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Fun Indoor Games To Play With Your Dog

By Kayla Fratt


As we hunker down for the winter and a likely third (or is it fourth?) wave of COVID-19 cases, many of us are wondering how on earth we’ll meet our dogs’ energy needs. Many owners struggle to exercise their dogs in the winter anyway, and what will we do now that dog parks, doggie daycares and other go-to options aren’t available this winter?

Here in Montana with a high-energy border collie and a new puppy on the way, we’ve needed to come up with a list of indoor games to play with your dog during the quarantine.

Ready, Set, Down!

This game is perfect to burn off some excess energy and, better yet, build your pup’s ability to listen when he’s excited. 

Here’s how you play: 

  1. Get your dog a bit revved up with his favorite game (tug-o-war or chase can work well here). Don’t go too hard right away — if your dog gets too excited this game gets much harder. Once your dog is engaging with the game, stop playing and ask your dog to drop the toy (skip this step if you’re playing chase). 

  2. If that was hard for your dog, let him start tugging again and keep playing at that difficulty level until dropping the toy on cue is easy for him. Then move to the next step.

  3. If your dog drops the toy easily or you’re playing chase, the next step is to cue your dog to do a well-known behavior like sit or down. As soon as she complies, cue her to start playing with you again and play away! 

  4. Repeat the game a few times, making sure that you mix in plenty of fun play along with the harder “work” of dropping the toy and listening to cues. Your dog will stay engaged for longer if you make it more fun, and that way you’ll burn more energy!

Search Games

All dogs are natural sniffers. Their scavenger ancestors befriended humans and expertly scrounged for our scraps. It’s easy to tap into your dog’s love of sniffing to find food even in a small space! 

Here’s how you play:

  1. Put your dog in a crate, behind an exercise pen or behind a baby gate. If you don’t have any see-through barrier like this, you can use a tether by tying your dog to the couch or a door knob. It’s best to let your dog see at first. Later, you can use closed doors or put your dog in a stay position. But right now your dog needs to see you to get her excited about the game!

  2. While she can see you, get some tasty treats. I use chicken breast or cheese with most rookie dogs. Show her what you’ve got, then start wandering around the room faking her out with placements. She’ll see that you’re hiding the treats but won’t know exactly where the food is. At first, don’t make it too hard. Try putting the food under your coffee table, on the bottom level of the bookshelf, near her toy bin, or somewhere else low and accessible. Don’t get too crazy with hiding treats behind potted plants, buried under blankets or high up above her head just yet!

  3. Release your dog and then step back and watch. Don’t guide or coax her too much. In fact, you can just plop on the couch with a book or resume cooking dinner for most dogs! If you hit the difficulty level right, it should only take your dog a minute or so to find the treats at this stage. Remember, this should be fun! 

  4. Gradually increase the difficulty by putting treats inside a cardboard box your dog has to step into, behind a pile of dog toys, on a chair rung a bit higher up, or near an air source that blows the scent around. Your dog might enjoy taking the game to new rooms or outdoors as the weather allows! Your dog will love this game and it’s super hands-off for you! 

101 Things to Do With a Box

This classic “shaping” game is a great way to work your dog’s mind while you improve your own training skills. I recommend using this game as a way to have your dog earn her meals – it uses a lot of treats! 

Here’s how you play:

  1. Get a mid-sized cardboard box (or some other random prop that your dog can step into, onto, over, etc). Put your dog’s dinner into a bowl, ziplock bag or treat pouch so you’re ready. Pick a word, or grab a clicker, so that you can mark the exact moment your dog does something you like. Learn more about the basics of marker training here.

  2. Plop the box down in front of your dog and have your clicker or marker word ready (from now on I’ll just say “marker” or “mark”). As soon as your dog approaches or interacts with the box, mark and then reward her. I recommend tossing a treat away from you and the box so that when your dog swallows the treat and turns back to you, she’ll automatically come back towards the box as well. Mark again as she interacts with the box, even if it’s just approaching or looking at it. 

  3. Try not to point, nudge or otherwise prompt your dog into interacting with the box. Just gradually reward her for doing a smidge more! You might see her go from looking at the box to nosing the box to pushing the box across the floor.

  4. Gradually shape your dog to push the box, step into the box, step onto the box or whatever else you like. You can either pick something specific you want your dog to do — like get into the box — or just go with whatever your dog offers! Once your dog is completing a behavior reliably, try again another day with a different goal in mind. You’re actually rewarding your dog for creativity if you do it right. How cool is that?

You’re actually rewarding your dog for creativity if you do it right. How cool is that?

Fitness Games

Your dog can do a home workout, just like you! While this isn’t quite a “game,” you can still make it fun using lots of toys and treats for your dog. There are lots of tricks that are actually workouts for your dog. 

Here’s how you play:

  1. Teach your dog a variety of tricks, like sit, down, wave, shake, spin and weave between your legs. 

  2. Come up with a simple workout for your dog and prepare her breakfast or dinner rations as a reward. You might keep it simple with sit-down-stand repetitions, or get creative with a variety of tricks. As an example, have your dog stand with one paw in the air while he licks a frozen spoon of peanut butter, then weave between your legs five times, then jump on and off the sofa three times, then repeat.

  3. Get after it! You can even create fun fitness challenges for you and your dog to do together, as I demonstrate below with Barley doing the “Bring Sally Up” Push-up challenge.

Can You Listen When?

This game is perfect for challenging your dog’s brain and improving her response to cues. If you ask her to do physically challenging tasks (like lying down and standing up over and over) this can double as a workout!

  1. Pick a few cues that your dog knows pretty well, and plan a few distractions that fit the challenge level. If you’re working with a distractible puppy or a newer cue, keep it easy! But if your dog is a pro at obedience, go ahead and make it a real challenge.

  2. Pick a distraction or two from the following categories and lay them out in your training area: 

    1. Location: new room, building or other training space.

    2. Temptations: a boring toy, a favorite toy, a bowl of vegetables (easiest), a closed Tupperware of treats (easier), an open bowl of treats (harder).

    3. Surfaces and sounds: with music or podcasts playing at a variety of volumes, on a couch cushion, on a slick surface, in the bathtub, in the snow or water.

    4. Trainer behavior: with your back to the dog, with sunglasses on, while sitting or laying down, while doing jumping jacks, waving your arms around, doing sit-ups, clapping, behind a chair or baby gate.

    5. Visitors: while another dog or person is nearby. Different combinations of people or pets will be harder and easier depending on the number of them, their activity level and their distance from your dog.

    6. Gradually layer in distractions. If your dog “fails” twice in a row, it’s too hard! Move the distraction further away or turn them down in difficulty another way. Make sure your dog is staying happy, engaged, and comfortable.


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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