Indoor winter activities

This article by Karen Larsen Bridge, part owner of Get SMART Dogs in Sydney, first appeared in Dogs Life Magazine July/August 2003 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.


Your dog's favourite activity is probably a walk right? But what do you do when its just too cold or dark or wet outside? Staying motivated to walk in winter is often hard for people yet many dogs thrive in the cooler weather feeling more energetic then ever. Next time you stagger home from work hardly able to lift your feet only to be greeted by your best buddy, leash or ball in mouth ready for action why not put aside a bit of time for some indoor fun!

There are literally hundreds of things you can train your dog to do in the comfort and safety of your own home from serious obedience manoeuvres to fun tricks and games. In fact in most cases your dog will learn a new lesson better if it is first taught in the relatively distraction free environment of your home. Add to that, the fact that mental stimulation will tire your dog more effectively than physical exercise and you've got the perfect excuse to grab your training bag and stay inside.

BASIC TRAINING: Some exercises are considered fundamental behaviours that all dogs should master to ensure they are safely under control. The most popular are the three positions 'sit', 'stand' and 'down'. By teaching three positions rather than two,your dog will never know which position you are going to ask for next - keeping the training game more interesting!

Level 1: Sit : standing in front of your dog, move a food treat above your dog's head, as the head goes up the bottom goes down - sit happens! Stand: hold a food treat directly in front of your dog's nose then slowly move it forward in the same line- stand happens! Down: hold a food treat in line with your dog's nose, move it slowly down between his paws - down happens!

Level 2: Drop the food lure& use your hand in exactly the same way. Reward your dog after each successful position change.

Level 3: Repeat the procedures with your dog at your left side.

Level 4: Add movement, walk forward before asking your dog for sit, stand or down

Level 5: See if your dog will respond to the hand signal only and/or the word signal only.

Level 6: How much distance can you add? Will your dog sit, stand and drop on your cue from 10 feet away?

Level 7: Will your dog respond if you are sitting in a chair? Lying down? What if your dog is behind you? What if he can't see you?

Position changes are so simple yet they can be made more challenging by moving up a level and are both physically and mentally tiring. Next time your bored dog starts nagging you for attention give him 15 position changes in quick succession all with a lovely smile on your face and a juicy treat at the end. Still nagging? Go for 15 more. It's amazing how quickly your dog will decide his bed in the corner is looking pretty good again.


Targeting is a very useful, fun and easy skill to teach your dog which requires very little space. The easiest thing to teach your dog to target is your hand. You want to get your dog to touch your hand with his nose whenever you present it in a special way such as a fist rather than a normal open hand.

To start, put a treat in your hand and close it into a fist. Standing just in front of your dog, drop your fist down a few inches from his nose. It is highly likely that your dog will reach forward and sniff. Immediately praise and give your dog the treat.

Repeat, this time with your fist a little further away so your dog must move a little to reach out and touch the target again reward immediately. If your dog fails to reach for the target quickly, take your hand away, move around a few steps then try again. Your hand dropping in and out of his line of vision is just as likely to attract him as the smell of the treat so if he hasn't noticed your hand don't just leave it dangling - remove it and try again. If your timing is good and your treats tasty, your dog will soon be moving several feet to touch his nose to your fist.

The next step is to remove the treat from your hand and repeat keeping all the rest of your gestures exactly the same. If your dog touches your fist reward immediately from the other hand. This way your dog is learning that even though he may not be able to smell a treat in your fist, he will still get a reward for reaching out and touching.

When your dog is reliably touching your hand every time it is presented you can add your cue word 'touch'. You can make this exercise harder by holding your hand up high so he has to jump for it or down low so he has to crawl under a coffee table or chair. Swap hands, make sure your dog is happy to move toward either hand.

Now you have an invisible lead or lure which can direct your dog toward you wherever you are. Targeting is the most common method of training and handling performance animals such as seals, dolphins and other animal actors. Once your dog understands the principles of targeting you can extend his repertoire to lots of other behaviours.

Close the door please!

Put a post-it-note or similar on your fist and get your dog to touch as before, making certain the dog touches right on the post-it-note. Now, move the post-it-note onto a cupboard door and encourage your dog to touch. Quite quickly your dog should transfer his touch from your hand to the cupboard door. Now open the door and ask your dog to touch again. At first reward any attempts to put nose to door, then slowly reward only stronger pushes soon your dog will be shutting cupboard doors around the home more reliably then the kids!

Go Find Mum!

Start training this game by having Mum or other person standing directly opposite you about 3- 4 meters away. Get Mum to hold out her fist while you cue 'go touch'. When your dog is happily running to whoever holds out their fist, change your cue to include the name of the person 'Mum Go Touch!' Reward immediately the dog touches the target.

Slowly increase distance, and start moving Mum around corners. As your dog starts to understand the game you can change your cue to something simple like 'Find Mum!' Now for the fun part! Hand your dog a secret message (or your dirty socks) and tell him to 'Find Mum!' Mum might not be impressed but I'm sure you're friends will be and so will your dog with this terrific rainy day game! To include the whole family, repeat the process with every other family member. Eventually your dog will learn the names of everyone in the household.


Scenting games are a perfect indoor activity that your dog will love. The dogs sense of smell is truly amazing. No technology can come close to matching the dog's ability to track and identify different smells. The good news is that as your dog already knows how to use his nose (and loves to do so) all you have to devise is fun ways to put it into action. Hide and Seek

Is a great way to expend lots of mental and physical energy indoors. You can hide food treats, favourite toys or even people. Start with a yummy treat or favourite toy. Show it to your dog and tell him to 'sit stay' (or get someone to hold him). Hide the object somewhere simple such as under a pillow or behind a table leg. At this point your dog is allowed to watch. Go back to your dog and release him in an excited voice with a cue such as 'find it!' Your dog will race to your hiding spot, feeling very clever and be rewarded with his find. Repeat several times hiding the treat in different places.

Next remove your dog from the room while you hide the treat in one of the places you used before. Bring him in and tell him 'Find It!' Your dog will rush around looking for the treat. Depending on how smell orientated your dog is, he may first look in the previous spots but soon he'll realize that the quickest way to get the goods is literally to follow his nose!

There are lots of variations to this game. If you prefer, you can hide multiple treats, then allow your dog into the room while you encourage him to find them all. Your dog may spend quite a lot of time double checking he hasn't missed any with this one! If you hide a toy reward your dog with a short game or if you hide a person they might want to also reward the find with a little treat. Once your dog understands this game, it can develop into a traditional game of hide and seek with one person hiding and your dog looking throughout the house. My border collie goes crazy for this game, not only does he get to use his nose but in his mind he is seeking out and rounding up the stray sheep oops I mean kid!

The ball in the bucket

Remember the old trick using three cups and you have to guess which one has the pea under it? Well if your dog has been playing hide and seek he'll learn this game in a snap. Put a favourite toy or treat under a light plastic beach bucket. Tell your dog to 'Find it!' Next add a second bucket and a third and repeat. At first, your dog may knock all the buckets down to find the ball but soon he will learn he can save himself the effort by using his nose. Reward heavily when he gets it right first time.

Which one smells like me?

Its easy for your dog to identify your scent on an object. The more recently you have touched the object the hotter your scent will be. Your job is to teach your dog that he will be rewarded for choosing an object with your scent on it over an object without your scent. (To avoid putting your scent on an object you need to not touch it or use gloves or tongs).

Show your dog two objects- say two dowels one with your scent on it, one without. If your dog goes to take the scented object praise and reward him. If he chooses the unscented dowel say nothing, pause and try again. Next put the dowels on the ground and ask your dog to find it again praise and reward for the right dowel, ignore any mistakes. Before long your dog will understand that only the object with your scent on it earns a reward. At this point you can start adding more dowels and/or other objects. Your dog should eventually be able to find your scent even amongst a hundred or more objects!

My dog can spell can yours?

It's easy to use your dogs scenting abilities to make him look like a genius.

Buy a set of alphabet letters in wood or plastic. Take out the letters of the word you want your dog to spell and handle them freely to scent them. You might ask your dog to spell his name or yours or ask him what kind of animal are you?

The other letters should be kept clean avoid touching them with your bare hands as much as you can (use gloves or tongs). Get an assistant to lay out all the letters then get ready to impress as your clever dog picks out the letters of your chosen word. They may not be in spelling order but hey - still pretty good for a dog (and most people will never guess he's using scent to do it)!

Speak to me!

Most dogs can be taught to speak or bark on cue quite easily. What prompts your dog bark naturally? The doorbell? Dinner being made? Waving a toy in front of him? Getting the lead out? Encourage your dog to bark using one of these prompts as well as a visual signal such as an opening and closing your hand. Reward and praise as soon as you get even the faintest noise.

Repeat your signal and reward again for any response. As your dog gets the idea, save your rewards for the loudest or quickest responses. If you need an 'off switch' wait until your dog has barked a few times then say 'Enough' in a quiet voice accompanied by a different hand gesture such as a finger to lips and follow immediately with a treat. Work on both the on (bark) and off (quiet) switch rewarding both intermittently. This is often an effective way to improve problem barking and also a great way to let a barker let off steam at a time that suits you!

Different cue words will give this trick a different feel for instance 'Speak' has a different feel to 'Alert' which has a different feel to 'Sing for your sapphirine every case the dog is simply barking on cue but people listening will perceive it a different way. A useful way to spend a rainy day.


There is no limit to the number and variety of simple tricks you can teach your dog in the quiet and comfort of your own home such as shake hands, wave, roll-over, play dead, roll up in a blanket, carry a basket, sneeze, spin, scratch, beg, weave through your legs, put away your toys - let your imagination run wild or for starters see 'Six Quick Tricks' (Dogs Life Jan/Feb 2002 issue) .


Absolutely exhausted? Alright cheat a little and get out an activity ball filled with treats. Dogs love to roll these balls around trying to get the dried treats to fall out. Another alternative is to tear a rag into long strips. Roll into each strip a little treat and tie into knots. Make the bundle as tight as possible and then give it to your dog to explore and dissect. Most dogs become really absorbed trying to reach the hidden delectable treats. In some cases the centre treasure could be a tennis ball or other popular toy.


There's more to life then running around and playing games. Had a tough day how about a little touch therapy. Get out a glass of wine and a doggy comb and incorporate a good grooming/massage session into the front-of-TV wind down. Your dog will love the attention - after all a snuggle on the couch is what being an indoor dog is really all about.