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9 Ways to Keep Your Dog Entertained Indoors

From training to toys, here’s how to help confined canines conquer boredom


spinner image border collie holding a toy ball in mouth
Iuliia Zavalishina / Getty

There’s a lot to love about winter. The serenity of snowflakes dancing outside your window, cozy blankets and roaring fires.  For pet parents, however, winter’s simple pleasures can be hard to enjoy thanks to the sobering reality of bitter cold, salty sidewalks and black ice, all of which make it miserable — if not dangerous — to walk one’s dog.

It’s not just weather, either. From illnesses that keep you homebound and injuries that limit your mobility to meetings, errands and appointments that consume your calendar, there are myriad reasons you might not be able to squeeze in a walk for your pup on any given day.

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If your dog is elderly or of a certain breed — bulldogs, pugs and Pekingese, for example, are known for being more sedentary — that might be OK. But if you have a high-energy pet that requires more activity, regularly missing walks could be problematic, suggests Lorraine Rhoads, director of health and safety at Dogtopia, which operates more than 250 dog day care centers across the United States and Canada.

Studies show that dogs who have a good amount of exercise and mental stimulation not only live longer but are just “better canine citizens,” says Rhoads. “They’re better family members at home. They have better manners. And they’re not going to be as interested in investigating things they shouldn’t ingest or chew on.”

Alongside chewing, clues that your dog isn’t getting enough activity include excessive barking or whining, hyperactivity and restlessness, repetitive or obsessive behaviors like tail chasing or licking, increased aggression, panting or overexcitement, and weight gain, Rhoads says.

So what do you do when outdoor exercise isn’t possible? Here are nine ideas:

1. Tire them with training

“Dogs love to learn. … Focusing and learning for them is really exhausting,” says celebrity dog trainer and Rover.com expert Nicole Ellis. “You don’t need to do crazy training. It could be fun things like teaching your dog to shake, high-five or spin in a circle. You can find free videos for these online. … Just five to 15 minutes can make a world of difference. You’ll create a stronger bond with your dog while also tiring them out.”

2. Let them lick

“Licking is actually calming and relaxing to dogs,” says Ellis, who suggests spreading peanut butter or yogurt on a licking mat. Chewy sells a brand called Lickimat that runs from $9 to $17. Other brands are available on Amazon for around the same price range. “We can stick them on the wall or on the floor and let our dogs lick and calm down.”

Instead of a licking mat, you can also use a Kong toy. Again, peanut butter and yogurt make great fillings, according to Ellis, who suggests freezing filled Kongs to make them last longer.

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3. Play hide-and-seek

Dogs like walks not only because they exercise their legs, but also because they exercise their noses, according to Ellis, who suggests playing hide-and-seek with treats or kibble. “Hold your dog and put a treat a foot away so he can see you hiding it, then let him go get it,” instructs Ellis, who says you can gradually move treats farther away and in more creative hiding spots — on a table or bookcase, for example — to make the game more challenging, crating your pup while you hide treats if necessary. “When dogs get to use their innate desire to sniff, it really tires them out.”

Forage-friendly snuffle mats — made of looped material in which to conceal treats — are another option for dogs who like sniffing. “You can buy them online or make a simple one at home by using an old rag or towel and twisting it up with the treats hidden inside,” says Shaina Denny, cofounder and CEO of Dogdrop, a provider of on-demand dog day care. “It’s like a treasure hunt.” Chewy.com has the Pet Parents Snuffle Mat that runs from $16 to $30 depending on size.

spinner image two puppies playing with chew toys
Anita Kot / Getty

4. Trade out their toys

You can buy brain games for dogs online, including treat-dispensing toys and puzzles. Ellis, for example, likes the Orbee-Tuff Snoop ($12 on Amazon at current sale price — it usually runs $17), a translucent and squishy ball with a deep crevice in which to store treats. “It keeps them moving and keeps them thinking. They kind of forget about us while they’re busy figuring out how to get these delicious items out,” says Ellis, who also likes the iDig Stay, $100 on Amazon, which conceals treats inside canvas flaps that dogs can release by way of digging. “It’s my dog’s favorite toy in the world.” 

You don’t have to spend big on fancy toys. Even cheap grocery-store toys can be a welcome distraction. “I like putting out a basket full of toys, but changing them out regularly so they’re always fresh and interesting,” Rhoads says.

5. Go fetch

Fetch is many a dog’s favorite game — and it can easily be played indoors with a tennis ball, according to Rhoads, who suggests playing in a long hallway or, even better, on a staircase. “Using your staircase to go up and down will get the heart rate up and get a nice, good respiration rate,” she says.

Pet owners who are less mobile might consider purchasing an iFetch fetching machine, which runs from $130 (smaller balls) to $230 (larger balls) on chewy.com and amazon.com. “It has an indoor function that throws the ball 10 feet. All you have to do is drop the tennis ball in,” explains Ellis, who says pet owners can even train dogs to drop the ball into the machine themselves. If that is outside your budget, there are other similar options such as the Elevon Automatic Dog Ball Launcher on Amazon for $60 or the PetPrime Automatic Dog Ball Thrower for $95 on Amazon. Of course the cheapest option is to throw it yourself (exercise for you too!), but after throwing the ball for the 1,475th time in one morning, you might be ready to spend the money.

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6. Take a walk — on a dog-safe treadmill

Although they’re not cheap and often take up a lot of room, pet treadmills can be great for large breeds that need lots of activity, according to Rhoads, who for safety reasons recommends models without electric motors. “A dog-safe treadmill is specifically designed to activate on the dog’s own power,” she says.

7. Try day care

Dog day care isn’t just for pet parents who work and travel. It’s for everyone, according to Rhoads, who says dogs at home typically take fewer than 5,000 steps in a day, whereas dogs in day care often take up to 60,000 steps in a day. Along with organic play, many day cares offer structured activities that facilitate physical and mental exercise.

“When they’re in a new environment and they’re playing all day … they come home exhausted,” Ellis says. 

Day care doesn’t have to be an everyday affair. Just a couple days a week can make a big difference, Rhoads says — or even a couple hours, according to Denny, who recommends finding a day care with hourly options to utilize on days when walks aren’t feasible. But be sure to check the latest updates on the respiratory dog illness that has been going around this winter.

spinner image dog running through an training course at a dog rehab facility
Piotr Wójcik / Getty

8. Experiment with agility

Because they exercise the mind and body simultaneously, agility courses are a favorite fixture at many dog day care facilities. Try creating your own course at home. “Can you create a tunnel between your ottoman and your couch with a blanket? Can you encourage your dog to go through and around? Can you go up and over? Those kinds of things are really fun,” says Rhoads, who suggests mining social media for ideas and inspiration.

9. Buddy up

In lieu of day care, consider having another animal over for a playdate — or perhaps even adopting another dog so your pets can entertain one another. “You might also consider fostering a dog through a local shelter or rescue,” suggests Ellis, who notes that shelters typically pay for food and vet care. “It’s a win-win. You get to help a dog find a home, and your own dog gets a friend for a few months while the weather’s cold or your schedule’s crazy, without you permanently taking on the responsibility of a second dog.”

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