Ask Crystal: Winter Exercise

short haired tan dog in the snow carrying a stick in his mouth. Photo by Vlad Chețan from Pexels

Welcome to “Ask Crystal,” where you can ask your pet behavior questions! You can submit your question for Crystal at the bottom of the page!

Dear Crystal,

With the winter weather looming ahead of me, I am worrying about how I am going to exercise my dog. She is a one-year-old husky and is so energetic. I try to walk her every day but that is going to be hard for me in the cold weather. Is there any way to tire her out besides walks?


Allergic to the Cold


Dear Allergic,

short haired tan dog in the snow carrying a stick in his mouth. Photo by Vlad Chețan from PexelsThe winter months can be especially hard on our bodies and tough for our furry friends as well. This can be a time where our needs don’t match, especially for a Nordic breed like a Husky. They have an incredible amount of energy and are built for the cold weather. They want to get out there and run and that is the last thing we feel like doing right now! In the best of weather, our dogs still don’t get enough stimulation so their behavior can really start to suffer in the winter with even less enrichment and activity.

Now is the time to get started or catch up on your dog’s training. Training is an amazing way to burn mental energy which burns physical energy. Training needs to start inside the home where distractions are low. Many people rush things and try to train the dogs outside too soon and get frustrated at the lack of response. Huskies are notorious for having a poor recall. This may be because of their incredible amount of energy and the fact that they are independent hunters. If they see a small animal, they are going to be off after it. The recall is probably the most important training for you to be working on. Start out by working on her name recognition. When I say name recognition, I don’t mean the dog might look up at you. I mean they hear their name and whip their head towards you and run over. I want to classically condition this response so that there is no thinking about it. It becomes an automatic response. Animal trainer, Bob Bailey has said that is takes over three thousand repetitions to classically condition a behavior, so if you do it just ten times a day for a year you will be there!

Start out by standing or sitting right in front of your dog, say their name and feed them a treat. Repeat until they show recognition like their eyes lighting up or ears perking up. Next, let’s work on teaching a mark word. A mark word is like a clicker in that it marks the correct behavior for the dog which helps them isolate the correct behavior. Just as you taught them their name, say “yes” and feed the dog a treat. You could use your dog’s kibble for a couple meals as the treat and that would probably be enough to teach them to recognize the word.  The next step is called “The Name Game” and in this game we will teach the dog to run over to us when we call their name. In the house, when your dog is facing away from you, call your dog’s name in a high pitch tone of voice. The moment that they turn their head towards you, say “yes” and hold a treat by your leg. Wait until the dog comes all the way to you to give them the treat. If she doesn’t respond to her name, try making squeaky noises to get her attention. We want to wait a good ten seconds before calling her name again.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to ask several times before my dog responds, so only give cues once and give the dog time to respond to it. Start from short distances where she is very likely to come to you and then work in more distance and/or distractions. Again, we are looking to classically condition this, so do this as many times every day as you are able to. One of my absolute favorite games to work on recall is hide and seek. Hide in easy spots at first, call your dog’s name and when they find you, make a huge fuss and give them a treat. The look on their face when they find you is priceless and making training fun helps to motivate the dog to participate.

There are ways to give your dog exercise inside the house depending on your space and layout. If your dog likes to tug, it is actually a great way to tire them out. It is a great self-control exercise if you include some rules. Teach your dog take it by saying “take it” and holding out the toy. You may need to wiggle it around to entice them to take it. Teach them to drop it by holding a treat up to their nose while they are holding the toy, but you aren’t tugging and say, “drop it”. Be sure to treat them when they drop it. Lastly, they should know sit or down. Ask for a sit, tell them to “take it”, tug for a while and then ask to “drop it” and repeat. Fetch can be played in the hallway or downstairs and is a great way to tire a dog out. If you have carpet and some open space, you can play with a small flirt pole inside. There have been some awesome new toys developed that are motion activated and entertain some dogs for quite a long time. Or recycle those cardboard boxes by letting your dog rip them up or hide some treats inside and close the flaps lightly and see if your dog is interested. I like to play a game with the dog’s meals by throwing the kibble and when they go to eat it, call their name. When they come back to you, give them a kibble and repeat. I fed one of my dogs exclusively like this for a year and she has the most amazing off leash and recalls skills in part due to this game. Playing with another dog is a great energy burn so consider a half day of dog daycare to let her run some of that energy out. Even once or twice a week can make a big difference for some dogs.

Lastly, I think it is critical to find some food enrichment activities and only feed her through enrichment. There are a number of Facebook groups of people who share their enrichment ideas with each other. One of the suggestions is to take a tension rod, cut holes in soda bottles and slide them on the tension rod. Place the rod between a doorway and fill the bottles with food. The dog should use their nose to knock the bottles around and get the food out (check out this YouTube video for an example!). Another idea is to create a sniffy pool with an inflatable kiddie pool or cardboard box. Fill it with various fillers like leaves, paper, balls and hide food inside.  You can buy all sorts of toys that you put food in, and the dog knocks the toy around or licks the food out. If you are budget conscious, make your own with paper egg cartons, cardboard boxes, paper bags, paper towel rolls. Your creativity is your only limit.

In the end, walks alone are almost never enough for most young dogs. If you can create a routine of training, play and enrichment toys into your daily life, you will find that your dog is happier and more well behaved even into the warmer weather. You should be ready with your training to start working outside in the spring. I think you will find that it enriches your life as well to train them and watch them engage with toys. Good luck and stay warm!