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Surviving Self-Isolation With Your Pets

Corona, Corona, Corona… It’s all we are hearing about at the moment – and for good reason. But I don’t want to talk about that, I’m not going to mention the ‘C’ word from here on out. What I do want to talk about is how on earth is everyone managing their pets’ needs during this time?

I’ve seen so many posts on social media about managing your day to ensure you’re staying on top of your mental health, putting a schedule together for your children who are no longer going to school to ensure they are being stimulated and supported, and so now it’s time to do the same for your pets.

Without generalising too much, dogs and cats are going to be similar to small children – they don’t understand why they have to stay at home (or inside completely depending on your circumstance) and so they will start to act out and show unwanted behaviours if their physical and mental needs aren’t being met. So, let’s avoid the problems and look at ways we can keep the furry members of your families nice and balanced along with the rest of your family during this trying time. Now some of these activities use different toys that you may or may not be able to buy and actually get delivered at the moment, but there are always ways around that if you think outside the box.

Hide and seek is a great way to practice several basic obedience skills including sit, wait (or stay whichever you use) and recall. It’s easiest played with two people but can still be played with just one, you may just need to work up to hiding if your dog’s ‘wait’ isn’t strong enough. We have been playing this game in our house recently as a means to work on Pickle’s recall when we go for walks. I’m basically working up to being ‘sexier than a squirrel’ with the help of the guys at @absolutedogsofficial, they have a great podcast explaining this so go have a listen so you know I am not crazy (or a weirdo dressing up in a squirrel costume). Anyway, one of us will stay with Pickle and ask her to sit and wait. The other will take her favourite toy with us and go hide. We then simply yell out for her to come. She then hoons around the house searching for us. When she successfully finds us, we make a huge fuss with lots of excitement and we have a couple of minutes of crazy play with her toy. Rinse and repeat. It’s that easy. You need to make this exciting so don’t be embarrassed to make a fool of yourself around your dog. It’s worth adding that we put the other girls in a separate room when we play this otherwise it would be chaos!!!

Find it is a game that can either be played with food, treats or toys. When you start out with this game, I think it’s worthwhile having your dog present in the room to start with – they need to learn how the game works. Get them to sit and wait and show them what you are going to be hiding. Then while they wait you hide the prize. Once it’s hidden you simply say their release word (if you use a release word to tell them it’s ok to stop waiting), and then say, ‘find it’ and nothing else. To start with they may need some help to start exploring around the room, but as they get a grip on the game and the meaning of ‘find it’, you’ll be able to get them to wait outside the room while you hide the prize. It is also important that when they find the prize you make a big deal, especially if it is a toy. Engage with them, play with them with the toy to make the experience more fun. We often sprinkle Pickle’s breakfast or dinner kibble all over the grass in our back garden and tell her to find it. She’ spends a good 30 minutes sniffing her way around our small garden looking for all her kibble. This activity is a good way to stimulate their minds and for a dog like Pickle who loves following her nose, she gets to practise one of her favourite activities of tracking a scent.

Pickle is a slave to her nose and loves a good game of find it with her food.

A little word of caution, if you have multiple dogs in the house you need to make sure you assess the situation before involving all of them. We have three dogs and there are only certain games we will play with all of them, others we play with one at a time otherwise there will be an altercation. Even dogs that get along well can have an ‘argument’ when you are playing high energy games with high value rewards like treats and favourite toys.

Tug games require hardly any space so are great for indoors. Betty especially loves playing tug whether it is with us or with one of the other dogs. When you get her designated tug toy out, she starts to vibrate with excitement. My only problem is she is so strong, and I struggle to keep hold of my end sometimes. A few words about tug games though – even when your dog is really excited, they should still drop that toy on command every time you ask them to. We had to work extremely hard to get this with Betty. She got so worked up that she wouldn’t drop the toy for anything, but we were consistent with the training and now she drops it 90% of the time which is a huge improvement from 0%. On those times she doesn’t drop it we simply tell her ‘no more’ and give her the hand signal for end of play, and we walk away. Game over. It’s also a really good idea to have a separate toy just for tug. It makes it much easier for your dog to know when playing tug is appropriate. It might sound over kill, but each of our dogs have their own toys – no one plays with the other dog’s toys. Ever. They then each have their own tug toy, fetch toy, and an ‘ok to be destroyed toy’. Ultimately this saves us from any arguments between the dogs, they all know exactly what game we are about to play by the toy we select, and it saves us money as they aren’t destroying the expensive toys.

Chew toys are essential whether you are on lock down or not. Dogs need to chew so you need to have appropriate things for them to chew. As with everything we have a selection in our household but by far the most popular with the girls are deer antlers, but they also love dog-safe wood (chew roots, coffee wood, olive wood) which don’t break or splinter, and I randomly bought a chew toy of Amazon about 6 months ago that really looks like a sex toy but they will sit and chew on it for ages. Betty and Daphne are the bigger chewers in the group, and they will each spend at least an hour of everyday chewing.

The old 'wonky eye' - a true indicator of a good chew.

Snuffle mats are a great way to get your dogs to slow down with eating but also gives them some mental stimulation at the same time. We use these daily with our girls, mixing it up each meal as to who gets the snuffle mat, a food puzzle or their normal bowl. Variety is the spice of life. The flat-faced girls definitely find this more of a challenge, so it takes them longer to ferret out all their kibble. You can find these online at multiple sites, you could even make your own if you are blessed with the talent of sewing.

Daphne loves her snuffle mat. It's also super easy to clean just throw it in the washing machine.

Food puzzles can be achieved a multitude of ways – either official dog food puzzles or you can easily make something at home. Of course, we have a few of the plastic dog puzzle games because Pickle is a smart little girl who likes to be challenged. That being said, an empty water bottle is a cheap alternative, simply put holes in the bottle that are big enough for whatever kibble or treat you are going to fill it with to fall through. You can also get an old towel and roll it up into a sausage shape, as you roll, place treats or kibble inside. If you’re lucky enough to be having hot weather, you can also freeze treats within bricks of ice but I’m not sure this is something you want to be doing inside! I also saw an idea that involves using a cupcake/muffin tray (one you’d use in the oven) and putting treats in some of the cups then putting a tennis ball on top of each of the muffin cups. There is no way we could have this game in our house because Betty would very quickly swallow each of those tennis balls (I kid you not), so I will leave that one up to you guys.

A food puzzle is a great way to give your dogs their food while providing mental stimulation.

And now for Pudding…

Food/treat balls are a fun way to either feed your cat or give them some extra treats. We originally got on to the ball option for Pudding as she was quite overweight when we adopted her (hence the name Pudding). We would put her daily ration inside the treat ball then she would have to play with it to get her food. It gave her mental stimulation as well as some much-needed exercise. Now she is at her ideal weight we will put a few treats in the ball so she can have a play.

Pudding waiting not so patiently for her treat ball.

Lasers are a really cheap option that will provide hours of fun for everyone involved – just don’t go shining it in anyone’s eyes!

Home-made toys can also work well for cats. A screwed-up bit of paper tied to string, a feather on the end of a string, the list goes on.

An important point to remember with cats is that they are natural born predators with many pet cats still actively hunting. For your enrichment to provide everything your cat needs, they need to be presented with a treat or a bit of food once they’ve pounced and attacked the toy. This completes a really important behaviour pattern called the ‘predatory motor pattern’. A cat that goes through all the steps of this pattern but doesn’t get to complete it, i.e. consume the prey they’ve worked so hard to kill (even if it’s a feather attached to a stick), can become frustrated and display unwanted behaviour. Think of it like you’re making a cake – you found a recipe, went to the grocery store to get the ingredients, made the cake and then someone takes it away and you can’t eat any. Simplified version? Yes. But it’s to help you understand why they need to eat something at the end of their efforts. I know I’d get super pissed off if I repeatedly made a cake and no one let me eat any of it (clearly not going to be a professional cake maker anytime soon). If you’re super keen, google predatory motor pattern in cats and read some more as it is a really interesting concept.

Just like us, enrichment is really important for our pets whether they are cooped up inside or not. And just like us they all have their own preferences. It’s important to find the right combination of enrichment for your pet that engages them. Our pets aren’t a one-size fits all when it comes to the activities they enjoy. My husband loves mountain bike riding, but I’d prefer to do pilates. Same for our pets. If they aren’t that excited, don't give up, just try something else.

Like a lot of people at the moment, we are currently in self-isolation. Day 3 to be exact. I thought we were handling it really well until my husband started making cat videos for this blog (it's at the bottom for your viewing pleasure). I totally encouraged it as just like pets, husbands also need enrichment when stuck inside the house. Please send help.

Stay safe everyone and as always, enjoy the journey of becoming a mindful pet owner.


Enjoy Rob's directorial debut - filmed by Rob, edited by Rob, produced by Rob, starring Pudding.


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