Recess: Brain Games for the Furry Set

That adorable puppy photo on Facebook instantly melts hearts: awkward fuzziness capped by satellite-dish ears she’s still growing into. Best of all, her twinkling eyes radiate the mischief, curiosity and vibrancy unique to a lanky, goofy puppy. The caption beneath the photo confirms the mischief part. “Hello. My name is NO!” 

Puppyhood is a special phase, but even in later years dogs occupy our homes and lives like 70-pound toddlers with sharp teeth. Cats climb curtains and scale furniture like spider monkeys with Velcro paws. It’s only natural for a weary parent to resort to “No!” and “Stop that!” But how about providing parent-approved mischief to keep your rascals occupied.  

Every kid needs to work out the wiggles, and activities need to be mentally engaging to really capture their attention. It’s their braininess that gets them into trouble! Keeping clever craniums occupied can be full-time job, but there are plenty of options for giving your little Einstein a mental workout. Enrichment activities can be as simple as taking the $120 work shoes from your dog and offering an appealing chew toy (along with glowing praise for relinquishing the prized footwear), to endless possibilities ranging from high-end electronic gadgets to empty toilet paper tubes. 

In the critter game and puzzle world, technophiles have amazing options, including an interactive device that lets you see, talk to, and treat your furkids while you’re away. In the mid-budget range are gads of gadgets at your local pet supply, including puzzles with compartments for hiding treats. There are several varieties with different levels of difficulty, and most promise to appeal to both dogs and cats. If you go this route, browse the options with your Einstein’s temperament in mind. There are the rough-and-tumble toys that dispense goodies when smacked or rolled or dropped, and less-physical brain teasers with compartments that slide or swivel. Is your kid more likely to join the chess club or the rugby team? Keep in mind that your rugby player will smack and roll the more sedentary brain teasers too, but they’re durable enough to take the punishment.  

Countless parents have seen new cat toy lie untouched while kitty spends hours tossing and pouncing on the package . . . or perhaps a stray household cotton ball. Rest assured your critters couldn’t care less how much their games cost. The do-it-yourself realm is limited only by your imagination, and it’s all free. 

Empty TP and paper towel tubes are great hiding places for little treats, as are small boxes and kitchen containers.


For rainy-day activities or to distract a kid while you leave the house, hide their breakfast or dinner kibble all around — either scattered openly on the floor or tucked cleverly behind doors, under tables, and in corners. Make it easy at first and gradually increase the hide-and-seek challenge for a longer-lasting game.

Hide yourself! This works best with dogs. Put Fido in a sit-stay, then get behind a tree, couch, or door, and call to him. Some dogs get deliriously happy with this one.


Turn scary fireworks or thunder into a popcorn party. Use an air popper, which both masks scary sounds and dispenses treats. You can place the popper at the edge of a counter so popped kernels scatter on the floor, or pop them into a bowl and scatter them yourself. This game is always a hit with food hounds.


Old socks make easy catnip pouches, and can be tossed in the trash after happy felines have slobbered on and mopped the floors with them.


 If you have dogs who destroy soft toys to capture the squeakers, repurpose the squeaker and old stuffing by tying them into an old sock or stitching them into a fabric pouch. Just watch these intense toy-shredders (see Hall Pass for hilariously instructive squeaker tales) and keep a close eye — swallowed squeakers can mean an expensive vet bill. 

With a little imagination and anywhere from a few bucks to several hundred, you can expand your kiddo’s mental horizons and keep them out of trouble at the same time. As tuition goes, it’s a bargain. As peace of mind goes, it’s priceless.

Michelle Blake is a Salem, OR-based massage therapist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications. Her husband warns you to know she's a REALLY crazy dog lady too.

Keep your old dog young at heart ♥

Katie sporting booties during a hike on Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain on Mt. Hood

Katie sporting booties during a hike on Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain on Mt. Hood

We expect our dogs to be the same forever. Leaping joyfully and playing with utter glee, curious, bright-eyed and eager for anything. Instead, their joints stiffen, their senses of sight and sound diminish, and they spend an increasing amount of time sleeping.

It may seem that older dogs are content to snooze the day away, and with our busy lifestyles, we are happy to let them do so. Walks become fewer, car rides infrequent, and entertaining playtimes go by the wayside. Veterinary behaviorists identify this as the “shrinking world syndrome”. As the dog gets less enrichment, there is a decline in mental and physical stimulation. As pet parents we tend to change our behavior toward our aging pets, and oftentimes these changes take away many things that keep their minds and bodies youthful.

Tamara Smith of Portland takes Katie, her 14-year-old Lab/Basset Hound mix, on walks twice a day, with longer hiking adventures on weekends. Rescued 13+ years ago from Bonnie Hays Animal Shelter, Smith says, “Regular exercise has always been a priority.”  She also credits glucosamine and fish oil supplements for Katie’s youthfulness. “Bassets have a tendency to have bad backs, and she had some skin allergies, so I started giving her supplements when she was just 3 years old.” Katie also recently began acupuncture.

In addition to acupuncture, another successful modality for seniors is hydrotherapy or pool time. “It is one of the best things we have found for our senior dogs,” says Cheryl Yoshioka, founder and president of My Way Home Dog Rescue, which finds homes for many senior pups. “It feels good, and it makes them more limber and helps with joint issues.” Yoshioka adds that she hasn’t seen a single dog they’ve treated with hydrotherapy who didn’t love it. Hydrotherapy isn’t free, though, so only about half of the seniors in their care (those who need it most) are able to enjoy it. 

Many oldsters can’t walk as far or as fast as they used to, some due to underlying issues such as arthritis or heart problems, but they still benefit greatly from getting out and about. Small outings — such as a jaunt down the block in a stroller for smaller dogs or a cart for larger ones, a brief car ride, or a slow stroll with you to the mailbox — may not mean much to you, but can be huge for your old buddy who gets to sniff the grass, feel the warmth of the sun, and breathe fresh air.

“When dogs come into our rescue, we try and find out what they love,” Yoshioka says, adding that seniors depend a lot on their noses and love small walks in new places. They also love cuddle time, she says. “Just like with younger dogs, they want to be by their person and feel loved.”

Seniors enjoy the benefits of hyrdotherapy

Seniors enjoy the benefits of hyrdotherapy

And just like with humans, exercising the mind is equally important. Happily, contrary to the old saying, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks! Make it a goal to teach your grey-faced pal a new trick once a month. Make the training sessions short and a positive experience. Tricks needn’t be complex — bark on cue, high-five, give a kiss, push a ball — it’s the learning that’s important. And really, who cares if they never quite master the high-five? What matters is the quality time together, and mental stimulation.   

“Every dog delights in finding new things” says Yoshioka, pointing to Kongs, puzzle toys and treat-dispensing balls as great ways to get their noggins thinking and spice up their lives. Protect their aging choppers with softer versions of toys made just for seniors.

Also important is regular exposure to other pets and people. Short sessions of socialization and playtime in a controlled environment, taking care not to over-stimulate or include overly rambunctious playmates, is ideal for enriching mental health. As with humans, if your four-legged best friend doesn’t stay active and involved in life, the desire to do so can fade.

In some ways it may seem they age overnight. Because we see our dogs every day it’s easy to miss subtle changes. Barring medical issues, we can do so much just by adjusting the ways we connect with our pups to keep the spark bright in their wizened old eyes.


Let’s not forget the kitties when it comes to physical and mental activity. They may not pounce like they used to, but exercise is important to help prevent obesity and other issues. Create an enriched environment with items such as a cat tree for climbing, stretching and lounging. Or ever-popular among the kitty crowd — boxes! — entice most felines to play and investigate. Time outdoors in catios (cat patios) or walking on leash help keep seniors entertained and active, burning excess calories and keeping joints healthy.

Interactive toys and food puzzles and activities that spark kitty’s stalk and hunt drive are all gifts you can give your best friend. Studies show the most popular cat toys are those that involve human interaction … so get out and play! Always tailor toys and activities to fit your cat’s age, mobility and health factors.

Cats are social by nature, so be sure to continue to provide companionship and love through gentle petting, stroking and grooming.  

Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of Pet Stop Pit Stop pet sitting services in SW Washington.  She resides in Vancouver with Jessie (a yellow Lab), Pedro & Lorali (parrots), six chickens, and memories of Jake, her heart dog..  Vonnie is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events, and the voice of Spot in social media outlets.

BBB investigates pet toy company

After nearly a decade of receiving complaints, the Better Business Bureau has launched an investigation into Dynamic Pet Products’ Real Ham Bone chew toy. The St. Louis-based company has been the subject of hundreds of negative product reviews citing the toy’s penchant for splintering into fragments that can lodge in a dog’s stomach or intestines, causing serious illness, and in some cases, death. The BBB issued a public health alert in 2010, but complaints continue to be filed, primarily from people who bought bones at Walmart and Jewel-Osco stores. A spokesperson for the latter says Jewel-Osco issued a “dump and destroy” order on the product in March.  

Cycle Dog Toys

Retreads Turtle-Blue.jpg

We've Been Shopping!  Here's what we love …

Cycle Dog Toys

Dogs love novelty, but even more, they like treats!  I’m loving the new durable toys from Cycle Dog, who makes products from post-consumer recycled non-toxic materials.  I have their doggie bag dispenser, so I was eager to try out their Ecolast treat-hiding toys. 

My dog Maddie spent a good half-hour trying to get all the wet food out of the pink 3-Play Hippo’s belly, which squeaks, floats and hides treats.  For some dogs the squeak is the thing, and the head of the toy has a strong squeaker. 

3-Play Hippo-Fuchsia.jpg

The Hippo and Cycle Dog’s also adorable 3-Play Turtle both float.  Some consumers report that their dogs chew off the toy’s legs, but the rest of the toy still lasts and retains its treat hiding, squeaking  
and floating qualities.  For monster chewers, I’d  recommend putting the toy away when a dog isn’t fetching it out of the water or licking treats out of it.  This adorable, durable toy would make a great gift!

More info at

4.5 out of 5 paws 
(.5 point off because the toy is made in China)


Megan Mahan lives in Eugene with her boyfriend, Jacob, their adopted yellow Lab Maddie, many saltwater fish, and two miniature Silver Appleyard ducks, Louie and Olive. 

Cat got the “back to school” blues?

©  Jenna Hiniker

© Jenna Hiniker

Now that your kids are back in school, is Kitty a little depressed?

Your cat got used to you being around more during the day this summer.  Now with school back in session, Kitty has some adjustments to make.

You may find that your cat is more active at night now that no one is around during the day.  Perhaps a bad habit or two have surfaced — just to get your attention.

Here are a few tips for helping your cat adjust to life with the kids again busy with school and activities:

Get some new toys that challenge your cat during the day or anytime you’re away.  Only put them out when you are gone.  For active young cats, check out the Firefly mat, a quiet, touch-activated cat toy offered at  Pet Solutions at has a whole web page full of interesting toys to will keep your cat busy while you’re away (which might be good to use at night so you can sleep).

Keep to a schedule with regard to your cat.  Of course your kids’ school activities will put wrinkles in a schedule; however, you can keep routine times for feeding, playtime, and quiet time.  Cats love routine, and it help ease the stress of change.

Include your cat.  When you’re watching the news or football this fall, give kitty some lap time and attention.  Or get a Cat Dancer (Cat Adoption Team has awesome prices on these toys) so your cat can play with you without you having to move a couch-potato muscle.

Avoid using food to show Kitty your love.  Extra treats only lead to a fatter cat.  The best thing for kitty is making sure he or she feels like a member of the family.

Good for dogs, cats, and kids alike is this last piece of advice:  play to the point of exhaustion.  A tired cat is a less mischievous cat, and one who may sleep through the night!

A New Look at an Old Stand-by


If you have a dog, chances are you have a Kong.  If you're like me, you have the red Kong Classic and the black Extreme Kong, which can be one of your handiest toys — even for monster chewers like Labs, Pitbulls and puppies. 

Some people play fetch with them (for which the Classic is great — it stands out in the grass), some like the Kong Aqua for water play and still others say their dog has little interest in Kongs at all.

Well, here's the secret for those who overlook their Kongs — you’ve gotta stuff ‘em!  If you're busy, check out the varieties of Kong Stuff'n that resembles easy cheese, or the new line of goodies such as jerky, sweet potato treats and meat stix.  Other options include plain ground peanuts, sugar-free/nonfat yogurt, or cream cheese.  Freezing a Kong with these fillers extends chewing and fun time for your dog . . . meaning more down time for you.  Make sure to consider your pup’s “Kong calories,” and adjust his or her daily intake if needed to keep things in balance (and his/her waistline trim).


Kong sizes range from Petite to XX-Large, and there are puppy and senior Kongs for all sizes and teeth densities.  Kong also makes lots of other fun products, from Wubbas and Squeezz toys to a line of squeaky tennis balls.


Best in the Northwest - Gear

We work hard. We play hard. And we have great gear!

When you live in the Pacific Northwest, you have to be ready for anything the weather can dish out.  And people in the NW love their pets.  Spot recently searched out pet stores in the area and their customers for what is top-selling and most popular, from apparel to beds, bowls to food and toys.  The good news is we found several companies providing extraordinary products are based right here at home.


Nylon Turnout Coat — Foggy Mountain Dog Coats

A nice parka/ski jacket-style coat originally designed for horses.  These coats will have your dog toasty warm in even the most severe weather. “This is our top-selling ‘go for broke’ coat,” says Suzanne Losch, owner of Urban Fauna pet supply and doggie daycare in NW Portland. The coats are made with tough water- and wind-repellent nylon, insulated with warm polyfil, and lined with plush fleece. Because of its unique design, it stays put on even the most rambunctious dogs.  Machine washable in sizes to fit all dogs in plaids and solid colors. Available at Urban Fauna or

Living with Dogs - Toys Wonderful Toys!

Dogs are a lot like children. If you don’t give them something fun to do, they will make their own fun — and often not in ways you approve of. What’s more, dogs that get plenty of mental exercise are happier, calmer, quieter, and less likely to rummage through the trash or attack the couch cushions. All terrific reasons your dog should have toys. And not just one or two — dogs have distinctly individual preferences depending on the day, time and situation. Do a little detective work and find out what truly tickles your dog. The best toys have a purpose. They deliver food, present a challenge, squeak, or make themselves interesting in some unique way. If you are new to the world of dog toys, here are some classics to begin with: rope toys, plush toys (with or without squeakers), Hide-A-Bone (squirrel, bird), tricky treat balls, soft rubber toys (vinyl and hard rubber toys like Kong and Nyla bones). Once you have a good selection, develop a toy strategy. Designate a popular toy for use only during alone time, like times when you need to confine him/her to a crate, area or room. Then, rotate the other toys daily to keep the novelty factor high. 

Birds NEED Toys, Birds LOVE to destroy toys

The sun peeked out briefly this afternoon, so I decided to take my two furry friends on a much-deserved excursion to the river. I grabbed my keys and loaded the thrilled mutts into the car. In my haste I forgot “the ball” — the toy we always take along. Turns out I needn’t have worried. My big guy immediately glommed onto a knotty stick that sent him into a frenzy of digging to the center of something. My little girl discovered a semi-deflated balloon snagged on a branch just out of reach. She jumped and lunged in crazed excitement to get at it.

The thing about dogs is it doesn’t take much to entertain them. In fact, as long as I’m there engaging in their play, they enjoy themselves. An added bonus is the enlightenment I get watching them revel in the moment of a found prize. I rarely buy expensive toys. I learned long ago that for my dogs, a stick, a tennis ball or a balled up sock is just as prized.