Best Brain Games and Enrichment Activities For Dogs on Crate Rest – plus Free Schedule

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When your dog is put on crate rest after an operation, it can be difficult to provide them with all the activity they need. You don’t want them to strain themselves too much but you also don’t want them to be distressed and bored through their entire recovery. So how exactly do you provide mental enrichment for dogs on crate rest? 

Well, if you’re looking for activities that will keep your puppy from slipping into chronic boredom during their recovery, you’ve come to the right place. In the following sections we’ll break down some basic activities you can do with your dog each day to keep their spirits high and improve their quality of life. We’ll also discuss environmental changes that can be made to further optimize the recovery process. 

Why Activities On Crate Rest Are So Important 

Before we dive into all the enriching activities you can engage in with your dog when they’re recovering, let’s review why they’re so important. 

When a dog is on crate rest, their lifestyle generally goes from being very active to sedentary. This may not sound like a big deal to those of us humans who enjoy our downtime, but it can cause a great deal of distress for dogs because they need a certain level of daily mental stimulation and canine enrichment. The problem is how do you provide that stimulation while limiting their movement?

Environmental Enrichment: Create A Safe Space For Your Recovering Dog

Nothing on the following list will work optimally if you don’t have the right environment set up for your dog when they’re on crate rest. It’s easy for your dog to get worked up and want to run around if they’re in a space that’s too noisy or busy. That’s why dogs need a calm but enriching environment. 

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Create enough space for your dog

Use the Right Size of Crate

You need to give dogs enough room to feel comfortable in their crate. The height should be enough so that they can stand, and the floor area should be big so that they have room to turn around and fully stretch out.

Dogs need to stretch when they get up from sleep. They do this by moving their body in a coordinated way, you’ve seen them do the ‘downward dog’ and ‘cobra’ yoga moves. The activity of pandiculation (which means to stretch, yawn and often make funny faces) is beneficial for recovery as it exercises the joints, adjusts muscle tone and improves positive emotions.

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Dolly doing her cobra yoga stretch after spinal surgery on her neck vertebrae.

Crates are often narrow, so if you have a large or long-bodied dog and they can not stand or lie facing the length of the crate ,get a dog pen instead. Dog pens are readily available with floor area up to 160 cm x 160 cm. 

Measurements for crate or pen size for dogs on recovery.
Measurements for crate or pen size for dogs on recovery.

Create a Feeling of Safety

  • Place your dog crate in a corner: Position your dog crate in a quiet space where the dog can still see life in the house for visual stimulation, but can curl up and rest without too many distractions. Avoid putting the crate in  draughts, direct sunlight, sources of intense noise, heat or vibration (e.g. washing machine, television or radiator) as these can become really unpleasant over time for your dog. You might like to invest in a crate cover to give them extra peace. 
  • Choose comfortable and familiar bedding so they feel reassured. Memory foam crate liners are good for helping with painful joints. Cover the mattress with their favourite soft blanket and comfort toy. Remember to wash bedding regularly to keep their blankets clean. Use an old cot bumper round the crate to prevent drafts
  • Consider using adaptil diffuser: Adaptil is a pheromone product that releases a wave of scents that calm down dogs. It can be used for anything from fear of noises to enrichment maintenance when your dog is on crate rest. 

Plenty of Peace and Quiet

  • Limit the number of guests you have over: Strangers or even old friends in the house can cause your dog’s heart to start racing with excitement. When they’re trying to recover, with limited mobility, this can cause unnecessary tension. 
  • Keep your phone on silent: If you normally keep your phone’s volume on, you may want to consider putting it on vibrate for a while. The sudden noise from your phone–especially if it takes you time to get to it–can be disruptive to your dogs rest.
  • Avoid noisy activities: If your dog is on crate rest, it probably isn’t the best time to have a movie night. If you usually engage in noisy activities, you’ll want to avoid them. Some people even suggest you lower the tone of your voice during recovery. 

Create a Routine

Your dogs daily routine will mostly have gone out of the window. To help them feel safe and happy, modify their usual routine to include the same activities, but adapted for their injury and the crate environment.

A typical day for a crate-restricted dog involves the following:

  • Three to five outdoor sessions on the leash and harness for toileting. Usually after each meal, after a nap and after playtime.
  • Keep outdoor periods very short (e.g. 5 minutes) but, over time, become lead-walks of increasing duration as appropriate to the individual case.
  • Spend time with your dog every day. Make it the same time and length so it is part of their routine. If you are at work and usually have a dog walker, ask them to come at their normal time, but to stay with your dog. They can: read to your dog, groom your dog, or play one of our quiet games during their time.
  • Feed your dog at their normal mealtimes, but in the crate. Breakfast and eving are common. Food can be offered in their bowl, or from a food dispenser toy ( not a rolling ball one).
  • Set one or more regular daytime resting periods during which the dog learns not to expect your company and can sleep quietly. After mealtimes or playtime are good times to schedule this in.
  • Make a regular evening bedtime routine and fixed time for lights out.  After this time you and your family must leave your dog to sleep undisturbed in the crate. 
  • Download our sample schedule of feeding, playing, sleeping and pooping for dogs on crate rest.

Healthy Food -But Not Too Much

  • Make sure that your dog is receiving nutritious, balanced and easily digestible food to speed up recovery as directed by your vet.
  • Their daily food allowance will change so keep an eye on portion size.
  • Try not to overdo the treats and avoid unnecessary weight gain.
  • Do not to change your dogs diet unless advised by your vet as the last thing you want is a dog in a crate with an upset stomach.
  • While on crate rest, dogs need to be provided with water at all times.
  • Dogs on crate rest should be fed within the crate to prevent them from running, jumping and sliding around during mealtimes.

If you set up an environment like this your dog will benefit in a number of ways. Firstly, they’ll have less of the anxiety and restlessness that makes recovery harder. Most importantly however, they’ll be able to get the rest which allows them to recover faster. 

Good Mental and Physical Enrichment Toys for Dogs on Crate Rest

Toys provide your dog with much needed stimulation and serve as a good distraction from any kind of pain they may still be in. Still, not all toys are created equal and you’ll want to pick ones that they can use without too much physical exertion.  

Below we’ve outlined some of the best toys for dogs on crate rest, along with a brief description of their benefits. 

  • Stuffed Kongs: These can be both entertaining and nutritious for your dog. It provides tactile stimulation and engages their sense of smell, taste and sight.  Here’s our 15 favourite filling ideas for stuffables like a kong.
  • Stuffed animals: Giving your dog a stuffed animal to suck on while they’re in the crate can help alleviate anxiety when you’re not around. Dolly likes this knot bear from Kong. It has a tough rope inner like a ‘skeleton’ and then plush outer. The only stuffing is in the head, which I removed. She slept with it every night whilst recovering from her emergency operation for pyometra.
  • Chewable enrichment toys: If you have a dog that will tear up a stuffed animal within minutes of receiving it, you might consider tougher chew toys that are made specifically for sharp teeth and heavy chewers. Your dog will be soothed by the stimulation they receive from chewing along. If you use a chew toy like whimzees, they will also help keep their teeth clean and mouth healthy.

Giving your dog toys that don’t require too much strain or can be played with in a sitting position, will help keep them feeling active as they recover. It can also alleviate problems with restlessness and anxiety.  

It’s important to provide your dog with a variety of toys and rotate them to maintain interest. Dogs, like us can quickly get bored of the same toy every day. Introduce toys one at a time. Yes, we are giving you permission to go and spoil your dog with new toys.

When choosing toys to give your dog just double check the following:

  • Choose durable toys appropriate to the dog size, age and chewing habits.
  • In order to prevent choking or inhalation, avoid toys with squeakers or loose parts.
  • It’s important to promptly dispose of damaged or broken toys so your dog does not continue chewing on them.

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Play Easy-Going Games With Your Dog

Many people assume that they can’t play games with their dogs when they’re on crate rest because the games they usually play require a lot of physical movement. The truth is that there are many games dogs will find stimulating that don’t require them to be overly physical. Make sure you choose or modify the games for your pets particular injury so you don’t impede recovery or cause pain. Always ask your vet for advice on levels of activity and movement for your dog.

Each of the following two games allow your dog to play without having to move about too much:   

  • Food puzzles: Believe it or not there are a myriad of food puzzle toys for dogs. These reward-based toys come in the form of toys like flip boards, which require dogs to flip certain switches to open compartments and receive tasty treats. They are great for mental exercise as they offer a cognitive challenge and some physical manipulation. Snufflemats are a great option, but don’t leave them in the crate. Check out our Top Picks for Dog Puzzles to help you find something suitable for your dog.
  • Roll a ball: You could try rolling a ball to your dog instead of playing fetch for some gentle physical exercise. If this seems to be making them get hyped up however, you may want to go for a different option. If you have a house with slippery floors, play this game on a rug for safety.
  • Kibble fetch: Okay, food isn’t a toy. However, dog behaviourist Patricia Mcconnell points out that she supplements playing fetch by scattering a little bit of kibbles across the floor. The dog will get up and move around to retrieve them but they’re unlikely to run across the room the way they would for a ball. It’s best done on carpet to avoid slipping, or you can do this outside in the garden on grass with your dog on the leash to restrict movement.
  • Teach tricks: Use this time to work on tricks and training such as nose touch, chin rest and targeting that are appropriate to your dog. Upper body tricks are good for dogs with hind injuries.
  • Scent games: Nosework is a brilliant activity for your dog. Teach your dog to discriminate between scents and reward them when they get it right. 
  • Muffin Tin game: this is a good game for the crate. Full instructions are here.

All of the activities listed above will benefit your dog by giving them light exercise while simultaneously working out their mind. It also can help with separation anxiety, as you have to be a participant in many of the games and it’s important that you spend quality time with your dog. The more periods of time your dog gets with you, the less likely they’ll become anxious at being left in the crate.  

Auditory Enrichment for Your Confined Dog

Dogs in rescue kennels seemed to rest more and show fewer signs of stress when they listened to recorded music. They rested more when they listened to classical music and reggae. However, dogs were bored by a repeated playlist of music as early as the second day. So make sure you change up your playlist and try adding an audio book aimed at older children too. 

Remember that your dog can not escape from the sounds you play so always check that they are happy and you’re not having the opposite effect and stressing them out.

Sensory Enrichment for Dogs on Crate Rest 

Just because they can’t move around like they normally would, doesn’t mean that your dog no longer needs fresh air. There are some great options like dog strollers available that allow you to take your dog out for a walk without making them do any of the work themselves. 

Potty breaks on the leash will get them outside too for some fresh air too. 

Giving your dog a little sunlight and fresh air can help your dog feel stimulated and refreshed. Sunlight has even been found to help dogs regulate their sleep cycle and their metabolism. This means better eating and sleeping habits. Win, win.

Visual Enrichment for Dogs on Crate Rest

One easy way to enrich your dog’s environment while they are on crate rest is by giving them a view of the outside world. Moving their crate closer to a window makes this possible, but don’t leave them in a sunny spot where they can overheat.

Placing toys of different shapes, sizes, and colors will provide visual stimulation. The colours they see best are yellow and blue which means they respond to these the most. Find out more about what your dog can see here.

You can also play a video for them on the television that they can watch. There is even a DogTV channel which has been created for dogs with sights and sounds scientifically designed to enrich their days. Subscriptions are from $6.99 a month.

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Chiling watching some TV together during recovery.

Final Thoughts 

You’ll want to take a multi pronged approach to providing care and enrichment for your dog when they’re on crate rest. You can start by establishing a calm environment so they have the peace of mind they need to rest. Then you can introduce toys, walks in a dog stroller and games to make sure they’re receiving the attention they need.  It’s important that all the family understand the routine and plan to help your dog recovery safely and quickly.

It’s important to note that different breeds of dog have slightly different needs–though there is a ton of overlap between them all. Your particular breed of dog may need more stimulation or more calming activities. Be sure to talk to your local vet about any practices you plan to implement.