You’re at the vet discussing treatment and recovery strategies for your dog who is experiencing an illness, injury, or needs a surgical procedure. Then, they say the dreaded words many dog owners wince at: “crate rest.”
If you’ve ever had an energetic dog who needed to spend an extended period of time either on crate rest or with significantly reduced activity, you know that this phase of medical recovery can be mentally taxing on our dogs, and can drive even the most patient dog owners up the wall. But, with a strong game plan and a dynamic list of ideas to keep your dog relaxed, calm, and mentally exercised, crate rest can be a little bit easier to manage for all involved. Check out these tips to get some ideas flowing for you and your dog!
Tip #1: Revisit Relevant Training Beforehand
Don’t wait until the first day post-procedure to re-introduce your dog to their confinement area, especially if your dog hasn’t recently spent a lot of time in confinement! Many of us think that because our dogs went through crate training earlier in life, those skills are still there months or even years later. While this MIGHT be the case, it’s not worth the gamble to just “wait and see.” Think about how your dog will likely be confined in accordance to their comfort level with confinement and with the procedure they will be recovering from, and get your setup constructed beforehand so your dog has some time to practice. This might look like their regular kennel/crate, or it may look like an ex-pen setup, or a dog-proofed room in your home.
Once your setup is constructed, spend some time each day before the procedure working with your dog on the various steps building up to going in their confinement space and settling/relaxing in structured training sessions. At the beginning, this might look like spending a couple of sessions sending your dog into their crate or pen, rewarding them, and releasing them right away over and over again. Then, this could build into asking your dog to settle or lay down in their crate/pen while you work on closing the door, then continuing to build up to them remaining settled while you move about the room and even out of sight. Need some training demos? Check out this three-part series on how to introduce a dog to an ex-pen setup for some inspiration:
Speak with your vet as well about any potential equipment or clothing your dog may need to wear throughout recovery as well. Some dogs may need to spend time in a surgical recovery suit or in a cone for a while. To some dogs, wearing these pieces of equipment for the first time right after a stressful stay at the vet can be a highly negative experience. So, giving them a chance to acclimate to wearing these items beforehand can be a great way to ease them into the experience. Spend a few days briefly putting these items on your dog, and pairing this with a positive experience like eating lots of high value treats, playing with toys, or working on a fun puzzle before taking the equipment back off.
Tip #2: Plan Enrichment Ahead Of Time
Keeping a dog entertained while going through medical recovery feels a lot less out of control when you have a solid enrichment plan prepared in advance. It’s always better to have enrichment to pull out when you need it in the moment, over having to stop your day and figure out what to do for your dog when the whining, restlessness, or boredom is already happening in the moment. I recommend starting out by doing an assessment of your dog’s current exercise/enrichment routine that they need in their day-to-day routine, and then thinking of some creative ways to try and replicate some of those activities in low-impact ways. Once you have a good list of activities that your dog loves, try listing out a weekly plan of what activity your dog will get and when, so that you can reference your plan as you go about your routine and don’t have to take as much time out of your day to prepare something for your dog to do.
When it comes to stuffable enrichment like Kongs, Toppls, Lickmats, etc, these items can easily be prepared and stored in advance so you can have one available as needed. If you have a collection of these toys, try setting one day aside at the beginning of the week to prepare your items and store them in the fridge or freezer (added difficulty when frozen) for later. You may also want to plan to engage your dog in other activities as well beyond the stuffables, and find a daily rotation of food-based enrichment, sensory enrichment, and social enrichment that works best for the things your particular dog enjoys doing. Additional suggestions are to come further along in this article!
Tip #3: Household Materials Are Your Friend
Stuffable toys and food puzzles are great ways to mentally stimulate and entertain your dog, but when you are rotating through multiple activities per day, the same old toys over and over again can get repetitive and even expensive if you’re going out and looking to buy something new all the time. Don’t forget about common household items that can serve as a fun activity for your dog as well! Some activities can be made through entirely recycled materials like cardboard/paper products, while others can be done with common cooking and cleaning items like towels, muffin tins, etc. A few suggestions to get your creative ideas flowing:
Muffin Tin And Tennis Ball Puzzle
This one is a classic! All you need is a muffin tin, a few tennis balls, and your dog’s kibble or training treats. Take your muffin tin and place a couple of treats in each opening, then cover each with a tennis ball. Give to your dog and let them figure out how to get to the treats underneath! For smaller dogs, using an egg carton can create a similar result.
Using that same muffin tin for larger dogs, or an ice cube tray for smaller dogs, fill each opening with items your dog loves like kibble, treats, small pieces of meat or fruits/veggies, and then cover with water, chicken broth (no garlic or onion), plain yogurt, or goat’s milk. To make a “stick” for your pupsicle, you can insert a long biscuit-like treat or an edible chew like himalayan yak chews, bully sticks, or chicken feet. Freeze, then pop out and serve to your dog!
Water Bottle Toys
For dogs who like toys that make sound, making your own crunchy toy can keep them entertained and soothed for hours! All you need is an empty water bottle (cap and seal removed) and an old ankle-length or calf-length sock. Insert the water bottle into the sock and tie off the opening securely, before giving it to your dog to chew and crunch on (supervised). Most dogs are very entertained by the sensation of a crinkly water bottle and will go right to town chewing away at their new toy! When the water bottle is fully chewed up, you can remove it from the sock and replace it with a fresh one.
You can also use a water bottle as a food puzzle! Take an empty bottle, and poke some kibble-sized holes in the sides (the more openings, the easier the toy; the fewer openings, the more difficult). Then, simply fill with your dog’s kibble or some bite-sized training treats, and give to them to roll around on the floor! As they bat the toy around and nose it around, pieces of food will fall out for them to enjoy.
Recycled Paper Products/Cardboard
For dogs who need a new challenge after cycling through all their regular puzzles a few times, reaching for recycled materials is a great way to mix things up and give them a new, low impact challenge to work on! These items can include Amazon boxes, toilet paper/paper towel roll inserts, or packing paper/newspaper. Check out this video for ideas on how to make recycled enrichment for your dog:
Tip #4: Utilize Your Dog’s Daily Meals
A lot of activities that are accessible to a dog going through medical recovery are likely to be food-based. But, your dog is also operating at a much lower activity level during this time, and significant weight gain from eating too much food with too little exercise could be problematic. So, it’s really important to make sure all of your dog’s calories count! Don’t make the mistake during this time of just feeding your dog’s meals out of a regular bowl- you’re missing out on a prime opportunity to utilize those calories to work your dog’s mind. Instead, try feeding their meals through dynamic ways. You can soak their kibble in water/broth or buy canned varieties of their food and use it to fill their stuffable toys or lick mats. You can set aside a portion of their meal to have a training session, or use their kibble to entertain them with household puzzles and activities like the ideas listed above!
Tip #5: Think Beyond Food Puzzles
We’ve talked a lot so far about using food puzzles and stuffables to help keep your dog entertained and stimulated during their recovery. But, enrichment doesn’t stop there! We have other tools in our toolbox to help stimulate our dogs and give them outlets to use their brains beyond giving them a puzzle to solve. And while some of these ideas do involve food rewards, it’s great to think beyond the puzzle and make sure your enrichment plant or your dog has a variety of activities to prevent boredom with the same old items over and over again.
Scent-Based Enrichment: A dog’s strongest sense is their sense of smell! Utilizing scent-based enrichment is a great way to activate your dog’s mind and allow them to express some natural behavior.
Nosework Games: Teaching your dog how to navigate a room and use their nose to find a target odor or food can be a really easy and accessible way to let them use their nose. It’s easy to set up a search area. Simply gather a few items from around your house like boxes, plastic tubs, step stools, chairs, etc and use one small container as your container to put food in like a small dish, small box, or tupperware. Be sure to use the same one for all searches, just placing it in different spots! Hide your container with a treat inside, then bring your dog into the search area and release them to “search!” Initially they may be a bit confused, so it’s important to start by hiding your container in easy places before increasing the difficulty. When they find the container, praise them generously and feed them an additional treat!
Bring The Outdoors Indoors: Your dog is likely going to be missing some of the simple pleasures of getting to go on a neighborhood stroll and sniff all the different smells of the area. But, you can bring these smells to them! Take a stroll around your neighborhood and spend some time picking up various twigs, leaves, rocks, etc and set up an area in your home to let your dog spend some time just sniffing and investigating all the interesting outdoor items you brought back for them!
Social Enrichment: Dogs are social creatures, and allowing your dog to still have some safe social outlets is a great way to still meet their need for interaction!
Focused Cuddle Time: We often passively pet and acknowledge our dogs throughout the day, so this suggestion might seem a little bizarre as a suggestion for enrichment. But, how often do you put the phone and distractions down, and just spend several intentional minutes touching and petting your dog, being present with them? You’d be surprised at how enriching and calming setting aside 10 minutes is to just be fully present with your dog and spend time stroking, calmly talking to, and just sitting with your dog can be. You may also want to spend time giving your dog a little massage (depending on if this is safe for their recovery). Spend some time massaging your dog in slow, gentle, circular motions, and just really allow them to fully relax with you.
Observe The World: If your dog will be on prolonged rest, you may want to invest in a doggie stroller or wagon so you can bring them out to observe the world around them, while still making sure that they aren’t exerting themselves. Alternatively, placing their crate in the car and driving them to a nearby location (like a local park) to just watch the world go by can be a great way to give them a bit of observational social time, from a distance. Make sure to clear car travel with your vet before attempting, and this activity may not be suitable for highly excitable or reactive dogs.
Low-Impact Training: Training can still be done to activate your dog’s mind during this time! Try spending some time researching a few different easy tricks to teach your dog- many don’t require much physical exertion at all! You may also be able to work on some low-impact life skills during this time as well, like basic obedience, settle mat training, hang targeting, or attention on cue.
Tip #6: Rotate Your Toys
For the dogs out there who love their squeaky toys, chew toys, and edible chewies, these can be a fabulous outlet for your pup to keep themselves occupied during those boring rest days! However, it may be helpful to put your dog’s toys on a rotation as you go through the week to ensure the toys stay interesting, and to prevent yourself from needing to go out and buy something new every time your dog gets tired of one of their older items. I prefer to keep 5-6 toys out at a time, leaving each “group” of toys out for my dog to utilize and entertain themselves with for a day or two. Then, when I’m ready to rotate, I will pick up all of the old toys and bring out 5-6 newer ones as well. And yes, it’s okay if your dog de-stuffs their squeaky toys (so long as they are not consuming the stuffing)- dissection is a natural behavior and a great outlet for energy! I recommend checking out hide-and-seek style toys or pull-apart style toys for dogs who like to rip their toys up or de-stuff. This allows the dissection fun to be had over and over again!
Tip #7: Reduce Distractions, Triggers, And Activity Around The House
This tip can be especially helpful for those with dogs who can be excitable, reactive, or fearful. When there is a lot of activity happening inside and around the home, asking our dogs to remain calm and settled can be even all the more difficult. Try to limit houseguests and gatherings while your dog is recovering, and take action to mitigate the stress levels they experience due to triggers or stressful events when in the home. For some dogs, it may be helpful to keep your dog confined to the quietest area of the house with the least amount of traffic and outdoor noise, while for other dogs who struggle with separation, being confined to a centralized location where they can keep tabs on the house inhabitants may be better.
If you have a dog who flies off the handle at outdoor sounds and triggers, there are multiple measures you can take to reduce their exposure to outside sounds. Put up a sign on your door asking delivery workers not to knock when leaving packages. You may want to disable your doorbell for the time being, or even play ambient classical or jazz music throughout the house to muffle outdoor sounds for your dog. Running a box fan in the room your dog is staying in can be an additional great way to break up the sound waves of outdoor noise, even more effectively than a white noise machine.
Tip #8: Utilize Calming Aids
If you have a dog who is high energy and you know will struggle with the low-activity lifestyle of crate rest and recovery, your best bet for keeping them calm and quiet is to speak with your vet about any medical interventions they can offer to keep your dog feeling calm in the form of medication. However, there are additional measures you can take alongside your veterinarian’s help to promote a feeling of calm in your recovering dog. A few suggestions include:
Calming Chews And Supplements
The industry of calming supplements is very lucrative, so it’s best to speak with your vet to determine which products are worth trying, and which are best avoided. However, when people do find a product their dog responds to, the results can be a fabulous help!
Pheromone Collars, Sprays, Diffusers
There are pheromone diffusers that may help some dogs promote a state of calmness and relaxation. Adaptil is a common product used, and comes in multiple forms depending on the best way to apply in your specific situation. These pheromones replicate similar ones released by a mother dog to her puppies.
Some people find that their dogs respond well to compression-like clothing meant for calming purposes like the Thundershirt. These compression clothes use gentle pressure to give your dog a feeling of being “swaddled,” which some dogs find comforting.
Music has the potential to have a significant impact on your dog’s ability to feel relaxed in their confinement surroundings. When looking for music options to play for your dog, choose playlists of classical music, jazz, piano, or even finding a playlist that is specially curated to appeal to dogs like “Through A Dog’s Ear” music.
Crate rest and keeping your dog calm through the recovery of a medical procedure is never easy. But, with some careful planning, proactive training, and lots of enrichment options on deck, you can make life for your dog and yourself a bit easier to manage through this stage! As always, be sure to check with your vet if you’re unsure about utilizing any of the suggestions or tips given here to make sure they’re a good fit for your circumstances. Best of luck, and hang in there!