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When your vet says "your dog will need restricted exercise"!

This simple statement can strike fear into any dog owner. The thought of keeping your whirling dervish ‘quiet’ for up to six weeks can make you go weak at the knees. As a veterinary nurse, I have often been the purveyor of this news and seen the look of horror on my clients’ faces.

I recently experienced this first hand with my own dogs. I have two young, very exuberant working cocker spaniels and made the decision to castrate them on the same day. My thinking was that I could get the ‘keep them quiet’ bit done in one – two birds with one stone as such. I realised that keeping them entertained and managing frustration levels in such active dogs was going to be tricky and require all of my skills as a behaviourist and trainer. And don’t even mention the logistics of avoiding permanent injury to one’s legs from the inevitable ‘cone’s of shame’. The cones became an important factor in managing their obsession with each others’ nether regions!

Anyway, I realised that due to their age, which was 12 months, this was still a crucial time in their emotional and mental development, and I was determined not to let any bad habits form or for them to experience any negative emotional issues from their short confinement.

I firstly looked at how a break in normal routine, and lack of usual exercise and stimulation in such young, active dogs might impact them emotionally. Frustration was my biggest concern, as they weren’t able to choose their own strategies to help them with this. Frustration is a very negative emotion and can quickly lead to anger and general grumpiness, particularly if they struggle to find any relief from this feeling.

I was also aware that as spaniels, they had very specific breed requirements that needed to be met. Spaniels are active dogs that love to use their noses to hunt and flush out game. They are constantly on the go and an inability to express this behaviour would likely have an impact on their mood state. Dogs that get bored can also start to ‘experiment’ with other potentially undesirable behaviours that might help alleviate boredom and ease their feeling of discontent. This could be anything from barking excessively, to chewing things like furniture, tea towels, shoes etc.

My Plan

The first step I implemented was to reduce boredom and to see that at least one of their breed specific needs was met on a daily basis, particularly chewing as this was very important to my dogs.

Food puzzle toys create a little bit of manageable frustration whilst the dog tries to get to the food. However, they allow the dog to find relief through gaining access to the food, thus helping to keep a balanced mood state. I chose to use a Kong Original™, Kong Wobbler™ and Kong Wishbone™ (other toys are available) as well as a snuffle mat. See website for more details

All meals were fed from one of these to increase the length of time they took to eat as well as to provide an important outlet for natural scavenging behaviour.

I varied their diet to keep it interesting and their favourite was a frozen Kong with tuna fish and natural yoghurt as a stuffing.

Chews were also provided. This is an important activity for dogs – it helps to reduce boredom, frustration and results in the release of endorphins in the brain. I personally only use cigar shaped rawhide chews and only under supervision as I find that these do not tend to splinter off. There are also lots of commercially prepared chews and healthy alternatives like fish skin.

I took the opportunity to fine tune some of my training, particularly loose lead walking as this would be crucial during their recovery. I practiced in the garden using a clicker to reward them at the correct time and they quickly learnt to stay near me without pulling. I also did some ‘place’ training, which helped to improve their sit and stay and self control (really important if you’re a busy spaniel)!

Once we were able, we went on some ‘sniffari’s’ down the lane where they were able to sniff around in the long grass and hedgerows. This is very stimulating for them, particularly as they tend to ‘see’ the world through their noses.

We also played’ find the mouse’, a real favourite for my dogs. I have a toy mouse, which I hide in various locations around the house and then help them find it with verbal encouragement and showing them various places to search (without actually showing them where it is). Scent work is mentally very challenging and can tire them quite quickly.

I also taught them some new tricks and made sure I played with them. I can highly recommend “Brain Games for dogs” by Claire Arrowsmith and “No walkies, no worries ‘ by Sian Ryan.

It is also important to encourage down time and canine massage therapy or even just gentle grooming is an excellent way of helping dogs to relax. This may not apply if your dog does not like being touched!

Things to bear in mind with a dog on restricted rest:

  • Be mindful of their mood state – try to prevent frustration and boredom

  • Watch weight gain, especially for orthopaedic cases. You may need to slightly alter their diet perhaps to a low fat version during convalescence. Dogs on restricted exercise have different calorie requirements.

  • Use this time to positively enhance your relationship and training

  • If your dog has any issues with handling, this is a great time to do some reward based training to help him feel more comfortable with this. Why not have a look at the Bucket Game – a game of choice for your dog

Wishing your dog a speedy recovery

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