I wrote this orig­i­nal­ly for win­ter woes and it was pub­lished in Speaking of Dog’s award win­ning newslet­ter.  However,  I thought that with the social iso­la­tion many of us are expe­ri­enc­ing, it was a good time to revis­it it!

With the cold weath­er we expe­ri­ence in Ontario, it’s often not just the own­ers who don’t want to go out­side! Many times I’ve opened the back door to let my dogs out, but they stick their noses out the door, sniff, and back right up! While they’ll have to go out to do their busi­ness, we also need to keep them active and engaged with short­er walks and yard romps.

Do you remem­ber how exhaust­ing it is to start a new job or field of study? Your brain hurts, and you’re phys­i­cal­ly wiped out at the end of the day. That’s because using our brain in new ways is tir­ing. Now we want to employ that con­cept with our dogs to tire them out!

Using inside games and skills is a great idea all year long, but espe­cial­ly impor­tant dur­ing the long win­ter months.

Stair Master!

Dogs over 18 months of age can play this fun game that engages their brain and gives them a full body work­out. Game require­ments are simple:

  1. Dog par­tic­i­pants must be old enough for their joints to be well formed
  2. The stairs and land­ing area must be car­pet­ed to avoid slip­ping and injuries
  3. Some dogs may need a long line

This game works on impulse con­trol while also tir­ing them out, with lots of dash­ing up and down the stairs. If your dogs are not able to do stairs yet or you don’t have access to any, a long hall works well too.

Ask your dog for sit-stay or down-stay at one end of the stair­case or hall, and then toss a toy up or down the stairs. Wait a moment before releas­ing them with a hap­py direc­tion of your fetch command.

During the first cou­ple of tries, you may need to gen­tly hold their col­lar to keep them in place while they learn the rules.

As they progress, you can ask for a cou­ple of oth­er behav­iours before releas­ing them to fetch – but not too many, or they’ll lose inter­est in the game. The game itself is intrin­si­cal­ly rein­forc­ing for many dogs, but some may need the ran­dom treat to rein­force a quick return with the fetched item.

Mark with a ‘Yes!” as soon as they pick up the item, and then use your recall com­mand to get them to come back. Be sure to cheer them on with praise and hand claps as they’re com­ing back, so that they’re clear you are real­ly hap­py with them.

You can work this skill on the flat with a long line for dogs that don’t return auto­mat­i­cal­ly until they under­stand the idea that it pays!

For avid fetch­ers, try to change the land­ing spot of the toy, so that your dog has to do a bit of a search to find it, not just go to the same spot every time.

Skills rein­forced: impulse con­trol, basic com­mands, speed, fetch and return with an item

Barrel Racing!

This is a great exer­cise for work­ing a bit of dis­tance skills and build­ing up speed. It’s eas­i­est done on car­pet­ing or non-slip flooring!


  1. 1 to 3 small soc­cer cones or upturned gar­den planters
  2. Ideally car­pet­ed or oth­er non-slip floor­ing – an area rug is plen­ty of room!

Set up one cone just under a metre (2 feet) away from you and have your dog beside you. The first cou­ple of times you can use a light leash to guide your dog around the cone, and praise and drop a treat just as they make the turn. We want the treat dropped on the ground, not still in your hand, so that the skill is being rein­forced and your dogs aren’t look­ing for your hand.

The next step is to toss a treat or have a touch top on the far side of the cone and send your dog to it. Once they are behind the cone, use your body and oppo­site arm to encour­age them to come around the cone. Immediately praise their first step past cen­tre and toss a treat between you and the cone to encour­age your dog’s for­ward move­ment in the right direction.

Skills rein­forced: mov­ing away from the han­dler, speed, agili­ty, under­stand­ing left and right at the advanced levels

Colour/Toy Choice!

Get out the plas­tic cups and have some fun while teach­ing your dogs to pick the right colour! Dogs are dichro­mat­ic, mean­ing they only see yel­low and blue shades. Like colour-blind peo­ple, they don’t real­ly see red or green as we do. So we can intro­duce a new use for our white, blue, or yel­low plas­tic cups.


  1. Minimum of 2 dif­fer­ent­ly coloured plas­tic cups (white, blue, or yellow)
  2. A sim­i­lar game can be played with dif­fer­ent styles of toys – such as a ball, a rope, and a stuffed toy

Place one cup of each colour upside down a short dis­tance away from you, with the cups about 30 cm (1 foot) apart. Place a treat under just one of the cups. Have your dog a short dis­tance away from the cups, and then send them to “find yel­low” (or what­ev­er colour of cup the treat is under). Do the same with the oth­er col­or of cup, and then put a treat under that cup again. Be sure to not just go back and forth, chang­ing colours each time, or your dog will think that they’re learn­ing a pat­tern. Switch up what side the cups are on and try again. When your dog seems pret­ty con­fi­dent, add in a third colour of cup using the same tech­nique, but first only send your dog to the orig­i­nal two colours, let­ting them notice that there’s a new one there.

For the toys, have two types that your dog is famil­iar with but are very dif­fer­ent from each oth­er, like a ball and a stuffed toy. Show your dog the ball, name it, and treat when they sniff it. Do the same with the stuffed toy.

Next, put both toys on the ground. Start some­what clos­er to one toy, let’s say the ball, and direct your dog to “get the ball.” Praise as soon as they start toward the ball, so they feel con­fi­dent that they’re mak­ing the right deci­sion. To not cor­rect if they go to the wrong one, but rather do not praise or treat them, and say a hap­py “Let’s find the ball!”

Skills rein­forced: dis­tance work, learn­ing colour/item dis­crim­i­na­tion, abil­i­ty to go to assigned tar­get by word alone.

Snuffle Mats

These are cloth mats designed to pro­vide lots of places to hide treats. They’re avail­able online, or you can make your own. As we know, a dog’s sense of smell is the most advanced of its sens­es and one that they love to put to good use.

The action of sniff­ing has a calm­ing effect on the brain for dogs, as it uses a deep­er breath with a closed mouth to bring the scent into the brain. This pro­vides an alter­na­tive behav­iour to the active pant­i­ng of an anx­ious dog, and it can also inter­rupt bark­ing. Panting increas­es the heart rate and bark­ing fires up hor­mones. Engaging your dog in active sniff­ing can help to reduce anx­i­ety and qui­et them at times that may be excit­ing, like vis­i­tors in the home – but it’s also just a lot of fun!

With the cold win­ter weath­er set­ting in, don’t let your dog suf­fer from cab­in fever. Bring the fun inside, and teach them some enter­tain­ing new skills!

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