The first thing that came straight to the front of many dog owners when told about self-isolation was “how do I go about exercising a reactive dog indoors?!”. Exercise is an important part of a dogs life, so with having to self-isolate and spend less time outside what does this mean for reactive dogs and dogs in general? Thankfully there are many options when it comes to exercising a reactive dog indoors which can fall under two categories, mental and physical exercise.
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Physical vs Mental Exercise
It is a popular myth that to exercise a reactive dog or any dog in general you have to get them running around by throwing something repeatedly for them to fetch. Running a dog around like this will tire them out and yes, a lot of physical exercise will tire out a dog but after a while that dog is going to adapt and develop more energy to keep up. In the end the more physical exercise a dog gets, the more his body will adapt.
Mental exercise and stimulation is an untapped goldmine for many unknowing dog owners. There ware various ways in which you can stimulate and challenge a dog mentally, getting them thinking and exercising the mind which is very powerful in tiring out a dog!
Even though we both love being outside, I found that the best way to exercise Jasper focuses a lot on indoor work. This doesn’t mean I’ll keep him inside all day and not take him out at all, it just means that we balance structured exercise with unstructured exercise and then mental exercise with physical exercise.
Dogs store energy for time they’ll need it the most, when you encounter a trigger and your dog reacts, that is one of those moments. Exercising a reactive dog both mentally and physically before going for an actual walk will work on depleting these levels and help give you a smoother walk.
Indoor exercise has many benefits to exercise a reactive dog, firstly it’s a safe zone with little to no distractions (or at least ones you can control), secondly there are no triggers inside the house to work your dog up and you can control the length of them too without having to go all the way home.
Alternative Ways to Exercise a Reactive Dog
Ideas for physical exercise
When we think of exercising a reactive dog we think of the physical, but little do people know that this can be too overstimulating for the dog. Activities such as fetch or tug that activate the prey drive can work up the dog. If using these methods, relax your dog after or split it up with self-control and obedience to keep your dog thinking instead of just running around back and forth. Below are a list of exercises you can go through with your dog for physical stimulation.
- Stair running
If you have this option then this is a great way to burn some excess energy off your dog at any time during the day. It doesn’t have doesn’t have to be long and can be done before a walk as a “warm-up” for the dog.
- Tug of war
I love anything that I can get involved with when it comes to Jasper and tug of war is at the top of my list.
You can incorporate some basic obedience and impulse control skills such as sitting and waiting patiently and even more advanced skills before rewarding with a game of tug which starts to use up more of that mental energy.
Your dog may growl during play but this is a pleasure sound “I’m loving this”. The only thing to keep in mind is that you need to use impulse control and have your dog wait before you are ready, this calms them down between games and once again reduces accident rate.
Targeting is getting your dog to touch their nose to the palm of your hand…like a target. So how does this fit in with exercise? This is another activity I love doing with Jasper because it’s interactive. You put up a hand like a target and then you switch hand. Slowly increase difficulty until you are running to the other end of the room while your dog tries to keep up.
- Flirt Pole
Probably the most useful for burning energy in the physical exercise category. The flirt pole is a pole with a long piece of string and attached is a rag, toy or object. You can easily make one yourself and it’s so easy to use.
All you have to do is swing it around and watch your dog chase, you can change the height speed and direction in an instant, getting your dog to do the same as it tries to win this game.
Although it is a great energy burner, this is another one that stimulates the prey drive so keep an eye on your dog and when they get too excited either calm them down or stop the game altogether.
Ideas For Mental Exercise
The mental exercise front is more the exercises used to work the brain. These are exercises that rely of the natural instinct of the dog and for the dog to think and figure things out for the reward. Mental stimulation is actually very tiring for the dog, multiple short sessions through the day will do wonders for the overall energy and behaviour of your dog. Below are exercises for a reactive dog that you can use toward mental stimulation…
Obedience and agility not only exercise a reactive dog but give your dog a job, giving them self confidence too. A dog will use a lot of mental energy when learning a new trick , trying to figure out what they need to do to get the reward.
You don’t have to teach a million complex tricks to your dog, I recommend just learning one new trick a week, one you can practise for 5-10 minutes, several times a day with your dog.
- The Power of Cardboard
Cardboard will be your dogs new best friend (yes you will have to take 2nd place here). If your dog is anything like mine, the process of ripping cardboard is satisfying and calming and works a lot on mental stimulation.
Hide treats in toilet and kitchen roll tubing. Fold the ends in so your dog has to rip through them to get at the treats inside.
- Scent work
Scent work is honestly an incredible way to add enrichment to a dogs life. Dogs love to sniff around, its how they find out more about the environment and food and even information about other dogs from the urine left. Scent work uses 1/8th of brain power for dogs which can lead to a pretty tired dog if done correctly.
Spend some time hiding treats around the house or in a certain room and then let your dog sniff them out. You can make it harder by putting them in weird places and shoes and under sofas etc.
- Scent work (Foraging)
Foraging is the process of hunting for food in the wild. You will notice your dog naturally foraging, sniffing under leaves when they catch the scent of something. It is simple to replicate this natural behaviour and it is also a great way to stimulate the mental side of the dog. All you have to do is use a towel or blanket, start by dropping the towel on top of treats and getting your dog to find them but then advanced to folding that towel up around the treats or putting it in a box etc.
- Obstacle Courses
Creating an obstacle course is a fun way that you can interact and engage with your dog whilst also building up their self confidence. You can create your own in the house using tables, stools, chairs, blankets etc. It doesn’t have to be fancy but if you can create a challenge for your dog this is a fun different way to mentally stimulate your dog.
- Feeding toys
Do you struggle with your dog wolfing down food? You put it down and as soon as you sit down it’s gone? Food toys are a great way of exercising a reactive dog at dinner time. Using feeding toys such as a Kong can increase the time your dog is eating and you make it slightly more tasking for them.
Using a Kong for example, you can stuff in anything that your dog fancies and they have to work to get it out, you can even freeze it for added difficulty. We have a couple, sometimes we use them for both his feeding times but currently we’re using them more during the day when I’ve got things to do.
Toys like Kong and lick mats are great for keeping a dog preoccupied for a length of time especially if you are busy as it stops them being bored in the house.
- Puzzle Toys
If you really want to see a dog tick, then get some puzzle games! These are great ways for exercising a reactive dog mentally and there are many you can get as well! You put treats in them and your dog works out how to get them, there is a huge range but this is where you can see your dog work. This doesn’t require any input from the owner so being able to watch the dog at this point can be pretty satisfying, watching them try a whole load of different ways to get to the treats.
Indoor Exercise and Stimulation Can Relieve Boredom
Even though we are at a worrying time and making the most out of being at home and self-isolating, we still have to think about our dogs. Just because we have to stay indoors doesn’t mean that they can’t get any exercise, lack of exercise and boredom are the last things you want from a dog, that is exactly how behavioural problems start to creep in.
Take a look at the list again and see what you can start fitting into your days with your dog to keep them entertained, exercises and happy during these times. Most of all make the most of your time with your dog and loved ones!