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4 Ways to Keep Your Dog Busy When They Can't Exercise

Even if your dog is injured and can't exercise, you can still keep them entertained. Here's how.

by Karen B. London, PhD
June 11, 2021
Dog playing the shell game with her human. Concept of training pets, domestic dogs being smart and educated
Photoboyko / Adobe Stock

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

My extremely active five-year-old dog injured her leg, and I’m supposed to prevent her from exercising for the next six weeks. Frankly, I don’t see how either of us will survive if she can’t run off her extra energy. What can we do?


Vets will often advise that you restrict your dog’s activity following surgery or while they recuperate from muscle or joint injuries. But the prospect of living with an underexercised dog who chews, whines, barks, or develops some other equally annoying habit to pass the time can be more alarming than the original medical problem. The devil really does find work for idle paws. Here's what you can do:

Get clear on your dog's restrictions.

First, ask your vet to tell you exactly what your dog can and cannot do. Clearly, two-hour romps through the woods with her dog buddies will have to wait until she has recovered, but is a daily 10-minute leash walk allowed? Can she swim? Are stairs completely off-limits?

Give your dog's brain a workout.

Without being able to give your dog the physical exercise she's accustomed to, the key to keeping you both sane lies in exercising her mind. Mental exercise can take many forms. Time spent doing simple obedience is great for dog brains, plus you reap the benefits of having a better-trained dog. Ask your dog to sit, stay, lie down, or anything else she knows how to do to earn treats, toys, a trip outside, or a belly rub. A weekly class to learn new skills is a great motivator and can provide stimulation for your dog during her exercise quarantine.

Teach your dog new tricks.

Tricks are another way to get your dog thinking, and can be a playful diversion for both of you. Learning tricks challenges the mind and makes many dogs tired, even without physical exercise. Some of my favorites are crawl, spin, beg, rollover, wave, shake, and high-five. (Of course, choose tricks that do not compromise your dog’s recuperation.) For example, if she likes to retrieve and is into toys, teach her the names of all her toys so that you can tell her to go get a specific one. Or, teach her to bring you a tissue when you sneeze. A flashy trick is to teach your dog to clean up by putting each of her toys, one at a time, into a toy basket.

Make mealtime mental exercise.

Rather than just plunking a bowl down in front of your dog, feed her in a way that keeps her busy. Putting her food into Kongs, Goodie Balls, Roll-a-Treat Balls, or Buster Cubes so she has to work to get it out can keep her occupied for a long time. Learning how to get the food out is mentally engaging, and if you use different items and pack the food into them in different ways, your dog will get the maximum benefit. Even freezing her food inside a Kong or Goodie Ball will make eating a longer-lasting, more challenging endeavor.

The bottom line: Boredom is the enemy of the well-behaved dog. As long as your dog is using her mind, whether it’s to play, eat, or work, she is getting the mental exercise that helps her nap on the rug in front of the fire — instead of chewing it up.

Karen London holding up a small dog

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.