top of page

What To Do When Your Dog or Cat Can't! Be Underfoot

When someone is recovering from an injury or facing reduced mobility, a beloved dog or cat can become a hazard! This blog offers help for people who are receiving occupational or physical therapy about what do do when their pets get in the way.

I have a friend who is studying to be an occupational therapist as a second career. This is so wonderful, a career helping people recover from injuries or adapt to health changes. If you’ve been injured, you appreciate what a helpful and caring profession this can be.

When I was working in animal rescue, I slipped, fell, and broke my wrist at work (twice, sadly.). I had sprayed off with Rescue (infection prevention protocol) making the concrete floor extremely slippery and then was hurrying to help a co-worker and pivoted poorly on a loose rug. Arguably, I could have finished out the day at home anyway, since I’d just done an in-home behavioral help visit with an adopter in the opposite direction of my workplace. However, we’d just done a large dog rescue and I wanted to see and help those dogs. The irony being that after I broke my wrist, I wasn’t able to go in with those large, jumpy dogs for a good month. It was really frustrating!

I’d had a similar injury just a year before and had powered through a workday thinking it might be a sprain before seeking medical help and discovering the break. I don’t recommend this folly! 

The difference with the more recent break was the severity–there was no powering through this one. It required surgery and follow up visits with an occupational therapist to regain my mobility (which I did!). This was my first chance to appreciate the profession. I really, really did appreciate all the care, precision, tools, and tips the therapist put into my recovery. Those exercises and suggestions made a big difference. 

A lot about the process–exercises to make incremental progress with a lot of detailed attention to my individual needs and behavior–reminded me of dog training. 

My friend made a connection between dog training and occupational therapy, too.

A pitbull sitting on a yoga mat looking relaxed.

Would you be surprised to hear that pets frequently come up as a concern for occupational therapists or physical therapists and their patients? Dogs and cats are such a big part of our lives!

What happens when we get injured or are having mobility issues? We want to care for the animals in our lives and have them around, but there are new challenges. Our loved ones can become dangerous to have around. We can’t lift them up, let them jump into our laps, or allow them to trip us. Our beloved shadows and fur friends underfoot may become a source of fear (of pain!)  for us.

That’s not even mentioning the tripping hazards of toys! 

At the same time, the animals in our homes are a great comfort and they may be helpful to our healing and can help us adjust to changing circumstances. Rehoming them, even temporarily, might not be an option or feel right.

Can training help in these situations? Absolutely.

Here are three recommendations for taking care of dogs and cats safely during an injury and for teaching them what to do to adjust to our new physicality.

If you have the benefit of knowing that you are going to have reduced mobility in the future after an upcoming surgery or medical treatment, these are all things you can start doing now.

  1. Reward the behaviors you’d like to see more of in the places where you’d like your dog or cat to be. If the animal can’t be on your lap, for example, think about where you would like the animal to be, instead. Perhaps on a chair beside you. Make that place very comfortable with extra blankets and pillows, place favorite toys there, for a cat you might use a warming pad. Lure the animal to that location with small tasty treats. Then, give the animal small tasty treats whenever they are in that location. Sometimes, surprise them by placing tasty treats there for the animal to discover on their own. The animal will develop a preference for that place. For cats, if you don’t want them underfoot make sure there are lots of nice elevated spaces for them to choose instead: it could be a pulled out chair, a cardboard box, an empty cleared off shelf, or a cat tree. Place treats in these locations. Reward the cat when you see them in these locations. For dogs, play a “find it” game. Say, “find it!” toss a treat away from you, move forward,  let the dog go off to sniff out the treat (no helping, or pointing!). If they don’t immediately find the treat, wait.  Just repeat, “find it!” and toss the treat near the missed one. With practice, the dog will get better at sniffing out the treat and begin moving away from you when you say “find it”.

  2. Provide fun activities to occupy your animal out of the way. If you are not already a fan of puzzle feeders, lick mats, and snuffle mats now is the time to get into these activities. Toys like frozen Kongs and West Paw Toppls can be prepared in advance and given to your dog to keep them occupied while you heal. Lick mats and snuffle mats work for cats, too. Hiding treats or novel, diluted pet safe scents in toilet paper rolls can make for a fun game too. A treat scatter inside or in the lawn can be a fun game. You can use boxes or grocery bags to make foraging games for dogs or hunting games for cats. Fun for them. Out of the way, for you!

See my blogs on:

  1. Train your dog or cat to “go to mat” and play helpful training games with them. Dogs and cats can be taught to go to “go to mat” on cue. Use a yoga mat, blanket, or towel set aside just for this purpose. Putting down this mat is the first cue. Say “go to mat” point, and lure the animal to the mat or toss a tasty treat on the mat. When the animal comes to the mat, say “Yes” and reward again. Continue to reward as long as they are on the mat. Stop giving treats as soon as they step off the mat. Or, reset the game by saying “find it” and tossing a treat away from the mat. Repeat. You can also teach sit-stay or down-stay on the mat.

If your dog already has practiced a few basics like “sit,” “down,” or “shake” ask for 5-10 repetitions of these behaviors on the mat. You can also teach your dog and cat “touch,” reward nose to your open palm, and “look,” reward for eye contact. 

Your dog and cat will quickly develop a preference for the mat which comes in handy. 

Keep in mind: 

Reward the behaviors you’d like to see more of in the places and positions where you’d like the animal to be. So, four paws on the floor or “sit” to prevent jumping. Treats on a nearby chair followed by a wand toy game to prevent the cat from standing on your laptop. This is more effective –and more enjoyable–than repeatedly saying “No!” or “Off!”. Teach the animal what you would like them to do instead and then reinforce this behavior (treats, attention, praise, play) to get more of it. It really works.

New medical equipment can be scary for some animals. If you have time in advance, let the animal sniff the new object and follow that up with some very nice tasty treats. Get the animal used to new devices and movements by showing them that these things = good stuff for them. A trainer can help with this, too.

I offer these suggestions knowing that a lot of times these ideas sound easier to implement than they are when you try them–especially if you are under some stress. It can be helpful to tailor these plans to your individual circumstances and environment and to your dog’s or cat's needs. A trainer can help and may be willing to work with your occupational or physical  therapist (I know I would!) to come up with a good plan to fit your needs. If you know you are facing an upcoming surgery, medical procedure, or change in mobility, reach out to a trainer, in advance. If you are receiving occupational therapy or physical therapy and find your dog or cat is adding to your challenges, a trainer can help.

I like to point out that in the case of my own broken wrists – no animals were involved in those injuries! I’m grateful that in my years of working with large animals and walking lots of large jumpy, mouthy dogs on hiking trails and in slippery conditions I always managed to stay upright. There were some leash handling skills involved, for sure. Also, the dogs took good care of me and listened well when I asked them to help me out. That’s because I had a solid track record of paying for behaviors I liked. I did reward them well for walking by my side instead of pulling ahead on icy days – and it worked wonders!! A little training can go a long way! Good training develops good communication and strengthens your relationship with the animal in your home.

21 views0 comments


bottom of page