Woe is the dog who has had surgery and put on life restriction. How do you deal with a dog on restricted exercise and recovering from surgery? After his dental cleaning and eight(!) extractions, Mr. N was presented with the following list of restrictions by the vet. No jumping, very limited exercise on-leash only, no hard food or treats, no chews and no toys. Basically all the things that give him joy in life.
It was also complicated by the fact that Mr. N’s self-soothing and calming activities are chewing and playing with toys. If he’s stressed or highly aroused, he’ll go seek out his toys or a chew and settle himself down. But those options were no longer available.
Mental stimulation is just as wearing if not more as physical exercise. I can walk Mr. N around on a leash for hours but he’s not happy unless his brain gets fed as well.
Stationary tricks are king during surgical recovery. From a down position, Mr. N can stomp, cross his paws, and be sad (head down between paws). Sitting, he can wave, shake, be ashamed (paw over eyes), target objects with his paw, and speak. Then there are the various facial tricks: licking lips, sneezing, yawning, nodding, shaking head, sticking tongue out etc. We’re still working on reliable tongue flicking.
If your dog can handle it, this would be a good time to work on Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol which teaches dogs to calmly sit or down on a mat during a 15-day program. It might be difficult if your dog has never learned how to settle before and is trying to learn now under very trying circumstances. But if they’re used to it, going through the routine and being rewarded for it might help them settle down for a bit.
Donna Hill has a Youtube video showcasing twenty different crate rest activities as well.
Calming Food Puzzle Toys
The mainstay Kong was out as the vet was worried that chewing at the Kong would aggravate the incisions. Most food toys were on the banned list as well. Mr. N tends to play with them in a vigorous fashion and likes to bat them around. Do calming food toys exist?
Enter the snuffle mat and lick mat. Snuffle mats are the toy du jour. It’s a plastic or rubber mat with pieces of fabric knotted into it. Dogs enjoy snuffing through the fabric clumps and search for food. I didn’t think Mr. N would be into it after a short period because it’s easy but he still loves it. He definitely finds it calming and likes to root around the mat after stressful activities.
The lick mat was new to me. They’re food-grade mats where you can spread soft and liquid treats across a molded surface so your dog can lick them off. You can freeze them to make treats last longer as well (this is for a more advanced stage of recovery if they have dental incisions). There’s a pet-specific kind but regular silicone molds would work too.
Travel broadens the mind and perhaps entertains it as well. If your dog enjoys car rides, that’s a method to ensure they get some fresh air and new smells without overexerting themselves. If they’re small enough to fit in a stroller, take them for a promenade. Preferably tethered or enclosed so they’re not tempted to jump out. If they’re on the bigger side, a wagon is always an option. Mr. N doesn’t weigh very much so he’s pretty easy to carry in my arms. I took him to boutiques and fairs and festivals. Crowds were a plus so he wasn’t tempted to wriggle and try to walk. He knows the danger of careless passerby feet.
Nosework is an excellent passive sport. Many people use it as a sport for their “retired” dogs who are no longer up to more strenuous activities such as agility or obedience. It’s easy to strew a few treats around the house and let the dog sniff it out. Make sure the hides are not up too high or in a location where they would be tempted to be too agile. If your dog has learned how to pair odor with rewards, they can sniff out essential oils (birch, anise, clove are typically used for competition) or other sundries. I’ve experimented with various things including finding cash, electronics (detection dogs can be trained to find hidden hard drives, thumb drives and cell phones) and human scent. Search and rescue dogs train on teeth, tissue and blood. I saved the boyfriend’s wisdom tooth for training purposes (yes, he’s weirded out by this).
If you don’t want to use drugs, there are a variety of natural calming treats on the market. If those aren’t working, ask the vet for sedatives. It’s better to have the dog be drugged and drowsy for a few days than risk more surgery. That means more time and money at the vet, more recovery time and and even more drugs. We had to resort to upping Mr. N’s pain medication (which has a sedating effect) on veterinary advice because he just could not settle and was ready to leap to his feet every time I moved, thinking we were going to do something.
All of these methods (excluding the drugs) work for healthy active dogs as well but are most desperately needed when dogs are recovering and/or on crate rest. How did you cope with a dog on restricted exercise and recovering from surgery?