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Cabin Fever: Keeping Busy During the Polar Vortex

January 6, 2014

When the dog needs to be walked, the dog needs to be walked – even when it’s winter in Minnesota. However, there comes a point when the weather simply is not safe for even the most hardy among us, and we’ve been living with those conditions on and off quite a bit this winter. This can make our dogs (especially high-energy dogs, athletic dogs, young dogs, or dogs without a good “off” switch) difficult to live with, so let’s talk about some ideas to keep your dog busy and your sanity and belongings intact.

Food and puzzle toys are devices designed to both challenge your dog mentally and require some physical effort to obtain treats or food. Puzzle toys are available in varying level of difficulty through a variety of sources both online (http://tinyurl.com/ksv7wq4) and at some local pet supply stores. Nina Ottoson makes one of the more sturdy and well-known brands, but there are numerous manufacturers and styles. The Kong Wobbler, Tug-a-Jug, IQ Treat Ball, and Buster Cube are examples of toys that can be used to dispense food. Fill these toys with an entire meal to and your dog must spend time and effort figuring out how to get it back out instead of eating quickly out of a bowl. (*Note: Use these cautiously in households with more than one pet, and they are absolutely not appropriate for pets who guard food or toys from one another.) Another alternative is to fill a basic Kong (the lumpy red or black hollow rubber toys you have probably seen at the pet store) with varying materials. You can use these as a meal dispenser by mixing dry dog food with a little canned food and stuffing the meal into the Kong. To make it last longer, try freezing it.

Training is a great way to engage your dog mentally, and exercising your dog’s brain can help tire them out just like physical exercise can. Trick training is an especially fun way to engage your dog as there are elements of problem-solving required beyond simple physical tasks such as sitting or lying down. And some tricks can be physically as well as mentally challenging for your dog. For example, “sit up and beg” (which some people call “sit pretty”) requires a great deal of balance and core strength.  There are a lot of great resources, both books and online, and several local dog trainers offer tricks classes. You Tube is full of videos demonstrating how to teach various tricks – but be sure to stick to positive techniques, as training tricks is supposed to be fun!

There are two basic techniques that are helpful in teaching tricks: Luring and shaping. Luring is what most of us are most familiar with – when you teach a dog to sit by using a treat to guide their nose up until they sit, for example, that is luring. Shaping (sometimes also called free shaping) is waiting for the dog to offer a behavior and then using a marker (usually a clicker, or a verbal marker such as YES or GOOD) to tell the dog when s/he is “right.” Some dogs learn better with one technique or the other, and some tricks are easier to train with one technique or the other.

A very basic game to introduce you to shaping is  “101 Things to Do With a Box” (http://www.clickertraining.com/node/167). Learning to offer behaviors instead of being lured or instructed what to do is excellent and challenging mental exercise, even if you do not have an end goal in mind. This link does a good job of explaining how the most important thing to remember with shaping is that you are breaking down a behavior into tiny steps along the way.  So if your ultimate goal is for your dog to stand in the box, you start by clicking/treating simply looking at the box.  A training book called When Pigs Fly (by Jane Killion) also contains an excellent explanation of shaping and is available for e-readers.

This is an example of using shaping to teach a trick I just started working on with my dogs: “Hug.” My ultimate goal is for me to give them a stuffed toy that they will hug while sitting up. However, that is too complicated to start with right away, so first I am using a bat as something that is easy for them to grab, hold on to, and balance. When they are able to “hug” the bat, I will replace it with something else. I expect this trick to take 1-2 weeks to teach from beginning to end, working in 2-3 sessions per day of just 3-5 minutes each.

Squash has been trained using shaping his whole life, so he quickly offers escalating ways to interact with the bat. Before this video starts, I have clicked and treated several times for first looking at the bat, then touching the bat with his nose. Now, he knows the bat is important and I stop clicking and treating for the nose touch. You can see he is waiting for his treat (and even looks at the container of treats!), but ultimately realizes that he now has to experiment with giving me something “more” to get the click/treat. He quickly learns that I want his paw(s) on the bat.


In the past, Maisy and Pip have primarily been trained with luring. So they are a bit nervous around the bat and less quick to offer behaviors. (Pip, and to a lesser extent Maisy, also nicely demonstrates the “fooling around” response to stress that was described in a previous blog post.) They will move more slowly through this trick and need more reinforcement for the early stages and get clicked/treated for much smaller steps towards interacting with the bat than Squash does.



This is a fairly complicated trick, but an easy beginner trick to teach is closing a drawer or cabinet door. Hang around a slightly opened door with your dog, clicker, and treats, and wait for your dog to look at the drawer – click/treat several times for this until you are sure your dog is doing it on purpose. Then, stop clicking/treating for looking and just wait (be patient!). When you stop clicking/treating for one step, most dogs will offer a more forceful version of what they were just doing. In this case, most dogs will end up looking so “forcefully” at the drawer that they end up moving towards it – click/treat! The next step might be a nose tap. Then a harder nose tap, then a hard enough nose tap to move the drawer, then a hard enough nose tap to shut the door completely. Note that throughout this process you have not named the trick and you are not verbally telling your dog what to do. You are just letting your dog experiment with what earns the click/treat.

What trick you try to teach is limited only by your imagination! Whether you successfully achieve the final product, however, the process will engage and mentally exercise your dog and help strengthen the bond you share. And as always, if you have any specific questions about anything in this post, please feel free to call the clinic!

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