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Let Them Heal: Dog-Training Fun Before and After Rehab

Terri Bright, Ph. D., BCBA-D, CAAB


The social ability of dogs has typically allowed them to access their favorite activities at their whim: throw the ball! Chase me! Take me for a 5-mile walk! As they have throughout 10-30,000 years of co-evolution, owners comply. When the owner discovers that the dog needs prolonged rest or surgery that will require long periods of forced inactivity, they are dismayed, to say the least. Language cannot convey to the dog the importance of this period of a massive sea-change; we can’t say, “This is only for six weeks, I promise!’ Instead, the dog’s behavior must be carefully shaped to achieve the best therapeutic outcome.

What and When to Train

The best time to train keep-your-dog-quiet-type behaviors is before they are needed. The young puppy or new adult dog can easily be taught behaviors that will hold them in good stead throughout their lives, during vet visits and as needed for all other handling and injury‑ or illness-induced needed rest. These behaviors can be separated into two classifications: “foundation” behaviors, which will be used daily throughout the dog’s life; and “cusp” behaviors, which can be built upon to achieve other behaviors. If you have a patient with a known surgical prognosis, you cannot guide them to training too soon.

Foundation Behaviors/How to Train

These should be part of the curriculum of any typical Obedience class: sit, down-stay, come when called, and loose-leash walking. Ideally, they are taught without the use of force and with lots of rewards such as food treats, toys, play, and owner attention. The clicker can be a handy tool once paired with food, however results can just as easily be obtained with a word as a marker; the clicker and/or the word should tell the dog “Food (praise/toy) is coming because of what you just did!” Any method that uses something to force or frighten the dog, such as prong or electronic collars, can have unwanted side effects such as avoiding the trainer/owner, fear of environmental stimuli, or aggression. Even staring at/pointing/yelling can frighten dogs, and given the state of many “rescued” dogs, e.g. those that are under-socialized, even feral, confidence needs to be built upon, not shredded. To avoid these side effects, which could tremendously effect the injured or surgicalized dog, the modern veterinarian refers only to trainers who do not use force. This can be ascertained with one simple question: “Do you need any special equipment to train?”

A lick mat

Cusp Behaviors

Cusp behaviors are used to build other moving or stationary behaviors. Training to “target” (touch) or move toward a hand or an object is universally used in aquariums and zoos, where one cannot use a leash. “Station” training has the same advantage, as it teaches the animal to “Stay on this place.” Crate training carries an obvious advantage for dogs, and all owners should be encouraged to teach this to their puppy or dog. (Note that it can be difficult for dogs that have been transported in a crate without being trained to its use and were thus traumatized.) Training a dog to walk up a ramp is another cusp skill that can be used early on in a sport such as Agility, or for the oldster getting into the car. Again, teaching a young puppy or dog this skill can save much trauma in future years, as elderly dogs in pain may not be as eager to learn this skill. The “head-hold” is another great skill for any dog: simply reward the dog for resting its head on your open palm. For blood draws or medicating, this is a terrific skill; along these same lines, teaching a dog to “settle” on its side can be the difference between war and peace in the veterinary visit.

A snuffle mat

Environmental Control and Enrichment

The owner of the injured dog or one under post-surgical care should arrange the environment such that behavior is controlled. All family members and caretakers (e.g. dog walkers) must be on the same page as regards training and control of the dog during its “down” time, otherwise optimum healing results may not be achieved. The dog’s behavior should be managed as if the dog was a two-year-old child; every action should be arranged, then supervised, to enhance healing. Baby gates, ex-pens, crate, stairs to couches and beds, and supervision during all transitions will be necessary. Inexpensive toys can be stockpiled and delivered as needed; their destruction should be expected, but the owner should avoid things they know the dog will ingest. Food-delivery toys should be used for all meals. Helpful equipment includes:

  • “Snuffle” mat: has inches-deep fibers into which the owner puts kibble for the dog to sniff out/eat;
  • “Treat and Train:” a machine that delivers food remotely, first at the push of a button, then automatically. Invented by Dr. Sophia Yin, it comes with clear instructions, the final result of which is a dog on a down-stay that they will hold until the food runs out (which can be scheduled for quite long periods of time);
  • “Lick” mat: these are plastic mats onto which one can smear peanut butter or wet food for the dog to lick; some come with suction cups so they can be stuck onto a cabinet or side of a bath tub;
  • “Pupcake:” a homemade treat. Fill a cake pan with water; add some meat broth; add a handful of kibble; grate some cheese on the top and freeze.
  • Anything in a Kong: we like to use the Stella and Chewy freeze-dried patties: cut off one third of the patty; squish the Kong so that you can barely slide the patty in. The patty-lover will lick and bounce the Kong for a long time to get the food out.
  • Kong Wobbler: a hard plastic toy the dog knocks around and from which it gets food
  • Tricky Treat ball or Snoop: soft versions of moving toys out of which to get food


A dog is basically a nose on legs, and every dog should have deliberate scent-based enrichment added to its routine. For the dog on restricted activity, it is a godsend. You can keep it as simple as tossing a handful of kibble into the grass for the dog to find, hiding a treat under one of three cups for a Monty game, or explore the competitive skill of finding discrete scents a la bomb-sniffing K9s. (We have many Nosework classes at the MSPCA.) It is truly the most bang for your enrichment buck.

Alternative Behaviors Can Be Taught

Giving the owners something to do with their dogs instead of just saying “Don’t let the dog____” can result in new and useful behaviors and a better-trained dog. `Instead of jumping or running, owners can use the follow-my-finger game to teach the dog to heel at their left side in a circle. By the time the dog’s injury is heeled, the dog will be a great heeler. Another trained behavior taken from the Obedience ring is “Come front;” the owner’s backward step is a cue to the dog to turn, sit, and give the owner attention. For example, since rough-housing cannot be allowed, all of the above enrichment activities can replace over-zealous playing that, even during non-injured times, can get out of hand. “Touch” games and tricks can replace out of control behavior. Food toys can be used to placate the cone-wearing dog and give them other things to lick. If the dog is a chronic puller, a harness such as the Freedom No-Pull harness can be used for walking. With the above interventions, the healing dog can become the healthier, better-trained, and easy-to-live-with family companion.

Note: RehOB (Rehab/Obedience) and Low-Impact Agility are both taught at Angell West:

2023 Renewal 5