Baby it’s cold outside!

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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