Operation “No Grumpy Gus”

Mental enrichment helped our dog through months of crate rest.

When Gus was about 9 months old, we realized something was wrong. He was hiding from the other dogs when they wanted to play, and one of his legs didn’t look quite right. We discovered he required surgeries to correct an angular limb deformity on one rear leg and replace a hip on the other. Recovery from each surgery was tough for this young guy. He was on crate rest or restricted activity for about three months after the hip replacement and for another several months while wearing a fixator for the other surgery. No play with other dogs, no running, no jumping, no walks. Mental enrichment activities were crucial to help him through this tough period. We used a wide variety of treats and his regular food for puzzle toys and training, making sure to balance out his calories for the day.

Dog lying on towel in yard for mental enrichment of sights, smells and sounds.
Meet Gus. He’s a tripaw. He’s had a total hip replacement and an osteotomy to correct an angular limb deformity.

Mental enrichment isn’t just for dogs on crate rest! Like physical exercise, every dog benefits from mental exercise.

Our Guide to a Happy Gus: A Sampling of Mental Enrichment During His Recovery

Food puzzle toys

Gus enjoyed solving the problem of extracting food from puzzle toys. He got a new puzzle to spice things up every now and then. You can read more about food puzzle toys here and here.

Video of Gus with a food puzzle toy. He loves puzzle toys!

Tricks for treats

We played a lot of training and shaping games. For instance, we worked on chill (chin rest), down-stay, touch nose to toys and take a breath.

Dog doing chin rest trick for mental enrichment.
Gus demonstrating “chill” (chin rest).

Shell game

Gus loved playing this game. To play, get three opaque cups and place a treat under one of them. Your dog will nose and paw at the cups until the treat is found. You can make it more challenging, once they get the hang of it, by moving the cups around.

Chew toys

Variety, variety, variety. Click here for some ideas. We’ve recently discovered Icelandic Lamb Horns thanks to Clipper’s Canine Café.

Watching the world go by

Gus loved hanging out on a clean blanket or towel in the front yard to watch the world go by. He earned treats for remaining in a down as people or dogs passed by.

Dog wearing fixator and bandage while sitting on blanket in yard for mental enrichment.
Gus in his fixator, watching the world go by.

Dog stroller

We took Gus around the neighborhood in a dog stroller (approved by his surgeon) so he could enjoy all the great smells, sounds and sights. We introduced Gus to the stroller in incremental steps, using treats to make it a fun game. Because the porch was just about the same height as the stroller, he had no trouble walking into it on his own. We also pre-trained a down-stay before surgery. He was paid with yummy treats for staying in a down as we moved around and when we passed other dogs. (And squirrels!)

Dog in a dog stroller to experience sights, smells and sounds for mental enrichment.
Gus enjoying time in his stroller. He still gets excited to see it, even though he hasn’t used it for a few years now.

Treat and Train or Pet Tutor

These devices allowed us to deliver treats using a remote. This really helped Gus with isolation from us and the other dogs. We started out delivering a treat every few seconds and worked up a treat every 5 minutes or so. 

Tips for Mental Enrichment Activities During Recovery

  1. Start easy, with whatever your dog can do right now.

    If the problem is too hard to solve, your dog will get frustrated or decide it’s not worth their while and give up. Gradually increase the level of difficulty so your dog can be successful at each step. Here are some examples:

    Kong classic or West Paw Toppl
     Completely fill very loosely with small pieces of food and treats — all your dog has to do is barely bump it and voila, treats fall out!
    Easy: Stuff the treats in more tightly
    Harder: Incorporate larger pieces that take more effort to get to
    Harder yet: Add a paste (peanut butter, cream cheese, canned dog food) so it all sticks together
    Hard: Freeze the food-stuffed toy

    Chin Rest “Chill”
    Easiest: Dog moves head downward slightly
    Easy: Dog moves head halfway towards floor
    Harder: Dog touches chin to floor
    Harder yet: Dog rests chin on floor

  2. Feed all of your dog’s meals through training or interactive puzzle toys.

  3. Mix it up to keep things interesting!

    There are a wide variety of puzzle toys, chews and treats on the market and quite a few options for low-key training games.

  4. Select puzzle toys and training games that are appropriate for your dog’s particular recovery restrictions.

    Check with your veterinary team to make sure the activity is okay.

  5. Prep in bulk.

    Stuff a bunch of Kongs or Toppls and load up several food puzzle toys so they’re ready to go when you need them.

  6. It’s more about the process than the product.

    The goal is to provide your dog with enriching activities. Have fun together!

Dog with fixator and bandage on leg in a crate.
Gus during recovery from the osteotomy to correct the angular limb deformity.
Video of Gus playing after recovering from orthopedic surgeries.

Need some help?
It was time consuming to provide adequate mental exercise in addition to all of the extra tasks associated with caring for Gus during recovery. If you find yourself in this situation and could use help providing enrichment activities, check out my Brain Games packages.

2019 Train for Rewards Blog Party Logo
This post is part of the 2019 Train for Rewards Blog Party with Companion Animal Psychology.


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