The Adventurous Exercise Pen

April 1, 2020

Exercise pens are a great option for new puppies. A lot of us already use them as a safe space for the puppy to hang out unsupervised. Now, what if I told you that same space could be a socialization tool?

Make your exercise pen an adventure!

This is 10 week old Fish learning all about different textures, weird movement and being in charge of making interesting sounds. He’s playing with a plastic container filled with marbles from the dollar store which is attached to his pen by a length of chain from Home Depot.

As a service dog candidate I wanted to expose him to as many different experiences as possible, starting at home. This isn’t just for service dog hopefuls though, all puppies can benefit from an enriched exercise pen.

Here are some considerations when choosing what to add to your pen:

  • Safety: Is this something that can remain in the exercise pen with your puppy while unsupervised?
    • Is the object in danger of being ingested if the puppy chews it?
    • Could a long hanging rope or chain present a strangle hazard? (YES)
    • If the answer to these questions is yes then these objects need to be able to be removed from the pen when the puppy is unsupervised. I largely accomplished this by using chains that were long enough to be flipped to the inaccessible side of the exercise pen when I wasn’t there watching. I attached the chain to the exercise pen with a zip tie on the very top bar so there was nothing to grab onto when flipped to the inaccessible side of the pen.
  • Puppy’s Comfort Level: How does your puppy feel about noise, movement, texture, strange objects? The goal is to give the puppy an experience he can handle, not one that will terrify him.
    • Some objects are “ruder” than others. A plastic cup makes a quieter noise than a metal water bottle. A big pot that can swing might be more worrisome than a spatula. Your choice of chain or rope changes the noise level of the moving object. It is safer to choose smaller, quieter objects and chains and build your way up.
    • If novelty is alarming to your puppy you might consider only adding one object at a time and swapping them out as opposed to adding many objects all at once.
    • The more objects suspended on the exercise pen, the greater the collective noise if the walls of the exercise pen are disturbed either by you or the puppy bumping them.
    • Puppies can have very different reactions to a noise they had control over making versus a noise you made happen so be mindful about placing objects on the wall with the exercise pen door if this is a concern for your puppy.
Get creative with your objects! A lot of mine come from the dollar store, Goodwill or things I had lying around the house.

So what are some objects I hang in my exercise pens? Here are some ideas to get you started:

Spatulas and other cookware, water bottles, pots, baking molds, PVC pieces, lengths of pipe, plastic containers, cups, hanging dog toys, baskets, rubber spiders and rats, plastic baseball bats, golf clubs, tennis rackets, traffic cones, treat pouches, Halloween masks etc. Basically if it is safe for your dog to put his mouth on under supervision and it doesn’t scare him, it’s fair game.

Attachment ideas

In terms of attachment I use a combination of zip ties and various rope and chain type materials. You can see some of them above. The brown rope material really requires careful supervision so I’d probably skip it. Home depot has a great section with all kinds of chain and rope, be sure and watch for rough edges on the chains. Be kind to your associate, they have to cut everything for you and label the lengths and UPC so you can check out. I had things cut primarily between 12-36 inches but length is up to you. Bungee cords are perfect for things you want to place horizontally, I like to remove these things completely from the pen between uses especially since they cannot be flipped to the other side. A puppy can get it’s leg stuck between the exercise pen and the object.

Rotate your assortment of objects for increased exposures and novelty!

Creative additions:

  • Place items inside things like plastic containers and water bottles that will add a new noise element. I used things like sand, pebbles, marbles, rice etc.
  • Chain two dangling items together so that moving one item makes noise with both.
  • When using horizontal object pick things that your puppy can slide back and forth. PVC pieces and long backing molds with a hole on either side are great for this purpose.
  • Consider toddler toys that make noise when touched. I’ve also used one of those crib toys that lights up, moves and plays music.
  • Feel free to use the floor of your exercise pen too! Let your dog interact with all sorts of new and novel items under supervision. Home depot is a great place to get pieces of different flooring surfaces.

Inspiration for this exercise pen came from Donna Hill’s Service Puppy course over at the Service Dog Training Institute. I highly suggest any of her courses for someone raising a service dog candidate or service dog in training.

1 Comment

  1. Susanne

    I love this! I especially like how customizable it is to the comfort level of the puppy and how that can change over time.



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