Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH
The snow melted, the mud somewhat dried up leaving a couple days of beautiful Spring dog walking. Then the rain came. I am writing this in a brief sunny interlude in the seemingly endless days of rain that stretch in front of me (and thinking I better hurry and get out soon.) I don’t mind snow, but I hate rain. When we don’t need it to grow things, I hate it even more. So what are pet owners to do when every day brings rain, wind, and grey? My pets all got a taste of freedom in the sun, only to have it snatched away. This has made them slightly grumpy, so I will talk about some indoor play solutions and ways to keep your pets busy and dry.
My pets are usually pretty happy. They eat, the dogs walk, the cat plays and gets brushed and then we sleep. What’s not to like? But my dogs started walking in sunshine and my cat started sitting on the sunny porch, then just like that the April showers arrived. When it starts mid-walk, and it always does, they will tuck their tails and morosely walk back. I have terrible timing (well, the world does!) in that right as I’m driving home from work or right when I start walking the sun will disappear and the rain starts. My cat becomes furious when her sunny screened in porch, finally rediscovered after winter, has rain blowing in instead.
Thankfully there are indoor games to make everyone happy. For my animals, these are a stop gap. They only work for a day or two or as an addition to the short walk. But thankfully for you guys, most dogs aren’t as high energy as mine.
Games of fetch can be played indoors if you have a safe space without breakables. If your pets are physically able, stairs can help provide an exercise arena. Standing at the top of (safe) stairs and throwing a stuffed animal or ball down means that your dog has to run down and then back up. This can also be modified with kibble for cats or dogs. Throw one piece down the stairs and then ask them to come back up before repeating the exercise. Feed half or all of their meal this way.
Cats tend to be a little bit more elegant, but if your dog is crashing up and down and running into walls this may not be the best game for them. This game can also be played down a hallway or from one end of the room to the other. It can be adapted to a chase and catch game in any space where you don’t mind pets running around.
On days that physical exercise is impossible, mental stimulation can help relieve some of the anxiety and excess energy. I know that in vet school the days I was the most tired were right after big hard tests. Using your brain also helps tire you out. Hide and seek with an owner can be taught relatively easily to most dogs. Early on, hide in a room and call your dog then give them a reward when they find you. As they get better at this, begin to hide without calling them which will make them use their ears/noses/dog sense to find you.
You can also teach your dog to follow scent trails in the house to stimulate their mind. This can be done with food or a piece of clothing with a strong smell (dirty socks!) and a food reward at the end. Many dogs learn to love chasing scents and finding the clothing at the end becomes its own reward.
Splitting dogs’ meals into different rooms so they must search it out is another good mental game. Putting parts of meals into cupcake tins and covering the tops with tennis balls creates a mental game out of mealtime. Putting their food into toys designed for slow feeding helps spread out their interest and keep them thinking.
Cats can chase feathers on strings and also learn to fetch toys like catnip mice or ping pong balls. Even if your cat only runs to get it and you must retrieve the toy they are being stimulated. I play “chase” with my cat where I hide around corners and doorways, then chase her. She clearly knows where I am, but she stalks to find me and then zooms away when I appear. She will happily play this for at least 20 minutes at a time.
I have found that the best people to invent indoor play games with pets are usually kids. Kids haven’t yet been worn down by the world, as our pets have not. They share a sense of adventure and ingenuity. This is perfect for homes with kids who are going stir crazy from the weather too.
Doggy daycare is also an option for long rainy weeks. Most daycares have an option to wash your dog at the end, so you can get a tired AND clean canine companion back.
I have stopped looking at the forecast since it either lets me down or gets me optimistic simply to turn to rain. Hopefully, by the time this is published we will be back into the sunshine (see, it’s not just kids that have unfounded optimism.) However, these games can be utilized all year long for when bad stretches of weather appear. I may be optimistic, but I’m also realistic. Bring on the May flowers.