Stuck Indoors: Things to do With Your Dog When You Can’t Go Outside (But They Still Need Training and Exercise)

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how to entertain your dog indoors

Exercising your hyper dog when you can’t go outside feels pretty impossible. Maybe that’s just because it’s hard to think, what with all the incessant barking and the zoomies and the biting and the ARE THOSE MY GOOD SHOES OH MY GOD.

Puppy biting, dogs destroying the furniture, “demand” barking and a whole host of other behaviour issues are almost always met with the same advice: “they need more exercise”. Which is often true, but what happens when you can’t leave the house?

What if you don’t have a yard, or your dog fence-fights with the neighbor’s dog, or your region is experiencing a record-setting heatwave (*cries in Arizonan*)?

We can’t completely replace the benefits of going outside, but being cooped up inside doesn’t have to mean we throw in the towel and let our dogs mutiny. We can keep the dogs entertained, improve their training, fulfil their welfare needs, and keep everyone at least semi-sane.

Training

All good training starts inside, so this is the perfect time to start training that new trick you’ve been seeing all over Instagram. It’s also the perfect time to tighten up the cues you already have in place, and get them just right before taking them out into the distracting outside world.

Training inside doesn’t have to be just for tricks, either! We can train almost anything inside, so if you’ve noticed that your dog’s recall has been a little less than reliable recently, or you’d like to teach your dog not to pull on leash, these behaviours can all have their foundations trained indoors.

To get you started, here’s a list of training tasks that are great to do inside. These exercises will help build your bond with your dog and get them to love being with you, give them some mental stimulation, and help to ensure that when you do go outside you and your dog can continue your training – and use these cues in real life – with less frustration, and more success.

Recall

Want an epic recall that has your dog running back to you at full speed with a giant smile on their face, every time, no matter what else they were doing or where you are?

It starts indoors.

Getting a dog to reliably come when called requires a very long history of reinforcement, because the distractions we often call them away from are exceptionally reinforcing.

One of the most common recall-related problems is that the recall cue (which is usually the dog’s name…awkward…) has been used in environments that are way above their dog’s pay grade. The cue is ignored, and dogs who are put in this situation often enough get so much practise at ignoring their recall cue, that it starts to outweigh the amount of times they’re rewarded for coming back.

When training a reliable recall, it’s important that we don’t skip steps, and that we frequently remind our dogs how awesome it is to come when they’re called. And that’s where training indoors comes in.

Inside, we can control the environment: we can minimise the distractions, and we can make the distance the dog needs to cover to get to us nice and small. Attach a long line for good measure, and if your dog doesn’t respond to their recall cue or gets distracted along the way, use your long line to gently reel them in and reward.

We have a step-by-step online training course that’ll show you exactly how to get your dog to looove to come running when called. Click here to check it out!

Loose Leash Walking

Just like recall training, this one starts inside. And not only do you not need a yard, you don’t even need a leash!

Loose leash walking is different from heeling. We like to think of it like this:

  • Heeling is a stationing behavior. It’s about the dog being in a very specific place, with very specific rules about what that should look like. Dogs are to “station” at their handler’s side, with their shoulders in line with their handler’s heel.
  • Loose leash walking is an absence of behaviour: the absence of pulling on leash. There are no strict rules like there are with Heel. Instead, leash manners really reflect more of a conversation between a dog and their owner – just like we would politely walk through a park with a friend.

However, the beginning stage of loose leash training is very similar to heeling: we reward our dogs for being by our side, and teach them that close to us is the best place to be.

It’s best to begin this training inside where there is no danger if the dog wanders off. Without any leash tension to stop them from walking away, the foundation for loose leash training comes from our dogs choosing to be near us. Choice always makes for more powerful and more reliable training.

Stay

Stay isn’t just a nice thing to have. In a lot of cases, it’s a safety thing. It’s also a key training tool to address issues such as begging at the table, resource guarding, door dashing, and staying still for grooming.

When we train this behaviour inside, there’s nothing at stake, and we can reward smaller steps so that we can build up to a super reliable stay cue.

Crate Training

By necessity, crate training is usually rushed. New owners take their new pup home and make an earnest effort at a crate training session or two.

Most dogs catch on to crate training pretty quickly, and amongst all of the other first-day-with-a-new-dog stuff, crate training usually doesn’t progress beyond the puppy being in their crate with the door closed for a couple of seconds at a time, or maybe the time it takes to get through a stuffed Kong.

And then night time rolls around, or owners have to leave the dog alone for the first time, and all of a sudden the dog has to be in their crate for hours. Often there’s lots of crying and whining, and everyone wakes up the next day pretty cranky and maybe slightly traumatised.

Crate skills usually go downhill from there.

Crate training is what we like to call a “maintenance behaviour”: it has to be practised frequently to keep it working the way it should. And since it almost always takes longer to properly condition a dog to a crate than we have time for, frequent training is all the more important.

When we’re looking for things to do with our dogs, no matter how great they are at staying in their crate, this is something we can always put some time into practising.

Tricks

Some training can be just for fun! There are a bunch of impressive tricks you can teach your dog indoors.

You can start super easy, with tricks like Sit Pretty, Go Behind, Speak, or Touch. Once you’ve mastered those, you can move on to advanced tricks like Footstalls, or Handstands, or even helping out around the house! Bear and Flower are currently learning to put their own toys away, and I don’t know who’s having more fun, them or us.

While there are lots of practical applications for tricks, the real magic of trick training is the bond it creates between you and your dog. Trick training requires dogs to problem-solve, and humans and dogs to work as a team to accomplish a goal.

Unlike a lot of other training tasks, trick training doesn’t usually carry the weight of treating a behavioural problem with it, meaning there’s less pressure to get it right. That can help us get out of our own heads, and really enjoy spending time with our dogs.

See also: Dog Training 101: How to Teach Your Dog to Do Practically Anything

Enrichment

As previously discussed, dogs have various enrichment needs, many of which they fulfill by running around outside doing all the Dog Things. But there are things you can do to tick those enrichment boxes while Rover’s stuck inside.

Sniffing and Searching

The main benefit of walks isn’t actually the walking part. The physical exercise part is important, sure, but the sniffing part is even more important.

Dogs have a sense of smell that’s about 100,000 times greater than ours. The area of a dog’s brain that processes scent is 40 times bigger than ours. It’s estimated that close to 30% of our dog’s higher functions are dedicated to receiving and processing scent.

So yeah – scent has a pretty significant role in Rover’s life. When we can’t give him access to the world outside his home, we have to keep his nose busy.

That’s where scentwork comes in.

Scentwork/nosework is a collection of dog sports and activities dedicated to encouraging dogs to use their sense of smell to access rewards. The most extreme form of these are detector dogs, Search and Rescue dogs, and tracking dogs. But any dog can play scentwork games!

The easiest scentwork game to start with is Find It. This involves hiding treats and asking your dog to find them using their nose. Once they understand that the “find it” cue means there are delicious morsels lying around waiting for them to sniff out, most dogs will love this game.

(For dogs who aren’t that food motivated, you can ask them to sniff out their toys, and play an extra exciting game of tug or fetch when they find them)

How to start playing Find It:

Step one: Get your dog’s attention, put a treat on the floor in front of her, and say “find it!” Praise when she grabs the treat. Repeat at least ten times, to give her time to connect the cue to the presence of food.

Step two: While Sparky watches, put the treat out of view. Behind a chair or something. Then give the Find It Cue. Repeat at least ten times, with different hiding spots each time.

Step three: Don’t let Sparky see you place the treat this time. Either put her in another room, or have an assistant hold her out of view. Make the “hiding spots” not hidden at all yet. Place a few treats where she’ll easily find them. On the floor, or on top of objects in her sight line. Then bring Sparky into the room and say “are you reeaady? Find it!” If she gets distracted or doesn’t seem interested, you can offer hints by pointing out the treats.

When she’s found all the treats, say “all done!”

Repeat until Sparky doesn’t need hints anymore.

Step four: Same setup as last time, but this time, start hiding the treats out of view. Start with very easy hiding places, and make it harder as Sparky gets better at the game.

This game can be a foundation for training dogs to do all sorts of neat things. Do you constantly lose your keys in the house? Rover to the rescue!

Finding food using their nose also satisfies another important dog welfare need: foraging/seeking.

Dogs are primarily scavengers by nature, see. They have an innate need to sniff and search for their supper. It actually helps them maintain good mental health. You can satisfy that need by playing lots of Find It, or by scattering meals on a snuffle mat, or even just the carpet.

Playing with toys (or without toys!)

There’s a difference between toy play and personal play, and both have their benefits.

With toys

When you and your dog play together with a toy, you’re involved in something extra special, because games with toys mimic games with prey. And your dog is sharing their prey with you.

Games like chase and fetch and tug are ritualised representations of the hunt: chasing, catching, and dismembering lunch. This is a complex conversation in which something that could otherwise cause intense competition – prey – becomes something that ties the two of you together. That’s pretty incredible, if you think about it.

And toy play is important for exactly that reason: it cements social bonds. You and your dog are saying to each other that you trust and understand one another.

Without toys

“Personal play” is when you and your dog play together without toys. The way this happens is different for every dog/owner relationship. Some dogs like to be chased, and have owners who don’t mind running around. Others like to wrestle lightly. A few like to wrestle not-so-lightly.

This style of play is important for building bonds with your dog, because it involves being vulnerable. Being chased, biting, wrestling, rolling over on your back: these are all activities that expose both our dogs and us to a potential conflict. Having fun instead helps our dogs feel safe with us, and makes both parties more aware and respectful of each other’s boundaries.

Addressing Behaviour Problems

This often overlaps with training, but we’ve chosen to differentiate the two:

  • Training involves teaching your dog a new behaviour, or leveling up a behaviour they already know.
  • Addressing behaviour problems involves changing the things that your dog does, that you don’t like (or giving you and your dog some coping mechanisms for when those behaviours do occur).

And for the behaviour problems that happen inside, this makes sense. But what about the things that usually happen outside, like helping a reactive dog, or working on fence fighting?

It may seem strange, but we actually can work on these things indoors.

Trigger Training

One of the biggest keys to helping a reactive dog get better, is addressing their reaction before they react. We have to break training up into teeny tiny increments, so that reactive dogs can stay below their reaction threshold.

“Working below threshold” is important because once a dog has displayed a reaction that we can perceive, that means they’ve already been reacting emotionally and neurochemically for ages. By that time, they’re so pumped full of things like adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) that they’re no longer able to retain information.

At this point, if we can manage to keep our dog from reacting too explosively, or interrupt their reaction, it’s just management. What we’re doing is distracting our dog long enough to get the hell out of dodge. But they’re not actually learning anything from us.

From the safety of home, we may have an opportunity to slowly introduce different elements of our dog’s triggers in small increments, and pair this with a reward that they find super reinforcing.

This will look different depending on your dog’s trigger, but a good example is playing the sounds of barking on your phone, at a very low volume, to a dog who is extremely reactive to other dogs, and rewarding each time they hear a bark.

To apply this to your dog, think about the smallest bits that you can break the trigger into, and how you might introduce those bits to your dog. As primarily visual creatures, us humans often think about the sight of a trigger as being the only thing our dog reacts to. But smell and hearing are equally as important to dogs, and can be used to begin counter-conditioning and desensitising them to their triggers.

Separation Anxiety

Treatment for separation anxiety, separation distress, and isolation distress vary greatly, and severe cases usually require consultation with a veterinary behaviourist. If your dog harms themselves when left alone, or is so destructive or distressed that it seems unsafe or excessive, it’s time for a trip to a vet.

However, most cases of separation anxiety and its related disorders are less severe, and behaviour modification treatment can be done at home or in consultation with a professional trainer.

That treatment usually starts off the same way for all dogs and all types of separation anxiety: being left alone for tiny amounts, and being heavily rewarded for it.

Pop your pup in their playpen or secure area with something fun and delicious to occupy them. Step out of the room for one second, then immediately return and silently give them a treat. Repeat this process for increasing lengths of time, as long as Sparky stays nice and calm.

We can also begin training relaxation protocols while we’re stuck indoors:

If your dog has a “Place” cue, send them to their place, mark and reward, and wait. (This video will show you how to teach a place cue)

When you see your dog begin to outwardly relax, put on some relaxing sounds like white noise or classical music for dogs, and silently give them a treat. The music/white noise will eventually serve as a cue that tells Sparky to relax. (You can replace relaxing music with anything else you’d like as a cue. You can even use a diffuser to emit a specific scent!)

Signs that your dog is relaxing:

  • Lying on their side
  • Lying with their hip flicked out and their back legs to one side
  • Soft eyes and slow blinks
  • Slow breathing
  • Yawns and yawny groans
  • Lip smacks
  • Sighing

Remember to take all of your dog’s body language in context: a yawn could also mean “I’m stressed and confused, what the hell am I supposed to be doing right now?!”. Look at the whole dog. Take our free course, Dog Speak 101, to learn more about canine body language.

Counter-Conditioning to Everyday Items

This is similar to trigger training, but it’s for things that may be strange and mildly uncomfortable to Rover, but that they’re going to need to learn how to handle.

It’s for puppies and dogs who bite their leash, who pull their paw away when the nail clippers come out even though they haven’t had a traumatic nail clipping experience, who don’t like baths, who hate their harness, who aren’t a fan of the vacuum cleaner, and a whole heap more.

Having to stay inside makes it a great time to start counter-conditioning these items, and letting your dog know that interacting with these things mean that awesome stuff is coming their way.

Have a look at our article on counter-conditioning and desensitisation to get a feel for what this might entail for you and your dog.

Do you know what your dog is saying?

Understanding the subtle ways dogs communicate is a critical skill for dog owners. It can help with: choosing the right dog, solving training problems, and building a strong bond.

This free video course from our online academy will give you a basic, yet detailed, introduction to the wonderful world of canine body language and communication.

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