule. These work by allowing your dog to use her brain to solve puzzles in order to find the food and/or treats hidden within. Most of these do require a bit of training at first to help the dog determine what is to be done, but once they learn the process, then they will go on to puzzle solving on their own, and you can take the puzzles to a higher level of difficulty. Find many puzzle toys at the Clicker Training Store online.
Tricks: There are a wide variety of stationary tricks that may be taught to a crate-resting dog. Here are just a few.
Left and Right turns – useful in a variety of sports, left and right turns are also a very easy, in-position trick to teach a dog. Start by facing toward your dog, remembering that your right is her left and vice versa. Practice left and right turns separately (i.e. left turns in one session, right turns in another session) by tossing treats for your dog to see. Ask for a “watch me” and then release the dog with a “right” or “left” cue followed by your release or “take it” cue. As the dog starts to understand the directions, begin dropping the treat while the dog is looking in another direction, then release with the directional cue. Remember to only practice one direction in any given practice session for at least the first several days, until the dog is consistently turning in the correct direction.
If your dog is severely restricted in terms of movement, this exercise can be practiced in place, with the dog lying down, and setting the treats to the side of the dog instead of tossing them. NOTE: the left and right turns are simply head turns of approximately 90 degrees. Once the dog understands turns, then her body will naturally follow where her head is looking once she is in motion.
Left paw / right paw – This is simply a paw shake with either paw. Many people call this “Paw” and “Other Paw”. If your dog already knows it, it can be practiced from lying down as simply a forward extension of her paw. At first, make it easy by putting your hand near the paw that you are requesting. Over time, ask for the paw without the physical cue, but give her the hint if she don’t get it on the verbal cue.
Shake head yes/no – Easily lured (side-to-side or up-and-down) these can also be shaped using clicker training. The cues could be “say yes” and “say no”, or you could choose clever questions to which your dog could respond, such as “do you want a cookie” (nod yes) and “how about a bath” (nod no).
Touch body parts – if your dog is able to move physically, but just not allowed to jump and play, then this could be another good option. If you have clicker trained your dog, you can free-shape this with simple head turns. If not, you can lure her to touch certain body parts with her nose. For example, to touch her tail, lure her nose to her tail, then mark and reward. When she is readily moving her nose to her tail, you can start to put the cue of “tail” (or “find your tail”) before guiding her to touching her tail. Once she is proficient at this trick, you can add more body parts that are easily accessible to your dog’s nose, such as her hips, front and rear feet, etc.
Like people, most dogs need mental as well as physical exercise on a regular basis to remain well-adjusted and content. High energy, intelligent dogs, can become particularly distressed when they are not able to work at all. Giving them at least some mental exercise on a daily basis may substantially reduce their stress, and thus improve the healing process.