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Beating the Winter Blues

This winter has been very challenging, especially for those of us living in the northern half of the United States. Winter has behaved like a house guest who does not know when it is time to leave.  As I type this and look outside I still see thick snow and packed ice, with temperatures about 30 degrees below average. It is enough to give some folks cabin fever, and it is hard on pets too.

Photo: Happy Buddha Dog Training

About seven weeks ago a heavy ice storm covered my property, followed by repeated heavy snow storms and dangerously cold windy days and nights. My horse and sheep have been stuck in the barn ever since and my dogs have become couch potatoes with very little time spent outside.  Bored and frustrated pets can express themselves in undesirable ways.

I am sharing the ways I kept my dogs happy throughout the long winter. These tips can help throughout the year whenever pets need some extra activities and enrichment.

Nina Ottosson Dog Brick puzzle. Photo: Happy Buddha Dog Training

Nina Ottosson (TM) has created several wooden dog puzzle toys which my dogs Buddha and Gandhi enjoy. They figured out individual ways of opening the puzzles to find their food rewards. Buddha tends to use his mouth to manipulate things while Gandhi is more inclined to use his paws.

Other favorites are Kong Wobbler (TM) and PetSafe (R) Busy Buddy (R) Magic Mushroom (TM) durable plastic toys. Each has space for about one measured dog food meal for my Labs.  Rather than plop food in a bowl that they devour in a few minutes I vary the routine and give them a toy to play with to earn their meal.

Kong Wobbler (L) and Magic Mushroom (R). Photo: Happy Buddha Dog Training

Buddha is quite dramatic in his method, using his mouth to toss the toys into the air. Food spills out like a piñata and he gobbles it before tossing the toy again. Meanwhile Gandhi lays quietly on his bed, politely pawing the toy until tidbits drop out, a few at a time.

One day I observed Gandhi closely watching Buddha, who continued tossing his toy into the air like a Labrador juggler. As the food scattered across the floor Gandhi walked behind Buddha, gently picking up the kibble like a scene from Hansel and Gretel.  As the saying goes, “Work smarter, not harder.”

Another favorite are the handmade snuffle mats I bought from a fellow force-free trainer. My dogs may spend 20 minutes or more investigating their mats, searching for every last morsel.

Buddha sniffing the snuffle. Photo: Happy Buddha Dog Training

Starmark (R) Everlasting Treats (R) have been a longtime favorite in my household. The toys are about eight years old and have withstood Buddha’s fearsome jaws. In a chomping contest, I would place my bet on Buddha against a T-Rex. Today it took him about 20 minutes to finish his treat, while Gandhi required 30 minutes.  They were both happily engaged the whole time.

Sometimes I play games with them such as hide-and-seek. To begin I ask them to wait in the laundry room while I go hide in a closet, behind a door or some other sneaky location. Then I release them and wait for them to find me.

When I set up a camera to record the action I watched them use all of their canine senses as they searched for me. Buddha almost always finds me first, with Gandhi trailing behind like an apprentice. When I am discovered we celebrate with a puppy party and start over for another round of fun.

Another variation on the searching theme is when they wait in the laundry room and I go about the house scattering pea-sized bits of meat or cheese. Then I return to Buddha and Gandhi and cue them to “find it”.

They each race off, noses down, sniffing and searching in delight. If they spend 20 minutes finding the bits of food, they will surely spend another 20 minutes searching afterward…just in case. The great thing about using moist whole foods is that after the food has been eaten, the scent remains and they continue searching.

These games tap into the dopamine seeking-reward loop and are very satisfying to dogs.

Happy dogs make happy dog guardians! Photo: Happy Buddha Dog Training

For additional environmental enhancement I made daily use of Adaptil (R) diffusers and iCalmPet (TM) therapy music, both when I was relaxing with the dogs and when I had to leave them alone. On the occasions when they had to be alone I introduced these aids about an hour prior to my departure, leaving them with one or two food toys as well.

Considering they each had separation anxiety when we first adopted them I wanted to ensure their comfort while I spent hours shoveling and plowing snow.  On each such occasion they showed no sign of anxiety, which in turn reduced my own anxiety.

Very likely the worst of this winter has passed, but another rainy/icy/snowy storm is approaching as I finish this blog.  I am fully stocked with toys and games to keep my dogs happy. When they are happy, that helps me beat the winter blues too.


Nina Ottosson (TM) dog and cat puzzle toys:

Kong Wobbler (TM) interactive toy:

PetSafe (R) Busy Buddy (R) Magic Mushroom (TM) interactive toy:

Starmark (R) Everlasting Treats (R):

Weinschenk, Susan.  (2-28-18).  The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop.  Psychology Today.  Retrieved from

Adaptil (R) for dogs:

iCalmPet music therapy for pets:

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