Sextiped Valley: Indoor fun for the dog days of winter
We enjoyed a spectacularly long run of lovely fall weather here, but now it’s over. My dogs loved it: The long walks along the river, mild temperatures, a few adventurous road trips. Chumley, at 13, has never been a fan of snow and ice and frigid air, so he really made the most of it. What shall we do, now that the outdoors is less enticing?
Well, first, we need to time our outdoor ventures to maximize sunshine and warmth. Early morning and late evening were just right on those hot summer days, but now we try for late morning to early afternoon walks. Sweaters and foot protection are important parts of preparing to go out, and wiping paws to remove ice and debris on return keep pads clean and supple.
The dogs can wait longer in the car when on errand runs with me than in summer — but not that much longer. Do dogs get anything like seasonal affective disorder, I wonder? I suspect they do if their peeps do. They’re such emotional sponges, soaking up our moods and reflecting them back. What can we do for the whole sextiped family to lighten up the dark days, provide some much needed stimulation and fun, and make the most of indoor recreation opportunities when it’s ugly outside?
My favorite indoor games with dogs play to the strength of their noses — their olfactory intelligence, you might say. Canine Nosework is a relatively new dog sport, complete with competitions, titles and escalating levels of difficulty. Dogs inherently know how to use their scenting abilities to navigate the world just as we humans use our vision.
What we teach them is how we want them to apply those abilities to finding things. Nosework is a bit like drug detection, but without the drugs. You can easily teach a dog what you want him to search for and he can do it anywhere, any time.
The cues to search, and what to search for, are all he needs to learn from you. For a fun evening of learning and practicing, High Tails is offering Nosy Neighbors — a drop-in Friday game night that will go all through the winter. Details and information can be found on our website: http://www.hightailsco-op.com.
But even if going out anywhere after dark through the winter has no appeal for you, it’s easy to teach dogs to find hidden objects by pairing them with irresistible edibles, using a special word like “seek” and hiding the items in plain sight at first, then gradually increasing difficulty once the dog has got the idea. Most dogs get it in about 5 nanoseconds, and the more challenging you make the searches, the more fun they have. Up, down, under, inside, wherever you hide things, his speed and accuracy in finding them will amaze you.
Best of all, even though he’s not running and jumping, he’s burning a surprising amount of energy and benefiting from excellent mental stimulation. A few studies have confirmed that mental tasks — learning and problem-solving — burn calories on par with physical exercise. And it’s challenging for you, too, to come up with increasingly harder puzzles for him.
There is also a version of agility that can be played indoors, and your own creativity and familiarity with your dog and your home will suggest ways to do it. Teaching a dog to crawl, to go under or over objects like furniture, to reach with mouth or paws for toys you have made challenging to retrieve, getting him to dance with you — let your imagination soar.
After a good mental workout, while your dog is snoring happily by the fire, you might enjoy curling up with a good book. In that case, I heartily recommend Alexandra Horowitz’s new “Being a Dog.” It’s all about how the world is made intelligible to dogs (and other animals) through their sense of smell, and her investigations into developing her own in order to understand theirs. Entertaining and always insightful, this one will delight you and inspire you to explore the world of scent with your dog.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.