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My Top Five Favorite Activities for Cold Weather Enrichment

Brrrr, it’s cold out there! It’s officially Winter here in Chicagoland, and with extremely cold temperatures and blowing winds come shorter walks and cabin fever! When it gets below freezing I don’t like walking with my dogs for more then 15 minutes at a time, so we have to get a little creative here to make sure that Regis and Phoebe aren't bored to tears (and Mary isn’t driven crazy!) The following list has my go-to activities for keeping my dogs entertained while we eagerly wait for spring:

1. Puzzle and Food dispensing toys (Store bought and home made!)

Disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of having dogs work for their food in all seasons, not just cold weather! Regis and Phoebe rarely eat out of a bowl, and we have a number of store bought and home made food dispensing toys that we can use. There is a behavioral phenomena in dog behavior where, even if they are offered ‘free’ food, dogs will choose to work for their food. It’s called contra-freeloading, and is a great way to crate enrichment opportunities for our dogs.

Some of my favorite food dispensing toys are the Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball, the Kong Wobbler, this Snuffle mat, and the original Kong (See “How to Stuff a Kong” for ideas on how to feed your dog’s meal out of the kong). You can also purchase puzzle toys such as this one created by Nina Ottosson. Each of these are easy to use and put your dog’s regular kibble in. Just put your dog’s kibble in it, and watch them work!

You can also create some food toys at home with cheap materials such as boxes, toilet paper rolls, milk jugs, and old material. For a food dispensing toy, try put holes the size of your dog’s kibble or larger through a milk jug using a drill or sharp knife and fill it with your dog’s meal. You can make a home made snuffle mat using leftover fleece material and a rubber sink mat. And, like I did below, you can simply stuff a box full of toiler paper rolls and scatter their food or treats into each roll so that your pup has to pull them out to get to the food at the bottom of the box. Your options are only limited by your own imagination.

Box with toilet paper rolls
Dog playing with food toy

2. Nosework

It’s a well-known fact to anyone with a dog: dogs just love to smell. According to Alexandra Horowitz in her excellent new book “Being a Dog”, “every dog has hundreds of millions more cells devoted to detecting smelly stuff than humans do. Dogs have from two hundred million to one billion receptor cells, depending on the breed, compared to the six million in our noses.” And because of our dog’s ability to mentally discriminate and dissect individual scents, it can be incredibly mentally taxing and enriching for them to use their noses.

Nosework is easy to start in your own home. All you need is some stinky treats, a few boxes, and a dog. Start with your dog and one box, and toss a treat or two into said box. Choose a cue to tell your dog to start using their nose (find, find it, seek, look, pickle, whatever you’d like to call it!), say the cue, and when they find the treat successfully give them another treat in the same box for the successful find. Continue to do this until your dog starts automatically searching for food when you say the cue. Gradually add more boxes, putting boxes inside of each other, stacking them, and increasing the difficulty of the search. Start asking your dog to wait in another room, and then release them into the room once you’ve placed the treat so they haven’t seen the placement at all. Practice in different rooms, constantly changing the scenario and asking your dog for more. Need proof that this will mentally time out your pup? Here’s Regis after his first nose work class:

Sleeping dog

He didn’t move for two and a half hours. How’s that for enrichment?

3. Indoor Dog Parkour

Dog Parkour is an awesome new sport designed with canine fitness in mind. The sport is designed for the outdoors but is plenty easy to start and practice inside. The concept of Dog Parkour, also sometimes called Urban Agility, is finding obstacles in your environment and asking your dog to perform certain behaviors on them. You may be asking for two paws on, circling the object, going under the object, and any number of behaviors on found objects. Check out the website for some information on what requirements each title is asking for. Some things I’ve used include:

  • Laundry Baskets

  • Boxes

  • Chair/Broom combos to create jumps, overs, and unders

  • Tables

  • Ottomans

  • Computer chairs for moving objects

  • Fitpaws Equipment

Dog with two paws on bleachers

Again, the sky is the limit! Get as creative as possible!

4. Trick Training

Does your dog know how to ‘clean up’ his own toys? How about getting you a beer from the fridge or jumping through a hula hoop? There are a multitude of books on trick training for dogs such as this one by Kyra Sundance and lots of positive training videos on youtube such as those by Kikopup and Zak George that can show you how to teach these tricks, step-by-step! The great thing about clicker training, positive reinforcement, and shaping is that if your dog is physically able to do what you are asking them to, chances are there’s a way to shape the behavior! Similar to reading a good book or completing a crossword or sudoku for us, trick training is mentally tiring for your dogs, and can help them settle down if physical exercise isn’t an option. Regis and I are currently working on figure eights through my legs and getting his ‘spin’ behavior onto the verbal cue only!

5. Hide and seek recalls

This is a simple and efficient way to get your dog up and moving, and to practice their recall at the same time! You can do this with just one person, or as many as would like to participate. If it’s just you, make sure your dog has a reliable ‘wait’ or ‘stay’ cue, ask them to wait while you go into another room and then release them and call them to you. When they get to you, reinforce them, praising them and giving them cookies, have fun! If your dog doesn’t have a reliable ‘wait’ yet, you can ask someone to help you by holding your dog’s collar while you go hide, then call them to you, and when your dog gets to you keep them occupied until the other person calls to him. Continue to increase the difficulty, going multiple rooms away instead of just one, hiding in more difficult places, using more people, etc.

Get creative with the enrichment opportunities you offer your dogs, and change it up! Chances are if it involves food and their favorite humans, they’ll be happy participants!


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