As a happy, albeit sometimes exhausted and exasperated, dog owner, you are quite likely aware that dogs don’t hibernate. They’re not meteorologists who understand weather patterns and know when outside isn’t an option. They operate by the unofficial motto of the United States Post Office:
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Few conditions create in our dogs the desire to stay inside and hunker down, still and lazy. To be sure, they can have quiet, calm times; however, we humans play a big role in inducing that state of stillness. If we want them to be still so we can be still, we have to tire them out. Even when you and your pup are confined to the great indoors, expending physical and mental energy is possible.
Benefits of exercising your dog indoors using either rough-and-tumble play or more gentle activities extend beyond tiring them out. Indoor exercise
- Increases bonding and closeness between your family and your dog
- Keeps your dog happy, healthy, and fit
- Improves obedience and behavior
- Provides fun and levity
This ultimate guide offers suggestions and ideas for indoor exercise and play. Read on to get ready to rumble.
A Word of Caution About Exercising Your Dog Indoors
Not all suggestions in this ultimate guide are suitable for every dog. Always consider your dog’s age, health, and size, and if you’re unsure if a game or activity is okay for your dog, run it past your vet.
Also consider your own indoor space. Most of the activities in our guide are adaptable to any indoor space. Feel free to customize these games and activities to fit your home. Finally, a bit of puppy proofing can prevent accidents and abrupt endings to play sessions.
Inside Games to Play
Dogs are lovers of life, and what lover of life doesn’t delight in a fun game? With a little preparation, your dog will be ready to let the games begin any time you are.
Teaching Your Dog to be a Gamer
Think of a team of tots trying to play t-ball. Without instruction, they will run the bases backwards, throw the ball at a runner to get him out, and generally create chaos and exasperation. They have to be taught the rules and procedure. This holds true for dogs as well.
You and your dog will enjoy playing games together once your dog learns how to do them. Use the training methods your dog is used to in order to introduce him to a new game. Other instructional recommendations include:
- Teaching your dog a “find it” command is useful
- Using a step-by-step approach to introduce games (expecting her to instinctively know how to play is unrealistic and will result in frustration for both of you)
- Praising, rewarding, and giving treats throughout the process to encourage your dog and reinforce your instructions
Clicker training can be an efficient way to teach dogs the steps of any game. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends clicker training and offers advice on how to use it. Some games and activities have multiple precise steps, so your dog has to learn exactly what to do in order to reap the benefits of play. According to AKC GoodDog! Helpline trainer Breanne Long,
“[The clicker] tells the animal that whatever he is doing at the time he hears the click or whistle is correct and will earn a reward…. Using clicker, or marker, training, you can communicate to your dog exactly what he is doing that will earn him a reward.”
Oh, the Games We Play
Games stimulate your dog physically and mentally. They have a chance to move about actively, plus they are challenged to problem solve. You get to be the one to lead your dog through these games, making sure he follows your commands and lead and developing his self-control in the process. Games are also amusing and enjoyable for both of you and can provide much-needed entertainment when going outside isn’t an option.
This is a game that you can make as easy or as challenging as you want to, so it can offer varying levels of intensity for your dog depending on what you and she need at the moment. It can also be played in more than one way:
The idea is simple: you hide treats, your dog finds them. Initially, you’ll make them easy for him to sniff out, and then you can increase the level of difficulty and the complexity. This is a game that can be done in a single room, or it can involve multiple rooms.
Lead your dog to a new room whenever he clears a room. Also, make sure to praise him and lavish him with petting, praise, and encouragement. After all, as much as he loves the treats, he craves your love and affection even more. This is also the part of hide-and-seek that is likely the best for you.
This version of hide-and-seek is just like the human game (only one human is actually a dog). Here, you command your dog to stay and let her watch you leave. You then proceed to hide, and when you’re in your hiding spot, give your dog a command to come.
She’ll eagerly come looking for you and take great delight in the love and attention she receives from you when she finds you. You can even reward her with a treat. She’ll love that. As with the seeking treats version of this game, you’ll probably want to start with easy hiding spots, in the same room as your dog, until she understands the gist of the game.
The Shell Game
Many people don’t think of playing this classic game with dogs, but dogs actually love it. It’s a mentally stimulating game that also helps reinforce your dog’s restraint and impulse control. He has to watch, wait, and select rather than surging forward to knock over cups.
In this problem-solving game, you line up three unbreakable, opaque cups on the floor or a table at your dog’s eye level. Let him watch you place a treat or a toy (toys are unscented so he can’t sniff it out) under one of them, and then shuffle them around while he watches. Let him find the cup that conceals the treat or toy, and lavish him with praise when he does.
Feel free to make the game easier or harder by adjusting the number of cups you use. Perhaps begin with two and eventually work your way up to using four or even five.
Before you cringe and bypass this section, know that these are milder versions of their outdoor counterparts that still provide the physical exercise your dog needs to be healthy and fit. They can be tailored to your own space. Also, don’t forget that you are the alpha. You can control the degree of enthusiasm your dog gets to display and stop the games at any time.
Indoor sports expend some energy and help your dog behave. She gets to have fun and play heartily with you while still following rules and obeying you. You also get to expend energy and enjoy yourself and your dog. So play ball (or non-ball sports).
Dogs can play soccer, and they can be doggone good ball handlers. You and your dog can play with a real soccer ball or one of his doggie balls. A real soccer ball won’t hurt your dog, but he might hurt the ball if or when he chews on it. Perhaps it’s best if you choose the ball if you don’t want one of your own favorites to be damaged.
Playing soccer with your dog involves gently kicking the ball toward him and letting him take his turn “kicking” it. When you first begin to play, he’ll likely just want to chew it. Kick it away from him the way a soccer player takes the ball from another player, only much, much more gently and deliberately.
Check out this golden retriever playing a game of soccer with his human. These two are playing outdoors, but you’ll see that the light play, while still physical, can definitely be moved indoors.
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In this version of the classic playground game, your dog gets to tag you. You’re actually standing still, though, because the chase form of tag could get too wild for indoor play. (You are the expert on your dog and your physical space, of course, so if you want to run while she tries to catch you, by all means go for it. It would definitely be a physical workout.)
To play the mild version of tag requires two humans. Play goes like this:
- Each of you will equip yourself with treats or toys, whichever you prefer (be consistent so you both have the same type of enticement)
- Take turns calling to your dog and encouraging her to come
- When she reaches (tags) you, reward her with a treat or by playing with her briefly with the toy
- Play back-and-forth like this as long as your dog remains engaged or until you’ve dispensed your limit of treats
- To increase the challenge, you and your partner can move farther and farther apart, eventually making your bases in separate rooms.
Fetch isn’t just for sunny, outdoor days. It can be played inside as well when you need to tire out your dog but outside isn’t feasible.
The best place for indoor fetch is a long hallway. Alternately, you can play in a family room, den, or other room where you can push furniture to the side to clear a safe space with room for your dog to dart.
Controversial Games that are Actually Okay
Some games are more aggressive than others. Information is often mixed as to whether rowdy games are good for dogs and their relationship with their humans. Rough-and-tumble games for dogs include
- Wrestling, with or without toys
- Tug-of-war (or just tug)
The traditional concern has been that these boisterous games bring out aggression in dogs and put them in the dominant role in their relationship with their humans. Few pet owners want to train or otherwise encourage their dog to be aggressive; consequently, many shy away from the above games. Whether you decide to roughhouse with your dog is a personal decision. Engaging in boisterous activities like these is not required for bonding, keeping your dog fit, or tiring her out.
If you do want to do play with your dog this way, research is showing that these games do not increase aggression and dominance. Certified animal behaviorist Mary Huntsberry examined results of a study that sought to determine whether rough games like tug increased aggression and dominance in dogs. In her article, she shares that
“Overall the results of this study suggest that the way dogs play is a reflection of their temperament, learning history, and general relationship with their owner. In no way do the games dogs play with humans effect [sic] the dominance aspect of a relationship… So there you have it! Tug-of-war and other rough-and-tumble games are not only fun, but they also make your dog more obedient and confident.”
If you are comfortable with the temperament of your dog and her level of obedience as well as your own sense of control, go ahead and enjoy indoor games of tug, wrestling, and other physically playful activities. They’re a great way to burn energy, maintain fitness, and solidify bonding between you and your dog.
Products to Buy
Exercising your dog indoors is a lot of fun for both of you. Using a wide variety of cool toys makes play even more exciting. We created a list of some of the best play products out there to help create great play sessions inside when you can’t go outside.
(Note: The below products are simply suggestions to assist you on your quest for great inside play toys. Surely there are others out there; these are just ones we particularly like. These aren’t ads, and we don’t receive payment for listing them or kickbacks for purchases.)
These four products come from Business Insider’s list of best dog toys:
- Wobble Wag Giggle Ball is a toy that gets its name from what it does—wobbles away when your dog noses or paws it, makes him wag his tail in delight, and makes you giggle
- StarMark Bob-A-Lot holds treats or dry food and bobs and rolls as your dog works to extract the food—it’s a puzzle toy, food dispenser, and entertaining toy all in one
- Kong Extreme Toy, aka the Kong, is a favorite of dogs because they can chew it heartily, move after it if they send it bouncing, and extract treats that you’ve stuffed inside
- Mammoth Flossy Chews Cotton Blend 3-Knot Rope Tug is an especially durable toy for chewing and playing tug-of-war whose fibers clean your dog’s teeth in the process (don’t tell him that play time is also cleaning time)
We like other great doggie play products too:
- Jolly Ball by Jolly Pets is a ball that you and your dog can use to play indoor soccer or any other ball game the two of you invent
- Zogoflex Dog Toys from West Paw are durable toys that are made to prevent messes indoors because when you’re playing inside, chances are you’d like to avoid destroyed toys and snowfalls of stuffing
- iFetch is an automatic fetch machine that launches balls for your dog to retrieve, and when she does so, she trots back and reloads the machine (this doesn’t substitute for the bonding that happens when you play fetch with your dog, but it can at least give you a break when your energetic pooch doesn’t want to stop)
The very best play products to buy are the ones that you and your dog enjoy. She’s the best product tester around. A toy that gets you two through the days when you’re feeling cooped up are the ones that are the most valuable.
Having a wide variety of toys available for indoor play keeps games and activities fresh and fun and thus prevents boredom and lethargy. Dogs play longer, too, when they are stimulated by different toys. This doesn’t mean, though, that you have to spend a fortune to stockpile play objects.
It’s possible to make your own objects for activities and games. In many cases, you can use items you already have around the house (making sure, of course, that choking or other hazards are removed and the items are clean).
Outgrown, worn-out, and out-of-style clothing are great DIY toy sources. Don’t overlook socks, as they can be useful for such simple things as keep-away (stuff a ball or other toy into the sock and dance it in front of, above, and around your dog) or creating makeshift stuffed toys (ball multiple socks together and voilà! you have a sock critter that your dog can paw, roll, and chew).
For other toys, you can buy inexpensive supplies from thrift stores or your favorite retailer. Some communities even have materials exchange centers dedicated to collecting donated materials from residents and businesses and offering those materials to crafters, artists, and anyone who wants to try DIY projects.
There are many different toys you can make yourself. Just a few ideas:
- Flirt poles consist of a pole or stick with a rope attached and a toy attached to the other end of the rope; you hold the pole and move the toy back and forth, up and down, enticing your dog to chase after it
- Plastic bottle toys are simply plastic bottles wrapped in material and are great chew toys because their crinkling sound and texture occupy dogs for long stretches of time
- Tug or fetch toys can be made by cutting old cloth like t-shirts, sweatshirts, towels, and more into strips and braiding them together
- Fetch or chew knots are nothing more than old denim or other material cut up and tied into knots of varying sizes
- Obstacle courses challenge dogs and allow them to stay fit, and they’re surprisingly simple to make—use cushions, blankets, chairs, stools, and/or boxes. Check out how much these beagles enjoy this DIY obstacle course their human made out of cardboard boxes.
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Wearing Out Your Dog: Mentally Tired vs. Physically Tired
If you’ve ever been cooped up indoors with a dog, you are likely aware that dogs can get wound up and, without positive outlets for their pent-up energy, they often turn to destructive and disobedient behavior. When taking them outside just isn’t an option, playing with your dog indoors keeps both of you content and pleasantly tired.
When you need to tire out your dog, think in terms of both physical and mental fatigue. A common misconception is that physical activity is what exhausts dogs the most. That, however, isn’t true. Mental stimulation and play tires dogs more than physical activity does. Bark Busters, a large international dog training company, sums this up well:
“A mentally stimulated dog is a tired dog and a tired dog is a calm dog. A calm dog is a happy dog, and that’s what we all want.”
Physical exercise, such as indoor soccer or rough-and-tumble games like tug, does work your dog’s muscles, including his heart, joints, and more, thus helping her stay fit. Physical play is stimulating. It revs dogs up and can actually give them more energy.
Humans are like that, too. Have you ever felt a surge of energy or an almost euphoric feeling after a physical workout? Dogs experience this just like we do. Eventually, she’ll want to settle down, but it will take some time.
According to the AKC, actively playing in ways that are mentally stimulating is what makes dogs truly tired. After playing games that challenge her mind, your dog will need to be still, calm, and relaxed. Examples of activities that challenge your dog to problem-solve include:
- Toys that encourage your dog to figure out how to remove treats
- Puzzles in which your dog has to figure out where the hidden treat is
- Learning new tricks
- Learning new commands and practicing obeying them
When you and your dog are playing inside, engage her in games and activities that are both physically and mentally challenging. Play that sharpens your dog’s mind and conditions her body will together expend extra energy that builds up when you and your dog are trapped inside. Then, with that energy spent, your dog will be willing and eager to relax—just like you will be.
Other Activities That Will Keep Your Dog Happy, Fit, and Tired Indoors
If you are housebound for long stretches of time, such as a high heat spell in the summer or a frigid streak in the winter, your dog will appreciate having a wide variety of activities to keep him engaged, interested, and mentally and physically stimulated. Consider adding these activities to your growing repertoire of playtime challenges:
Okay, this is actually stair climbing. Mountain climbing just sounds more adventurous, and adventure is what the two of you need when you have cabin fever. In this activity, you throw a toy to the top of the stairs and enjoy watching your dog (who should be older than a year to prevent joint injuries) dash to the top to retrieve it. Add wait and fetch commands to make this activity both mentally and physically challenging.
Banfield Pet Hospital veterinarian David Dilmore assures that stair activities are safe and provides these tips:
- Ensure that your stairs are safe and that your dog can’t catch his foot on open backs
- Don’t force your dog, and let him descend the mountain at his own pace
Take you dog for a slow, deliberate walk through your home. Keep her right next to you as you go, and meander from room to room. Wind around and through each room close to furniture and objects. Your dog can look, but keep her by your side and don’t stop to sniff and poke.
Measured walks like this make your dog think about what she’s doing. She can’t just barrel ahead at full speed on her way to her destination. Deliberate walks tire your dog out mentally and induce calm.
Trick and Treating
Commanding your dog to do tricks is entertaining for both of you. If you haven’t taught him tricks before, use your indoor confinement to do so now. If you have trained your dog to perform some tricks, take him through those and then add new ones to his skill set.
Looking for ideas? Check out dog expert Kathy Sdao’s 101 Dog Tricks published in the Seattle Times. Using lots of positive reinforcement is an effective and mutually rewarding method to train dogs to do tricks. As you know, dogs love earning treats, and they’ll perform countless tricks to get them.
Positive reinforcement training can be done with or without a clicker. If you use a clicker to teach dogs to play games, as described above, he will be accustomed to it and respond well when learning tricks.
Learning tricks is mentally stimulating. Your dog will likely be tired after a session and ready for a quiet rest.
To add physical fitness workouts to trick and treating fun, teach your dog to perform physical feats such as
- Standing, balancing, and walking on hind legs
- Balancing on a small object
- Weaving through an obstacle course that requires going under, around, and through objects
Routines Still Rule: Stay Consistent
Being trapped indoors is probably out of the norm of your dog’s normal routine. She’s used to getting outside with you for walks, frolics in the yard or park, car rides, or other adventures. You can’t take her on those escapades when you two are housebound, which means that your routine will be mixed up for a while. That might be a welcome change for you, but it won’t be so easy for your dog.
Even with plenty of games, toys, and activities to keep her mentally and physically stimulated (and thus tired), she is likely to become stressed and out of sorts if her entire routine is disrupted. According to Dogs and Routine — Why is a Regular Routine Important?
“Dogs that do not enjoy a sufficient routine…are exponentially more likely to feel stressed, anxious or depressed, and either act out accordingly, or have it actually affect their physical health. Well-balanced dogs that are secure in their environment, routine and day-to-day lives find it much easier to weather any changes or upsets that do come along from time to time, whether planned for or unexpected.”
When it comes to routines, dogs are much less adaptable than people. While we often enjoy a change in our routines, even one that involves being confined to the great indoors, dogs are rattled by drastic changes, even temporary ones. They have no clue that an abrupt change in their routine is temporary or why it’s happening. They just know that it’s different and feel unsettled even when they are doing fun things with their owners.
Therefore, it’s important to keep your dog’s routine as intact as you can. Feeding times should remain the same. Things she normally does inside should still happen. It’s necessary to substitute indoor play for outdoor games, and doing so won’t be a problem when everything else in your dog’s world is what she’s used to.
Exercising Your Dog Indoors? Have Fun!
When going outside isn’t an option, you and your dog can still make your day (or days) great. You two will be able to bond while building mental and physical fitness. It’s all fun and games, and then you’ll take it outside again.