Millions of Americans are currently dealing with intense cold, courtesy of Winter Storm Grayson. While it’s natural to focus on food, warmth and other basic necessities, helping our dogs through these tough times is also a crucial concern. So, after making sure that you have enough toilet paper, milk, bread and perhaps chocolate or wine to get you through the storm, the next step may be planning how to keep your dog occupied.
First of all, don’t panic! Though it is a challenge, it is possible to keep your dog from going crazy even without spending the usual amount of time outdoors. The key is focusing on mental exercise instead of physical exercise, and remembering that quality time with your dog is a valuable commodity that can compensate for less activity.
Play. If your dog likes to play, now is the time to be the most willing play buddy ever. Games like fetch and tug can be played inside, and so can hide-and-seek. It doesn’t matter so much what you play as long as you are engaging your dog in a fun activity.
Train. As a trainer, I am always in favor of lots of training time with dogs, but cold weather makes it an even more appealing option. Teaching tricks such as high-5, crawl, sit pretty, spin and unwind or jumping through a hula hoop give your dog plenty of mental exercise and are usually fun to show off later, too. Practical skills such as heel, down, stay and leave it are so useful that teaching them or brushing up on them will be time well spent. Most dogs enjoy training if it is done in a positive, humane way. Your dog gets treats for being right and has your undivided attention—a total win!
Massage/Grooming. If your dog loves physical contact, days stuck inside can be great opportunities for massages. Basic massage instructions can be found on YouTube, or you can just do whatever you know your dog already likes. For dogs who love to be brushed, a snow day can be an opportunity to spend a significant amount of time maintaining his coat. If your dog dislikes being brushed, it’s probably wise to skip it on days that are already a bummer because of being stuck inside.
New Toys and Chews. Most dogs love receiving new toys or things to chew on. If that describes your dog, consider this a great week to bring out a new toy or two, or even something extra special to chew on. Though these items can be expensive, you will get your money’s worth out of them this week, when your dog doesn’t have as much to do as usual.
Stuffed Kongs. Stuffing a Kong with food can help your dog stay happily occupied for a long time. Put some treats in along with regular food and consider freezing it so that it will last longer. Many dogs can spend 30-45 minutes extracting food from a well-stuffed Kong. If your dog takes just a heartbeat to empty one, it may be a good week to start freezing them or making them harder to empty in other ways.
Food Puzzles. Make life more interesting for your dog by feeding him with a food puzzle toy. Many products present challenges for dogs as they must work to acquire the food. I’m in favor of feeding dogs this way on a regular basis, but there’s no better time to start than during a storm when you must make an extra effort to prevent boredom.
Play Dates. If your dog has a good canine buddy who can visit for an indoor play session, send an invitation right away! This may only work if the other dog lives really close and can safely walk over during icy or snowy-in conditions, but if luck is on your side in this regard, take advantage of it. Only invite another dog over if you know that the dogs will play nicely indoors and won’t have issues over space, food or toys.
Consider whether outings are reasonable. Decide if it is reasonable to be outside safely for longer than quick potty breaks. That depends on your dog and the temperatures you are experiencing. In New England and in the Midwest, it may not be safe to spend much time outside at all. However, in parts of the southeast, it may be possible to walk dogs safely, though perhaps more briefly than usual. I realize that people in some parts of the country affected by the storm are not accustomed to freezing temperatures and will struggle to find appropriately warm clothes to wear, but that’s a different issue. It may feel crazy cold, but some dogs might be able to tolerate it quite well. Larger dogs with thicker coats will likely have an easier time handling unusually low temperatures, but even breeds who are supposedly good in the cold may find it challenging if they are used to much warmer weather. Perhaps a short walk is possible if you go during the “heat” of the day, but only brave the cold if it’s safe for you and your dog to do so.
Hopefully, it won’t be long until most of us can return to our normal activities. In the meantime, do what you can to make your dog’s days as interesting and full of fun as possible.