Question: My extremely active five-year-old dog injured her leg, and I’m supposed to prevent her from exercising for about the next six weeks. Frankly, I don’t see how either of us will survive if she can’t run off her extra energy. What can we do?
Answer: Vets will often advise that you restrict your dog’s activity following surgery or while she recuperates from muscle or joint injuries. The prospect of living with an underexercised dog who chews, whines, barks or develops some other equally unacceptable habit to pass the time can be more alarming than the original medical problem. The devil really does find work for idle paws.
First, ask your vet to tell you exactly what your dog can and cannot do. Clearly, two-hour romps through the woods with her dog buddies will have to wait until she has recovered, but is a daily 10-minute leash walk allowed? Can she swim? Are stairs completely off-limits?
Without being able to give your dog the physical exercise to which she is accustomed, the key to keeping you both sane lies in exercising her mind. Mental exercise can take many forms. Time spent doing simple obedience is great for dog brains, plus you reap the benefits of having a better-trained dog. Ask your dog to sit, stay, lie down or anything else she knows how to do to earn treats, toys, a trip outside or a belly rub. A weekly class to learn new skills is a great motivator and can provide stimulation for your dog during her exercise quarantine.
Tricks are another way to get your dog thinking, and can be a playful diversion for both of you. Learning tricks challenges the mind and makes many dogs tired even without physical exercise— remember the overwhelming exhaustion of final exams? Some of my favorites are crawl, spin, beg, rollover, wave, shake and high-five. (Of course, choose tricks that do not compromise your dog’s recuperation.) For example, if she likes to retrieve and is into toys, teach her the names of all her toys so that you can tell her to go get a specific one. Or, teach her to bring you a tissue when you sneeze. A flashy trick is to teach your dog to clean up by putting each of her toys, one at a time, into a toy basket.
In addition to adding mental exercise to your daily interactions, incorporate it into her mealtimes. Rather than just plunking a bowl down in front of her, give your dog her food in a way that keeps her busy. Putting her food into Kongs, Goodie Balls, Roll-a-Treat Balls or Buster Cubes so she has to work to get it out can keep her occupied for a long time. Learning how to get the food out is mentally engaging, and if you use different items and pack the food into them in different ways, your dog will get the maximum benefit. Even freezing her food inside a Kong or Goodie Ball will make eating a longer-lasting, more challenging endeavor.
Boredom is the enemy of the well-behaved dog. As long as your dog is using her mind, whether it’s to play, eat or work, she is getting the mental exercise that helps her sleep on the rug in front of the fire instead of chewing it up.