Dealing with a Dog on Restricted Exercise and Recovering from Surgery


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.

X-ray of one of the extractions.

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.

What do you do with a dog that can’t do anything but wants to do everything? Unlike his last surgery, Mr. N bounced back rapidly and by the second day he was fully ready for action. During his recovery period, he was extremely restless and agitated because he wasn’t getting his normal exercise and routine. He wanted to chase squirrels, jump off all the things and was constantly looking around for his toys and chews. We were all ready to climb the walls. Here’s how we coped. Barely.

Brain Training

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.

*If you buy from the Amazon links listed on this blog, it won’t cost you extra but we will get a few pennies that go towards running the blog and Mr. N’s treat allowance!

Calming Food Puzzle Toys

The mainstay 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.

We inherited our snuffle mat from a friend. If you’re crafty, I hear they’re fairly easy to make albeit time consuming. If not, you can buy them .

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 would work too.

Outdoor Excursions

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 , 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 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 (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 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?




8 Responses

  1. Beth (@dailydogtag)

    September 6, 2017 2:16 pm

    What wonderful suggestions! Mr. N is lucky to have such a resourceful and innovative person looking after him during his recovery. I personally think it is great that you saved the boyfriend’s wisdom tooth for training purposes.

  2. FiveSibesMom

    September 6, 2017 6:13 pm

    I hope Mr. N is all recuperated now! I like the idea of the lick mat. I had not heard of that before. When several of my Sibes had surgery for blown CCLs and meniscuses, I was so worried about this. I did use a combination of prescription sedatives from the surgical vet, as well as supplements, puzzles, soft toys, music, and even read stories to them. I am bookmarking the lick mat for sure!

  3. Shayla

    September 7, 2017 11:46 am

    My sweet Scoonie had physical restrictions and we used a lot of brain work to burn him out. He always wanted to go along with us on our runs, but it just wasn’t happening!

  4. Beth (@dailydogtag)

    October 1, 2017 4:49 pm

    I just had to revisit this since Theo has been having some trouble with his hips. He is on restricted activity for the next couple of weeks at least. Thanks for being such a great resource.


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