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Posted on Fri, Jan 13, 2012 : 5:49 a.m.

A little thought and creativity in choosing toys and activities for your dog can enhance good behavior

By Julia Levitt


Photo by Brenda Aloff

Okay, the holidays are over. January in all her bleakness has set in.

"How could I have gained five pounds in such a short time?" you ask yourself.

The house is a wreck. Your new Christmas puppy has chewed your rugs and has peed and pooped everywhere. Your friends say to crate train, but you feel too mean to confine the new pup in a cage. You come home from work, and the house is a disaster.

An article I read about horses applies to puppies. The article compared leaving a 1,200 pound horse in a box stall (a box stall is one where a horse can move around) to a human being confined to a walk-in closet. Cesar Milan compares a puppy or dog confined to a home as a big kennel.

I interviewed dog trainer Brenda Aloff with four questions to help new and existing puppy owners:

What can I do to burn off excess puppy energy?

Taking walks, says Aloff, depends on the size of the dog — the bigger the dog, the more difficult, in the sense they need more room to stretch their legs.

"I like to incorporate mental and physical exercise together. Just 10-15 minutes of brain work a day, and the dog will lay down and sleep for two hours.”

This brings me to my next question Brenda…How do I exercise my puppy when the weather is bad?

"I use creative toys such as 'Buster Cubes' or stuffed Kongs," Aloff says. "Or just a plain paper bag that you put treats in. Then I let the dog roam around the room and find the bag with treats."

"You know," Brenda says with a laugh, "You can never put a paper bag on the floor again after this exercise! Of course, with a paper bag, you have to be willing to clean up the mess after the dog has had fun!"

What are some of these mental exercises you are referring to?

"Mental exercises can include teaching a dog new tricks. An obedience session can consist of five to 10 minutes a day. For example, put the dog in a long "stay" for 10-15 minutes. A DVD that is my favorite is 'Take a Bow-Wow.' It can be purchase on This mental challenge is a lot of fun. Teach your dog to put its toy in a cardboard box. Scatter toys around the room and have them put them in the box. Another favorite is to put several toys on the floor and have the dog pick them up and put them in the box. Then teach them to put one foot in the box. Raise the bar: Have them put two feet in the box while holding their toy."

A lot of dogs are not natural retrievers. Spend the winter months teaching your dog to retrieve. Three books that I recommend are:

  • "The Clicked Retrieve" by Lana Mitchell found on
  • Local obedience trainer Adele Yunck together with Judy Byron have a DVD out on retrieving called "Totally Fetching"
  • Finally Sue Sternberg on her website, Roundout Valley Kennel, has a book on motivational retrieving called "A Guide to Inductive Retrieve" and another book called "Serious Fun: Play Like a Dog."

How about something we do twice a day with our pooches — feeding? Instead of putting the bowl down in front of the dog, Aloff suggests making feeding in to an outdoor game.

"In a fenced backyard area, take the food and fling it in the back yard. This serves two purposes. The dog gets to hunt down its food, and the second point is that you have control over their food. Creative outdoor play would be to take the buster cube and let the dog run around the backyard with it. This creative feeding can occupy the dog up to 20 minutes."

I am a big fan of challenging your breed of dog. The Nordic breeds come readily to mind this time of year. Like many powerful breeds who love to work, have the Husky pull you.

"Now, Julia," you'll say, "What about having the dog walking politely at my side without pulling?"

I am distinguishing between two types of work. The kind of work a particular breed was born to do and the type of work we ask of them in our society.

Another task a well-behaved dog can incorporate is running politely at your side while you cross country ski. Any breed.You don’t have to own a big Nordic breed to have fun with your dog outside in the winter.

When I asked my friend Barb what she did with her Bichon Frise, Tate, this week, she told me they went out "tracking." I was surprised.

"Oh no," Barb said, "You can track in any weather."

According to … "tracking..trailing and other forms of scent work are activities that bring you to the very essence of what a dog is. Scent work is a partnership... The dog picks out and distinguishes a scent with a clarity we can’t match."“

Winter resolutions aren't just for humans anymore. Resolve to keep your dog active throughout the winter!

Julia Levitt is the founder of In Harmony Dog Training ( in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at or at 734-645-4707. Julia provides individual training for dogs and their owners, and also conducts dog training classes at Ann Arbor Animal Hospital.


Julia Levitt

Fri, Jan 13, 2012 : 5:32 p.m.

Go for it-LA! Julia


Fri, Jan 13, 2012 : 4:34 p.m.

Thanks for the ideas. We have a 10 week old puppy with lots of energy! The paper bag game is something we can try right away.