When I moved in with my eighty-three-year-old mother to help take care of her, that was challenging for me in itself. But I also had two active dogs that were used to getting lots of exercise and attention, who had spent most of their time with two middle-aged adults. They didn’t ask to be moved 2,000 miles across country, to join a household of someone who acted, moved, and smelled, differently from anyone they’d known before, all while having a significant amount of my time and attention suddenly withdrawn.
Dogs have mental health needs, too, and if we don’t help them meet them in positive ways, they will find their own ways to cope. This can manifest in hyperactivity, destructiveness, or aggression. And, while we love our dogs and want them to be happy, we also need to be proactive about meeting their needs, because caring for a loved one is hard enough without your dog’s eating the furniture.
And sometimes you need your dog to be happily busy while you get grandma dressed or meet with a patient advocate, and these things ideas work well for that, too.
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I didn’t realize how lucky I was when I moved in with my Mom that she was able to walk 1-2 miles a day. So at first I was able to give my dogs at least some exercise by taking them with us while I walked. I also was able to give them some of the hard exercise they were used to by throwing a chuck it for them to retrieve, as well as doing their normal training.
Physical exercise is important to keep your pooch in shape, of course, but it can take a lot of time. I try to structure physical exercise to add in mental exercise as well. For example, I might ask my dog to do some tricks before I throw the ball. I also am a Susan Garett student, and she adds a lot of running and playing into her training program. If you have the time to train some with your dog, I’d recommend taking her free mini-course, the It’s Yer Choice Summit.
There’s an old saying, “a tired dog is a good dog,” and that’s true. But certain high-energy dogs can be difficult to impossible to wear out with just physical exercise, even if you have hours a day to spend on it. And we don’t, so we need to tire them mentally to “take the edge off.”
Most of these strategies involve making your dog spend more time and effort eating his normal meals. Wild dogs don’t get their meals handed to them in a bowl, so dogs are naturally wired to want to spend some of their time working for their food.
Hands-down the easiest way to add a little mental stimulation to your dog’s day is to take him to a fenced location or put him on a long line and scatter some or all of his food in the grass so he needs to use his nose to find it. Activities that get your dog using his nose are especially good mental stimulation, so this is my go-to when weather and circumstances permit.
Upcycle Cardboard Trash
You can make a free feeding toy for your dog by taping his kibble inside something cardboard you were going to throw away anyway. For example, you can tape it inside the tube from the center of a roll of toilet paper or paper towels. You can also fill a cardboard box with crumpled paper and hide kibble in the folds of the paper. I don’t use this method very often just because I have enough mess to clean up without encouraging my dog to make more. But it’s relatively easy and it’s free, so I thought I’d include it.
If you like the idea of getting in that mental exercise while eating his meals, but you’re not excited with the idea of cleaning up shredded cardboard, maybe a slow food dish is for you. I feed most meals out of slow feeding bowls I bought at a discount outlet when I lived in California for less than $10 each.
Dog Frozen Dinners
Several companies make sturdy, reusable toys that are designed so you can stuff them with moist dog food and, optionally, freeze them to make it more difficult to get to the food inside. I have many Kongs I’ve collected over the years, as well as a couple of Toppls. I usually just stuff mine with raw dog food before freezing, but I have also used canned food as well.
Sometimes I will mix kibble with the canned or raw food just to change things up. Some people will simply soak kibble in water and broth and use that, but it’s possible to get really creative if you have time. On the other hand, when I’m pressed for time and want to keep my dog busy for just a couple of minutes, I might shove a dog biscuit into the hole in the end of the Kong and give that to him.
Dogs also love to just chew for the sake of chewing. We just need to make sure it’s not on the furniture by providing acceptable chews. If your dog likes them, a synthetic chew like a Nylabone can be a good option. I have had dogs that really loved these, but unfortunately my current dogs do not.
Instead, they get bully sticks I buy from Costco that I cut in half with garden loppers, split elk antlers, and cow hooves (caution! they stink!). I also give out a variety of consumable chews, such as No Hide or Whimzees.
I’m planning a whole series of blog posts on specific training for situations you will encounter while caring for your loved one, so I’m not going to go into what training you could or should do here. But it is worth pointing out that training can be mentally tiring, so it’s worth putting time into where you can simply to provide that benefit.