By Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
Off the Leash
Although I don’t have kids, all of my experience with them leads me to believe that most pets and three-year-olds should be treated with a similar approach. That is, teach them while they’re listening, and the rest of the time they should eat, sleep or play. Most three-year-olds have better speech than my pets, but I must admit that often my pets listen better than most kids (or adults). I think that many of us suffer from not allowing our pets and/or kids to play enough. Playing helps stimulate a pet’s brain and their body. From now on I will only talk about pets, as many pet games shouldn’t be played with children. However, teaching your kids to play with your pets is highly encouraged, especially in the summer.
We commonly see behavior and anxiety problems in pets. Unfortunately this can lead to a very decreased quality of life for pets and owners. Some of these pets get lots of play time, but for those that don’t, increasing scheduled activity and adding play time can make all the difference. Just as we don’t expect kids to sit still for 10 hours while we work then be calm at night, it can be a hard thing for our animals too.
This seems like a pretty simple idea, but can be adapted for all dogs and even cats. Dogs who fetch love it, and will usually do it forever. Dogs who aren’t fetch-inclined can often be taught. Cats will also learn to fetch. Although not all pets are natural fetchers, try to teach them before you give up.
If you have a fetch-crazy dog, make sure that they stop for breaks to drink when it is hot. Often they won’t bother to stop themselves! Fetch in the water is a great game to play in the summer. It cools them down, keeps them busy and is a perfect low-impact exercise. I do not recommend, however, playing fetch with a fancy or special toy in the water. It will likely be the one time they don’t retrieve it and you have to watch helplessly as it floats around the middle of a reservoir (not that I would know…)
If your dog/cat isn’t inclined to fetch, here are a few tips. First, find something enticing. Not all dogs like tennis balls. Some dogs prefer sticks, some like softer toys, some like harder toys. Cats usually prefer catnip toys, though my first cat would fetch a ping pong ball every time. Start by throwing the toy. Praise them when they get to it and start carrying it. Then ask them to come back to you. If they make it all the way back, ask them to drop and then give them a treat. Repeat this as many times as you have their attention. They may start off by bringing it only part way, in which case you will have to go to them to get it and give them a treat.
In the case that your non-fetch-inclined pet refuses to pick up the game, move on! A version of fetch that takes a little more work from you but cats like more is having them chase a string. In this case they are chasing the thing you have (feathers on a string are a favorite), and not bringing it back. This version is great for kids, as they can hold the feather or toy and get some exercise as well.
This game is especially good for cats, who don’t always want to follow your ideas. This entertains them, gives them exercise and also makes them “work” for their meal. Cats are designed to hunt their meals, and usually pick this up well. The best place is at the end of a non-carpeted hallway or big non-carpeted room. Make sure your pet isn’t just full from eating, and actually likes what you are throwing.
Show them the kibble, then slide it down the hallway or across the room. The idea is that they will run after it. Once they have caught and eaten it, call them back to you. Most animals will comply if they know they will get a piece for coming back, or get to start over and get another piece. You may get your own exercise switching ends of the hallway, but my theory is that working for it is part of the fun. This is a great way to feed cats and dogs their meals. You can also use a stairway that they must run up and down to increase the challenge.
Hide and seek
You can hide and seek meals, treats, toys or yourself. Cats tend not to care one bit about this game, but some are the exception. I play a chase game with my cat where I hide (though she has to see me hide), she stalks and then I chase her. However, hide and seek is usually preferred by dogs.
First, let them see and smell the thing you are hiding. Start out with someplace close, even someplace that they see. Gradually make the game harder so that they must smell it out, which involves even more mind work. If you are the one hiding, you can make it as hard as you want. If they seem lost, just give them a whistle or call to help them on their way. This can be made very challenging if you have a large, safe outdoor space, or can be adapted for indoor play on rainy days.
Another way to make dogs work a little bit for their meals is to make them uncover it. An easy way to do this is to take a cupcake pan and put some food in each well. Then cover the wells with tennis balls. The dog then has to remove the ball to eat the food. There are the occasional dogs that will just flip the whole thing over and eat the scattered food. I call those very reward-motivated dogs.
As always, walking is one of the best things for your dog. They get to exercise, see and smell interesting things, and have bonding time with you. In the summer, when family is around more, after-dinner walks with the family and dogs is a perfect way to involve everyone.
However, when walking isn’t an option, it doesn’t mean that all playtime should go by the wayside. All pets benefit from exercising their mind and body, and their improved behavior will be your thank you.