If your beloved dog has recently had or is about to have surgery, then you know just how much of a labor of love it is for you, the doting pet parent. Prepping for your pup’s surgery involves countless trips to the veterinarian, determining the best course of action, figuring out how you’re going to pay the bill, preparing your home to accommodate a post-surgery dog, and learning about physical therapy options.
But here’s one thing you may not have considered: how to keep your dog entertained during recovery. Regardless of the type of surgery, they are undergoing, the recovery process for your pup most likely involves restricted movement. This means the daily walks, romps in the yard, and games of fetch that usually keep them entertained and stimulated are most likely going out the window for a while.
If you have an active dog, you may be wondering, “How am I going to keep my crazy energetic dog calm, quiet, and happy for the 4-16 weeks they’re in recovery?” You may even be worried about them expressing their boredom with typical boredom response behaviors, such as chronic barking, licking, whining, jumping, destruction, or even depression.
We’re here to tell you: keeping even the most energetic dogs healthy and happy during recovery is completely possible. You just need the right tools in your toolkit.
The Importance of Mental Stimulation for Your Dog
The key to keeping your dog happy (and sane) during post-surgery recovery is mental stimulation. Mental stimulation is just as rewarding to a dog as physical exercise, and keeping their brain occupied during recovery will not only stave off boredom and release any pent-up energy, it will also increase your dog’s confidence, help keep their memory sharp, make them smarter and more trainable, and strengthen the bond between you and your beloved canine companion.
In fact, even the most loving pet parents often underestimate the value and importance of mental stimulation for their dogs. While most owners understand just how much their pups love playing fetch or a good game of tug-o-war – and of course, this sort of physical exercise is extremely important – these activities don’t involve much cognitive action.
When you think about it, many dogs were bred with a specific purpose in mind: to catch rats in castles, to herd sheep in the fields, to hunt alongside their human companions, etc. And for many dogs, this feeling of having a “job to do” is still very much within them. For this reason, lounging around the house for most of the day, waiting for your human to come home, can be frustrating.
The good news is that there are hundreds of dog games and activities you can do with your pet to give them the mental stimulation they crave – whether they’re in recovery from surgery or not. While it’s not necessary to put your dog on rat-hunting duty or give them sheep to herd, playing brain games with your pup will challenge their cerebral cortex and give them the feeling of accomplishment they want and need. And if they’re recovering from surgery, it’s the perfect way to defeat boredom and release the energy they’d usually expend physically, so it doesn’t manifest in unhealthy ways.
Before You Begin: Understand What “Restricted Activity” Means for Your Dog
As we mentioned, the post-recovery process for almost all canine surgeries involves some sort of restricted activity for your pup. But just what this looks like depends on the specific type of surgery they’re undergoing. For example, dogs recovering from orthopedic surgery must move as little as possible, which may mean confining them to a crate or exercise pen and keeping them on a leash during potty breaks. (Dogs recovering from a tibial plateau leveling osteotomy, for instance, may need to be on restricted activity for as long as 6 weeks!) If your dog is undergoing surgery such as a spay or neuter, they will need to be on restricted activity for as long as it takes the surgical wound to heal.
Before you decide which brain games and activities to play with your pup during their recovery, it’s important to understand the specifics of their restricted activity. If you’re unsure of the length and type of restricted activity your dog must adhere to, be sure to ask your veterinarian for a complete set of guidelines. This will ensure that during recovery, you can provide the right type of mental stimulation without overdoing it.
The 10 Best Ways to Entertain Your Dog During Recovery
So now that you know the importance of providing mental stimulation for your dog when they’re recovering from an operation, how do you actually go about it? Here are 10 of our favorite games and activities to entertain your dog post-surgery.
The Cup Game
This is a great game to play with dogs with limited mobility over a longer period of time since it evolves to get more difficult as they get better at it. To start, simply let your dog see you hide a small healthy treat under a plastic cup on the floor. Tell them “okay” or “take it,” and when they nose or knock over the cup, let them eat the treat it was hiding.
Once your dog has mastered this, grab 3 cups total and rub the treat on your hands and around the rims of the cups, so the smell is everywhere – this is a visual tracking game, and you don’t want your pup cheating with their nose! Line up the cups in a row, then let your dog see you hide the treat under one of them. Tell them “okay” or “take it,” and although it may take them several tries, when they knock over the correct cup, let them eat the treat.
When your dog gets good at this step, move to the next phase in which you hide the treat, then slide the cup it’s under into a different spot before telling them “okay” or “take it.” This is pretty tough, and not all dogs can do it, but if they do get the hang of this version, you can then make it even trickier by swapping 2 cups and seeing if they can track the one hiding the treat. If your dog can master this, you’ve got one impressive pup! But if they’re not exactly a whiz at the cup game, not to worry. Dognition is a great place to learn about your dog’s personality and learning style, and a wonderful resource for pet parents with dogs in recovery. It has featured a version of the cup game for members and also has tons of other brain games to keep your dog’s wheels turning during recovery.
Puzzle games are interactive toys that stimulate your dog’s mind and are perfect for the recovery process. Most pet stores nowadays offer a variety of these games, which involve problem-solving of some kind, followed by a reward for your dog. Trixie Dog Toys is a company that makes puzzles that require pups to flip lids, turn knobs, open drawers, and lift up cones to uncover hidden treats. Nina Ottoson is a wonderful company out of Sweden that produces puzzles that range in difficulty from Levels 1, 2, or 3, and (a big plus in our book) are always easy to clean. Whichever game you choose, we encourage you to take the time to show your dog how the puzzle works, play together with them, and always supervise them closely when playing.
Food dispensing toys are a wonderful way to turn what would usually be a 3-second scarfing down of a treat into a mentally stimulating activity. For example, the classic Kong or the hilarious Monster Mouth are treat-dispensing chew toys that keep your dog’s brain engaged as they try to retrieve the food. You can place kibble, canned dog food, or healthy “people foods” like yogurt or pureed pumpkin into these toys to keep your dog entertained for quite some time. And as a bonus, they can continue to chew on the toys once they’ve retrieved the goodies.
Keep in mind that if your dog is new to these toys, it’s beneficial to take the time to teach them how to use it. Also, be conscious of how many extra calories you’re giving your pup during their post-surgery recovery. Too many extra calories, coupled with restricted mobility, can mean your dog can put excess weight on quick – and nothing could be worse for their recovery process.
Never underestimate the power of loving touch in the healing process. If you notice your dog seems to be feeling a little down during the recovery process, purposeful touch can improve their mood considerably, while also helping enhance circulation and lymphatic flow, reduce stress and anxiety, decrease pain, and relax their body and mind. You can learn the basics of how and why to massage your dog here.
Canine massage can also be a wonderful form of therapy for dogs during their rehabilitation process. Your veterinarian may be able to show you specific massage techniques to help their healing move along. Plus, it’s not only the injured area that can benefit from healing touch, so it’s helpful to take a holistic approach to massage in recovering dogs. For example, in order to compensate for an injured leg, over time a dog will have put excessive stress and strain on many of the other muscle groups throughout the body. Therefore, their whole body can benefit from massage during the recovery process. At the very least, you’ll lift your dog’s mood by giving them some quality time with their favorite person: you.
The Muffin Tin Game
This is a simple DIY game you can easily create for your dog with items you most likely have lying around the house. Dig out an old muffin tin, and place some small healthy treats in a few of the holes, then cover all of the holes with tennis balls. Your pup’s problem-solving skills will spring into gear as they devise a strategy to remove the balls and get to the good stuff.
Durable Chew Toys and Treats
As long as your dog is not recovering from a mouth or jaw injury, durable chew toys and treats are a great way to keep them busy for a good long while. Check out Pet Life Today’s 25 best indestructible dog toys of 2019, or try bully sticks, which many pet parents love since they’re a safer alternative to rawhide. Again, if you give edible treats, be sure not to overdo it so your dog doesn’t gain excess weight.
This is a simple trick that can make all the difference in preventing boredom during your dog’s recovery. Rotating the toys you give to your pup keeps them interesting, and there’s nothing like a novel toy to lift a dog’s spirits. Following your pup’s surgery, simply buy 5 or so new toys of varying types and introduce them to your dog one day at a time. Remove the previous toy each day you introduce the next one, and keep rotating them to keep interest high. Your dog will be delighted to have an exciting “new” toy every day of their recovery.
A Change of Environment
If your dog’s recovery process involves them being restricted to their crate or exercise pen 24/7, staring at the same walls day in and day out will get really boring really fast. So change it up! Place novel things in your dog’s line of sight for them to look at – this could be houseplants, pieces of art, furniture – really anything to keep the view new and interesting. If possible, you can even move their crate or exercise pen to a new area of the house to achieve the same purpose.
Again if your pup’s recovery involves them being cooped up all day, it can be quite stimulating to expose them to scents. Your pup has a world-class sniffer that they love to use, and in fact, sniffing can be quite a tiring activity, so it’s a great way for post-surgery dogs to safely expend some energy.
There are a few ways to engage your dog’s nose. You can place a small, strong-smelling treat in the palm of your hand and have your dog choose which hand has the treat. Another way is to simply place a drop of natural oil (think lavender, lemon extract, vanilla, etc.) on the floor in the same room as your dog’s crate or exercise pen. Since a dog’s sense of smell is so superior, you’ll want to place the drop at least 10 feet away from where they are so it’s not overpowering. Change up the scent every few days to keep it interesting. Be sure the oil is out of reach of your dog to prevent licking. There are many scent games ideas, however, keep in mind if your dog has restricted mobility, adjust the games accordingly.
You may be delighted to learn that when it comes to entertaining your dog post-surgery, there’s an app for that! Since app games for dogs don’t require much physical activity, they’re perfect for pups with restricted movement. Although it’s important to keep in mind that just like with your human children, you should be conscious of how much screen time is too much for your fur child, apps can be a fun way to mix it up when connecting with your post-surgery pup. Here’s how to use them:
Step 1: Pick an App Game
A simple search of “app games for dogs” will bring up plenty of results, but the best touch screen games for dogs simply require taps or nuzzles to play and can be divided into 4 categories:
These games encourage your pup to touch the screen to make different sounds, such as squeaks and other animal noises.
These apps use nose or paw touches on the screen to create your dog’s own original artwork.
These popular apps tempt your dog with a critter they try to catch.
Question and Answer:
These apps prompt your dog to “answer” simple questions by touching a yes or no button.
Step 2: Teach the Nose Bump
First, you’ll have to train your dog to interact with the touch screen by training the “touch” cue, in which your dog learns to touch their nose or paw to a specific object. Start by teaching them the nose bump, simply by offering your open palm and when they bump it with their nose, encourage the behavior with a “yes!” and a small, healthy treat. Repeat this several times, then transition from having them bump your hand to bumping a piece of paper, and attach a word to the behavior by saying “touch” as they perform it.
As they get the hang of this, move the paper to different locations like the ground or the couch, so they understand they’re meant to target the paper, not your hand (remember, if your dog’s movement is severely restricted during recovery, only place the paper within easy reach). Next, transfer the paper to your touch screen device and ask your dog to “touch.” And finally, cut the paper into smaller and smaller portions, until your dog is simply touching the screen when asked.
Step 3: Play!
Your dog now has the basic skills to play any app you select for them. Keep in mind that if you choose a chase game, they actually likely won’t need to learn the nose bump – you can simply present the device with the game playing and let instinct take over.
Play around with different app games and determine which your dog likes best. For example, some dogs may become frustrated by “chase” games, since they can never actually physically catch the critter. It can be helpful to let them play for a bit, then present them with a physical toy critter so they connect with something real. Pay close attention to your dog’s reaction, and if the app you’re using seems more frustrating than fun, simply try a different type!
Unfortunately, we can’t explain to our pets that the recovery process is only temporary, but we can show them with our attention and affection that we’re here to help them get through it, heal as fast as possible, and fight off boredom and depression. Wishing your dog a safe, speedy, and (dare we say) fun recovery!