This article was originally published in January 2017.
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During Ember’s first winter, she learned a new trick: jumping.
The Dalmatian puppy also discovered the betta fish’s home.
Ember grew fond of lapping water out of the fishbowl. To reach it, she had to be quite the acrobat. The puppy would jump onto the arm of the couch before launching herself ever so delicately atop the piano, where the fishbowl sat.
Much to the betta fish’s relief, Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell broke her pup of the bad habit. But Ember isn’t the only dog to pick up pesky behavior as a result of pent-up winter energy.
Cold snaps can leave dog owners scrambling for solutions to entertain and exercise their pets. Antoniak-Mitchell, owner of BonaFide Dog Academy in Ralston, said she sees plenty of clients whose dogs need extra help to stay active over the winter months.
“They get cabin fever just like people do,” she said.
And like humans, dogs can pack on extra winter weight if they become sedentary — a hard habit to break when the weather warms up. Weight gain in puppies can be particularly dangerous because of their developing bones and joints. Older dogs that suffer from arthritis will also feel the effects of weight gain.
Experts say it is possible to stave off weight gain and restlessness that can lead to bad behavior in the winter, though.
Ember, now 6, has given up drinking from the fishbowl, but she’s still full of energy. She and her owners have found ways to harness it.
“A lot of the key to cold weather maintenance is making the cold work for you,” Antoniak-Mitchell said.
On cold days, instead of one 30-minute walk, take three 10-minute walks. Or cut down on distance and find a hill to climb instead.
Cathy Guinane, director of training at the Nebraska Humane Society, recommended giving your dog time to stop and sniff on walks. “That’s the best part for the dog,” she said.
Letting dogs barrel through snow can also serve as a good form of outside exercise.
While some breeds such as malamutes and Bernese mountain dogs are built for the cold, other dogs might need winter gear, such as coats, sweaters or booties, which help protect paws from the cold, ice melt and salt. Small dogs and dogs with short coats, in particular, can benefit from extra layers.
Some experts say that when the temperature dips to 10 degrees or lower, prolonged outdoor activity could be life-threatening for dogs. Others think anything below freezing is too cold.
That means winter is a good time to work on teaching tricks indoors. Guinane said mental exercise wears out pooches, too.
“It’ll help curb some of those behaviors because they just get bored,” she said. “They get into stuff. They destroy stuff. It’s kind of like us. We get all that pent-up energy, and we have to do something.”
Guinane had a client who was studying for a master’s degree, and her small dog, who was recovering from knee surgery, was getting restless. So she put the dog’s favorite toy inside a box and folded the flaps. She put that box inside two more boxes, and it kept the pooch entertained for hours.
Antoniak-Mitchell taught her 15-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Lizzie B., how to call bingo. With the point of a hand, Lizzie B. grabs a bingo ball from a basket and hands it over to her owner. The pup picked up the trick to help during bingo day at a local assisted-living facility. She is, of course, rewarded with a small treat for the task. Owners can opt to use praise, toys or kibble instead of high-calorie treats.
Lizzie B. isn’t the only dog in the Antoniak-Mitchell household with special talent. Her border collie, Gabriel, struts his stuff on the dance floor. Canine freestyle is something owners can do with their dogs. Owners choreograph a routine to music, teaching dogs to strut, spin and weave around them.
Tricks don’t have to be so complicated, just something new. Play dead and shake work.
Playtime activities can include toys, obstacle courses or a game of hide-and-seek. Dog owners can also put their pup’s meals in activity toys or feeder toys so dogs have to work to eat.
In the winter months, Nathan Monico’s husky, Vega, hits the treadmill. She eagerly hops up on the machine — one made specifically for dogs — and works her way up to a jog.
“In order for you to have a balanced dog, you have to challenge him mentally and physically with exercise, discipline and affection,” said Monico, owner of Monico Dog Training Co. “If these needs are not being met, your dog could develop behavioral problems.”
Vega isn’t much of a problem dog, thanks to her regular exercise routine.
Dogs should be introduced to the treadmill slowly and should never be unattended while walking on one.
Vega’s pal Jager, a husky and treadmill newbie, was hesitant. But the whirring sound and rolling motion of the machine piqued the dog’s curiosity.
Jager gave the treadmill a few good sniffs before being led onto it. Vega licked her friend’s ears to encourage him along.
Another option is taking a class, which also keeps dogs social.
On a bitterly cold Saturday morning, a handful of pups and their owners attended a winter workout class at BonaFide Dog Academy. Dogs strolled in, some wearing coats, others letting out yawns.
For Christina and Mark Borcina, the class was a way to harness some of their dog’s energy. Boomer, a 1-year-old German shepherd, still has a lot of puppy in him.
“Sometimes I can’t get outside with him,” Christina Borcina said. “Letting him run around in the backyard isn’t always the best solution.”
Slowly but surely, Boomer picked up on the day’s tasks, learning to sit on a rug on command and to put two paws up on a chair on command.
Track, a 5-year-old Doberman, was a pro at the exercises. Dawn Jackson practices agility and balance training regularly in winter with Track and her two other Dobermans at home.
“If we don’t go outside or do stuff inside, they get hyper and crabby. They pick on each other, kind of like little kids,” Jackson said.
After a solid chunk of exercise, either mental or physical, the three Dobermans are ready to curl up for some quiet time with a bone — and that means quiet time for Jackson, too.