Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, Winter 2004. To subscribe: http://www.akc.org
In cold weather, both dogs and people tend to get less exercise and enjoy less time in "the great outdoors" even if that's just a fenced in backyard. But with some extra planning, a little snow can create an unofficial Olympic arena! Here are some activities specially designed for snowbound days; and each "event" in this winter Olympiad incorporates an element of training, too, which will reinforce the learning successes that all dogs need.
These activities are meant to be done outside, and, while all members of the family can join in, parents are especially encouraged to join in any activity with young children, or with dogs who are young or untrained.
In this zigzagging race, you and your dog weave in and among poles posted across the snow. You can make poles from anything that isn't sharp or too bulky: for instance, you can gently poke branches from your spent Christmas tree into the snow, or use tomato stakes, tent poles, or even skinny friends! The object of the race is to zip across the snow, alternately passing a pole on your left side and then your right side, without knocking them down.
Beginning dogs should maneuver across the course on a leash. Advanced dogs can run without a leash or even without you, though that kind of agility training takes a bit more work.
Start with just a few poles spread 8 or 10 feet apart, to introduce the idea to your dog. Walk the first few times around the pole, praising your dog. Eventually add more poles and move them closer together (depending on your dog's size, about six feet apart). Once you and your dog are comfortable with your course, pick up the speed and try for your best time.
Search and Rescue
This is really a "find it" game, where your dog rescues biscuits "trapped under an avalanche" in your backyard.
As with any training, begin in a way that ensures your dog's success: Make the rescue mission easy and obvious at first, then progress to real challenges that require your dog to be more persistent, digging or sniffing for buried bits.
First, have your dog sit. Place a bit of a biscuit (or a kibble from his bowl) a few feet away on the snow, and give the command, "Find it!" Praise the dog the moment he snatches the treat. Try this a few times, moving the treat farther away, eventually hiding it (let your dog watch you hide it) just behind a bush or tree. In each case, give the command, and praise your dog the moment he finds the treat.
Now start again, placing the treat just under the surface of the snow. Let your dog see you hide it. Gradually, bury the treat bits a little deeper in the snow, and farther away. In every case, use the same command, and praise the dog.
If your dog loses interest after a few rounds, take a break. Renew the game later in the day. (And don't overdo it on the snacking.) Eventually, you'll be able to hide kibble or treat bits that will require your dog to really use his talent for sniffing and digging. Instead of treats, try this game with tennis balls or rubber toys tucked under the snow. On very cold days, try "search and rescue" in the house with popped popcorn or bits of dog treats hidden under cushions or behind furniture. (But not the good furniture!)
Want to show off your dog's psychic powers and amaze your friends? Using the same idea of this "find it" game, bury a biscuit inside one of three small snowballs. Give the command, "Find it, oh wondrous wizard," and let your dog's magical powers sniff out the correct snowball.
When it's really cold out, a game of freeze tag can be a good warm-up, AND a great way to reinforce that all-important sit command. In this game, your dog follows your movements, walking when you walk, sitting when you freeze in place.
For beginners, take a short run with your dog on a leash, and then give the sit command just before you come to a halt, and freeze. (Don't allow your dog to pull you, and don't stop abruptly: You don't want the leash to jerk.) Pause until your dog sits, and stay there as long as you want to freeze. Then take off again, walking or running with your dog beside you. The more quickly your dog sits each time, the more stops and starts you can make. With practice, you can make quicker runs, abrupt turns, and more frequent stops. If your dog can be trusted off-leash, have him walk or run next to you, then stop beside you and freeze again when you freeze. To make a real sport of this, give yourself a distance-say, across the yard and back and a number of freezes to make-say, 1 0 stops. Make your own rules, such as: Every freeze must last at least two seconds; or, if the dog takes more than five seconds to freeze, the team gets a two-second penalty. Time yourself or invite other kids and dogs to join the competition.
Swinging from the uneven bars, vaulting, working the pommel horse-those aren't exactly events for dogs. But the balance beam is perfect! Find a plank of wood that's about one foot wide and as long as you'd like (six to eight feet is great). Place it right on the snow or lift it two or three inches in the air by using packed snow, bricks, or anything else that will provide a solid track that won't wobble. To start off, walk your dog across the beam using a leash; you walk beside the beam, encouraging your dog with praise. You might use the command "Keep going," or "Forward," so that you can use the command on other obstacles that you might create. Once your dog is comfortable with the plank, walk the beam faster. Finally, have your dog walk the beam off-leash. Just remember to make certain that the balance beam isn't icy or more than a couple inches off of the ground. Of course, this "event" can also be done indoors on a stable beam set up in a safe, uncluttered area.
Snow Rinks and Cross-country Events
Here's a chance to invent your own snowtime races. First, create a circular race course in the snow: You might stomp your boots, use a snow shovel, or drag a sled or saucer that's weighed down with a friend or two. Of course, deeper snow means slower speeds. Just make certain you don't pack down the snow into an icy sheet. Have your dog heel alongside you, either on or off the leash, while you walk, trudge, or run the track with your dog. This is a great event to reinforce heeling.
Try a speed "skating" event, where you and your dog make laps around your rink. Try to beat your own fastest time. Have neighbor dogs join in and chart their individual speeds.
Or go the distance! Invent your own "Iditarod," where you and your dog cover the great snowy wilderness of your own "backyard Alaska." Each circle you travel on your track can be one mile toward the goal of 100 miles or some other goal. Or use a real map to chart progress: Assign each lap a particular number of miles, so that every outing is an extension of a journey your draw with a marker on the map.
While your dog may have only a couple of tennis balls,when the snow is right for packing you can provide an unlimited number of snowballs! (Just be careful not to pack the balls tightly and turn them to ice.)
For dogs who like to fetch, prepare a bucket of snowballs to retrieve.
For dogs who like to catch, invent a game of snowball toss, where you prepare a dozen balls and lob each one to your dog, scoring points for every one successfully caught.
Or turn your hack, throw a dozen halls over your head, and then you and your dog see how, bug it takes to retrieve them all and drop them back in a bucket.
For teaching a dog to fetch or catch, start with short, slow pitches, and move on to faster, longer pitches once your clog has a good rate of success.
You might even turn this game into a biathlon, with a snow-run and a ball-toss (with your dog or at a target). It will take both speed and accuracy to win the gold!
You can put almost all of the separate elements into one big obstacle course. Fetching, tossing, racing, jumping, weaving around slalom poles, a balance beam-whatever combination that you can assemble, as long as you're keeping safety in mind.
Arrange fire logs, snowballs, banks of shoveled snow, tree branches, and so forth into a racecourse with 'moats," hills, trenches, and hurdles.
Stack very large snow balls to make an arch (one ball balanced across the middle of two other halls) or a tunnel that will add a crawling element to the course. Or use cardboard boxes.
Try racing the course with your dog, or invent a course that's just for your dog, where you do the coaching, leading the dog with a leash or with commands across your various obstacles. (As always, start with one obstacle, working to perfect that feat, before adding a second one.)
Save time for a warm up and a reward! Take care not to be out in the cold for too long. Come inside to rest, get arm, and share a warm mug of a special treat (see sidebar) with your dog. After all that "Olympic" activity, you'll both deserve it!
Michael J. Rosen is the author or editor of some 60 hooks, including Dog People, 21st Century Dog: A Visionary Compendium, and The Blessing of the Animals.