Are you and your recovering dog feeling bored and fed-up? Dogs must not run around or chase about while recovering from an operation or injury, and there are so many banned activities that the recovery period can feel tedious for both dog and owner. Ball-play and tug games are out of the question, and full-length walks must be left until very late in recovery.

Chew-toys and food-filled Kongs are great boredom-busters for recovering dogs (click here for more information). But what else can your dog safely do to pass the time?

Quiet games for you to play with your recovering dog

Consider getting your dog’s mind working by playing some quiet games. But let’s first get some safety advice out of the way:

  • Avoid any games that involve chasing (e.g. ball play), running, jumping, pulling (e.g. tug-of-war) or rough and tumble. 
  • Do keep any games calm.
  • Keep your dog on a lead throughout each game. A harness is also a good idea as it gives you better control of your dog.
  • Reward your dog with praise and little food rewards, not with a rough and tumble session.
  • Food rewards, and food for “sniff and search” games must come out of your dog’s daily ration (i.e. measure what you are offering, and give them that bit less at dinner time).
  • If you’re not sure whether an activity is safe for your dog, check with your own vet first.

Adapt games to suit your dog’s needs if required. For example, keep everything right up close to your dog if he can’t yet move very far. If the game requires your dog to pick an object up, then make sure that this won’t cause any discomfort. Tall dogs with leg, neck or back problems may find it difficult to pick things up off the floor. In that case, it can be better to place the ‘sniff and search’ or ‘fetch it’ objects onto a raised surface such as a footstool.

If your dog cannot move much at all (e.g. due to a back or neck injury) then keep any games as simple and easy as possible. Keep sessions short, prop your dog up in a comfortable position if needed, prompt your dog as much as needed so as to help them succeed, and be sure to end every game on a happy note by praising your dog. The last thing you want to do is to make your disabled dog feel even more frustrated.

Games that use your dog’s sense of smell

The following games are most suitable for dogs who enjoy using their sense of smell. Dogs of many breeds will enjoy these, particularly springer spaniels, pointers, retrievers, beagles, dachshunds and some terriers.

Sniff & search game. Try teaching your dog some basic ‘nose work’ to search for bits of kibble or low calorie dog-treats. Start by dropping a little food on the floor in front of your dog, say ‘Find it’, and encourage them to search for, and eat all the bits of food. Next, cover your dog’s eyes while you drop some food. Uncover your dog’s eyes. Again, say ‘Find it’, and encourage them to search for, and eat, all of the food.

To increase the challenge, hide bits of food under pieces of fabric, towel, cardboard or upturned egg-boxes. Your dog might start nosing or digging under some of the objects to reach the food. Up to a point, this is fine. If the game causes your dog to get very over-excited then it is safest to stop just in case of injury.

‘Which hand?’ game. Put kibble or a treat in one hand. Leave the other hand empty. Show both closed hands to your dog. Can your dog work out which hand the treat is in?

‘Fetch it’ games

Your recovering dog is not allowed to rush about, so a traditional game of throw and fetch would not be safe. Instead, these are quiet retrieval games in which your dog stays on the lead and there is no throwing or catching involved.

A simple game of fetch it. Put a soft toy or other object into a shallow box or basket. Ask your dog to “fetch it”. Your dog needs to pick the item up and bring it to you. As soon as the dog gives you the toy, say “well done” or “good boy/girl”. You could also offer a small food reward as your dog hands you the object. Be patient with your dog while they learn this new game. Some dogs will get the hang of this straight away, while others will need to work through it in stages.

Fetch Green Duck. Make the fetch it game more interesting by naming two objects. For example, two of your dog’s toys may be ‘Kong’ and ‘Green Duck’.  Start to teach these to your dog by pointing and naming. Gradually, encourage your dog to retrieve the correct toy on request, e.g. you can say ‘fetch Green Duck’. Make it very simple to start with by only offering the correct toy. If your dog enjoys this,  make it more challenging by asking your dog to select the correct object out of two toys, and perhaps eventually from a selection of toys. Not all dogs have the knack of learning new words, so be patient with them, and remember that it’s just a game.

Interactive food-dispenser games

There are all kinds of interactive food-dispenser games on the market. Some are great for getting your dog’s mind working during the recovery period. But take care: they are only designed for interactive use. That means that you can’t leave your dog unattended with the game.

The best approach is to sit right there with your dog as they play. Place the game on non-slip flooring (carpet is ideal), sit with your dog and help them get started. You can point your dog in the right direction to solve each puzzle, give encouragement, and ensure that they don’t get over-enthusiastic with their jaws. Interactive games are not designed to be chewed, are easily damaged by strong jaws, and some even contain small parts that could be a choking hazard to dogs.

In the video shown below, Grace the healthy dachshund tries out the rather challenging Dog Twister game made by Nina Ottosen. Pieces of dog kibble are hidden in the compartments. To reach the food, Grace has to use her nose and paws to move the sliding panels. To make the game more difficult, we can then slot bone-shaped pegs into the game. These pegs prevent the panels from sliding so, in order to continue play, Grace has to lift the  pegs out. This game is a perfect size for miniature dachshunds such as Grace. Take care: the small white pegs could be a choking hazard for dogs larger than this.


Grace is completely healthy, but a recovering dog would need to be kept under closer control while playing this type of game. During the few weeks after injury or surgery, it’s best to keep your dog on a lead during play (just in case they run off), and a harness is also a good idea. Your dog will also need good footing while they play. Carpet is ideal but, if your floors are slick laminate or tile, then put the game on a large rug or piece of rubber matting. Taller dogs may need the game to be raised up, e.g. placed on a pile of blankets or a footstool. And, finally, be sure to ration food carefully when putting it into these games. We certainly don’t want your dog to put on weight during recovery.



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