Indoor Fun When the Outdoors is No Fun

I loved the recent podcast episode with Damian Fambro which highlights different ways to set up an environment that supports greater welfare for different animals, like a desert biome for a leopard gecko where there are leaves for gecko to push over, rocks to hide under, and succulents to taste. What a cool environment to perform species typical behaviors and flourish!


I don’t know about your pooches but ours have been less than enthused to step out for longer treks as the temperature dips and buckets of water descend. Just in the last week, See Kao opted for a short bathroom break then beelined back towards the house rather than continue on for her usual afternoon sniffy, leg stretch adventure. I felt like she got short changed but also could appreciate that it was her choice and the switch from sunshine to raindrops was reducing her desire to be outside. This got me thinking along with the podcast about how I could bring some of the outdoors inside and create opportunities for See Kao to utilize her senses indoors, especially when the November showers hit full force.  


We have a spare daylight basement which gets used for different human activities. I started brainstorming items that would address different senses and create an indoor sensory adventure on those rainy days when See Kao beelined back home. How could I set up the basement space so that See Kao had opportunities to:

  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Hear
  • See
  • Smell

The categories are not exclusive; in fact, an object that addresses one sense is likely to address another. Here’s what I’ve brainstormed so far to begin my planning for indoor fun. 



Our house looks like you’ve entered a gym with rubber interlocking flooring and yoga mats. It’s not attractive but provides traction for Boon who has limited rear end mobility. Hence our dogs have sort of an unusual default surface that they touch day in and day out. For See Kao, having a plush throw rug, a patch of astro turf, used rubber or wooden doormats would all be unusual indoor surfaces. I could dangle some fringe from a stick or hoop which brushes against See Kao or set up a large brush in a position where she can rub against it. Dogs also have different preferences for what they like to put/feel in their mouths, See Kao is one of those pooches who loves to pick up a stick not for fetch but for a little gnaw (caution about sticks if you have an active chewer), she’s not a fan of plastic like surfaces and is so so about fabric. As the weather cools, I could fill up a water bottle with warm water and tuck it in a towel for a cozy warm sensation.  


I include movement under this category as See Kao must have been a cat in another life: she loves to climb. I have a smallish log stump that I could bring in which she can hop up on to. I could pile up some old couch pillows or make a mini tunnel with a box. So many options 🙂



For some pets, placing several drinking bowls with water out which could include something like a few blueberries or a chunk of watermelon or cucumber might be appealing. See Kao has zero tolerance for fruits and veggies so would be way more into a licky mats, brownie pan, or muffin tin frozen with a smear of plain unsweetened yogurt, baby food puree or goat milk for the win.  



There are a lot of dog or cat TV options–for example, this one has 8 hours of continuous birds chirping. Or try a sound track of tibetan singing bowls. If you want to see me really geek out, I’d love to set up something where See Kao could step on or push something for a sound to occur and let her decide if she wants to hear more of it or not. What if she could press the “remote” and opt in to listen to a Morgan Freeman commercial?

Remember too that some pets have sound sensitivities and or startle with certain sounds including some that we, as humans, cannot hear. So again, our job is to try to select things to put into the environment that are not aversive, observe how our pet responds, and make modifications as needed.  



I had once set out a mirror for a llama friend who reacted with keen intrigue upon seeing the image of another llama. I’m not sure what See Kao would do if she observed her reflection. I will need to observe and make sure this environmental addition is positive rather than increasing concerns that a dog is in her space. I’ve never tried blowing bubbles, which I realize might be better for outdoor fun, but since our basement has easy to clean flooring I might give it a try. Many of the objects that I’ve brainstormed so far are not usually in our basement space, so even if they are intended for a different category they by default will be novel sights for See Kao to interact with in some way. 



Our yard has douglas fir and cedar along with birch leaves and twigs, and some lavender. I could reserve some fresh herbs that are intended for human cooking like mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, and sage and set them aside for our basement sensory adventure. Paper around tea bags would also be an easy scent to hide. Since we are near salt water, I could collect a few strips of seaweed. Remember to check whether anything you are considering is toxic or inappropriate for critters if consumed (see URLs below).  


We have friends who live with llamas, alpacas, goats, and a whole lot of birds. I could ask them to collect tufts of loose hair or feathers, or to rub a rag on any of the furry friends as a conduit of scent and hide the different scents around the space to encourage exploration. Sporting goods stores also sell odor sticks for deer, coyote, birds, and other critters which could be used to scent, for example, a cotton ball hidden among leaves in a box. Don’t hesitate to trial dirty socks or other items headed to the laundry. 


Remember: dogs and cat noses are far better than ours so use any scent sparingly. Plus, your pet is an individual and decides on their own preferences. Our goal is to provide an environment that encourages your pet to be curious and investigate; if any of these scents are overstimulating and/or result in behavior that is counterproductive then skip that one and try another. Our job is to observe how our pet is interacting with the set up and then trial and eval things with the goal of providing a fun indoor outing where our pet can use their senses in a safe and healthy manner.  The desired outcome is a pet who seems calmly satisfied after their sensory escapade.  


So my task for the next few weeks before the November showers hit is to comb through boxes stored in the crawl space, check out our local up/reuse exchange, see what I can gather up, and then observe what might pique See Kao’s curiosity and fill her cup on those days when all she wants to do is dash out and back for a speedy pee break.


Stay tuned for more to come and what I do with this brainstormed list.



Now What?

If you also have a pet who needs more indoor enrichment, here are some things to consider:

  • Brainstorm 1 item you have access to in each of the 5 sensory categories, what you might find at a reuse place, and get creative.  Remember: your pet is the one who gets to decide what piques their curiosity in a positive way so carefully observe their reactions and modify your set up for maximum positive effects.
  • Not everyone has a spare room, so think about options that might fit, say, in a few stackable boxes for easy pull out and subsequent storage.
  • If this piques your interest but feels beyond your bandwidth, look for simple ways to provide opportunities. For example: when you receive a package, leave the box out so your dog or cat can check it out, smell who handled it, and what was inside. Collect a few leaves on your next walk and bring back and set around your space.  
  • Check out Episode 57 – Providing Environmental Complexity
  • Here is a list of toxic plants and foods to avoid.

Happy Training!