We’re in the darkest part of the year, which can make it hard to get our dogs enough outdoor exercise and enrichment to satisfy their needs. Here are a handful of indoor games and activities to burn your dog’s physical or mental energy and have fun together.
As you peruse this list, it’s just as important to find activities that sound fun for you as it is to find ones that sound fun for your dog. You deserve to have fun, too! And when you try them, focus more on the process than the results.
As long as you and your dog are engaged with each other and having fun, you’re doing your enrichment right! It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules of a game exactly or if your dog learns a new skill.
Physical Energy Burners
To burn physical energy indoors, try one of these games that don’t require much time or space:
Tug of war
Tug is a full-body workout for dogs that requires very little floor space, plus it’s fun! This guide has great tips to make sure tug is safe for everyone.
A flirt pole is like a giant cat wand, but for dogs, and trying to catch one is very physically demanding and mentally stimulating for dogs. You need more space than you do for tug, but not a ton.
This classic game is a great way to get your dog moving while you relax in a chair. Use soft balls for safer (and quieter) indoor play. If you have an open space without much furniture or breakable stuff, experiment with bouncing the ball around the room to add excitement and difficulty.
Monkey in the middle
This twist on fetch will get your dog running, jumping, and diving even more.
- Sit across an open room from a partner.
- Toss a ball or favored toy back and forth to each other while your dog runs back and forth between you, trying to get the toy. Throw it easy enough that your dog has a decent chance of winning, but not so easy that they win every time.
- Make sure your dog gets to win every 30 seconds or so, and give them a chance to squeak, shake, or chew the toy before restarting the game.
If you don’t have a partner, you can play this yourself by bouncing the ball off a wall so it rebounds back to you.
Many dogs love to be chased while they have a toy. Indulging your dog as they play keep away from you is a great way to burn energy and to boost your bond. Research shows that dogs who are allowed to “win” during play are more engaged with their human partner during and after the game, so don’t stress about letting your dog beat you at the game.
Note: All of these games can get dogs quite hyped up, which increases the risk of them hurting someone accidentally. If your dog doesn’t have the impulse control skills or manners to play these games safely yet, work with a trainer before trying them alone.
Mental Energy Burners
These mentally stimulating activities encourage your dog to problem solve, which leaves them surprisingly tired and satisfied:
The “Which Hand?” Game
This simple game lets your dog tap into their powerful sense of smell.
- Grab a bag of pea-sized treats. Take one in your hands and then shake them up, so your dog can’t tell anymore which hand has the treat.
- Present both fists to your dog one at a time. If they paw or nibble at your hand, present it a few inches above their head, low enough that they can still sniff it by tilting their head up but high enough to be out of easy reach for their paws or mouth.
- Now present both fists to your dog, wait for them to signal through sniffing or pawing which paw they think has the treat. Open your hand to show them if they were correct or not.
- If they were right, praise them and give them the treat. If they were wrong, say “uh oh” in a silly voice. No need for scolding.
To this day, the majority of dogs globally scavenge for most of their food. Our dogs are lucky to have reliable, balanced diets, but it does mean that they have excess mental energy that would have been used to scavenge. This game lets them burn that energy.
- With your dog outside or in another room, scatter their meal or some treats around a relatively open room. Start by putting the treats in visible areas of the floor.
- As your dog gets better at searching for food, you can slowly make the hunt harder by hiding treats at different heights and in hidden spots.
- Don’t forget to pick up any treats that your dog misses before letting other human or animal family members back in the room to prevent any resource guarding.
Agility is a great way to strengthen your communication with your dog while challenging them both mentally and physically. You don’t need to buy equipment to get started. Check out this guide to cheap and DIY agility equipment for inspiration.
Similar to agility or competitive obedience, you can use your furniture and other household items to make an obstacle course for your dog. Customize it based on your dog’s skills, strengths, and interests. Be sure to use lots of treats and praise and no punishment or scolding as you teach your dog all these new things.
Here’s are a handful of obstacle suggestions to get you started:
- Drape a blanket over two dining chairs to make a tunnel.
- Line up 6-10 toilet paper rolls on the floor to make a low jump.
- Lay a blanket on the floor to practice “down” or “stay.”
- Place a row of post its on the floor to mark spots to practice different tricks.
- Put a couch cushion on the ground for your dog to practice walking on an unstable surface.
Many impressive-looking dog tricks are surprisingly easy to train! Do More with Your Dog has an extensive Tricktionary with tutorials for training dozens of different tricks, all organized by difficulty level. A few of our favorites are take a bow, crawl, roll over, and play dead.
These activities put your connection with your dog front and center:
This is a great way for you and your dog to wind down and transition from high energy activities to quiet time. This video from the veterinarian who directs the CSU Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine has a great sequence of three techniques to try with your dog.
A lot of dogs love it when their humans let loose. Turn on your favorite music and start moving! Encourage your dog to join in, and adapt your moves in response to theirs. Grab a toy if it encourages them to get involved.
Hide and seek
This easy game is also a great way to improve your dog’s response to their name or to “come.”
- Scatter a handful of pea-sized treats on the ground to distract your dog while you hide somewhere nearby but not super obvious.
- Call either their name or “come” just one time. Make it loud, clear, and playful.
- Use kissy noises or silly baby talk to help them find you, but don’t repeat their name or “come.” Over time, you can do less and less of this so they rely on their own problem solving skills and sense of smell to find you.
- Once they find you, praise them generously and then scatter a handful of treats on the ground so you can go hide again.
Solo Fun for Your Dog
If your dog has energy to burn, but you don’t have time to interact, try one of these:
If you need your dog to keep themselves busy, food puzzles are the best way to do it. For the longest-lasting puzzle, we suggest stuffing a classic Kong or similar toy with a mix of canned dog food and freezing it.
We suggest ditching your dog’s food bowl and feeding all of their meals from food puzzles as an easy way to add enrichment to their day without adding work to your plate. This guide to food puzzles can give you more info.
Add treats to regular toys
Most dogs aren’t that engaged in playing by themselves, but adding a few treats to their regular toys can add enough motivation for them to play solo. Here are a few of our favorite toys to enhance with treats:
- Hide & seek stuffed toys, like the classic Squirrel Log from Outward Hound: Add the treats into the log along with the little squirrels.
- Fleece tug toys: Tuck treats into the folds and twists.
- Rope toys: Soak a rope toy in low-sodium or homemade broth to make a chew toy.
- Rubber balls: Many balls designed for fetch also have small spots to add a couple treats.
Take a cardboard box, sprinkle a handful of treats in the bottom, and then add a bunch of your dog’s toys, mixing more treats in as you go. Let your dog snuffle and dig to find all the treats.
These training exercises will teach your dog useful life skills while burning physical and mental energy:
Settle on a mat
This exercise teaches your dog that when their quiet mat comes out, it’s time for them to lay down and chill out. With practice, it’s a great way to keep your dog calm when out and about in public or when you need them to chill at home. It’s also a helpful tool for calming your dog down after high energy or stressful situations.
This simple game is beloved by many dogs! It’s also very useful. It’s a great alternative to “come,” an appropriate way to greet new people instead of jumping, and a way to guide them to walk beside you for short periods of time, like when passing someone on the sidewalk or navigating parking lots. This is a great guide to teaching it.
This game is simple enough for even complete novice dog trainers. It’s fun for dogs and gets them running around while also strengthening their response to their name.
- Toss a treat so your dog has to turn away from you to find it and eat it. If your dog has a hard time finding the treats, try something stinkier and/or that contrasts with the color of your floor.
- As soon as they finish eating it, call their name just one time. Wait quietly for 5 seconds to give them a chance to respond on their own. If they don’t turn to you after 5 seconds, make some kissy noises, clap, or stomp your feet to draw their attention.
- When your dog turns to look at you, say “yes!” then toss another treat to turn them away from you again. Don’t worry if your dog is looking at your ankles and not your face, that’s still a sign that they are paying attention to you.
- Repeat! As your dog gets good at the game, make it harder (and more fun) by rolling the treats farther and in different directions. You can even experiment with running around the room, so you are in a different spot each time.