“I’m so bored!” Has your dog ever told you that? No? Are you sure? If he’s chewing up the house, digging holes in the garden, barking for no apparent reason, escaping to roam around the neighborhood, or otherwise misbehaving, that may be exactly what he’s trying to tell you. Although we view such behaviors as “bad,” they’re often signs that your dog isn’t getting enough physical exercise and mental stimulation.
Yelling or locking your dog in a crate won’t help; it will probably just make things worse because he’ll still be bored. So what can we do to help our dogs be the best companions we want? We can be the companions and caretakers they need by providing not just food, shelter, and medical care, but also the stimulation they crave. Here are some ideas that will go a long way toward preventing and alleviating problem behaviors.
First, make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. How much will depend on your dog’s breed (or mix of breeds), age, physical health and condition, and individual activity level. We can make some informed estimates, though. If he was bred to be a lap-warmer or he’s elderly, one or two short walks each day may be plenty. On the other hand, if his ancestors were bred to hunt or work long hours, he will likely need a lot more than that.
Your dog’s mind needs exercise, too. Remember that dogs are hunters at heart, and hunters depend on their alertness and intelligence for survival. You may do the work of providing their food these days, but that canine mind is still looking for problems to solve. If you don’t engage him, your dog will likely make up some mind games of his own. Creating mental challenges and watching our dogs work on them can be great fun.
Some dog toys are specifically designed for mental exercise, such as puzzle toys and those that make your dog work to get to treats that are hidden in them. In fact, making your dog work for his food can be a satisfying process for him. You can also hide bits of kibble around the house as a treasure hunt or put his dinner in a food-dispensing toy. (Don’t try this with more than one dog at a time).
Good-quality chew toys can also entertain some dogs for hours. Keep a stash of different chews to keep your dog interested, but let him have access to only two or three at a time. Put the rest away and switch them out when they become worn.
Even if you have no desire to compete in canine sports, training your dog to learn obedience, agility, tricks, or tracking—anything that requires your dog (and you!) to think and learn—will help relieve boredom. After all, it’s a lot easier to teach your dog to do something than to not do something, and replacing unwanted behaviors with acceptable ones will make you both a lot happier. Besides, training him for dog sports will enhance your bond.
Quick and Easy Games
“Find it” games are fun, and they’re easy to play in short bits of time. Lily and I often play five minutes of “hide the toy” (I hide it, she finds it) while waiting for the pasta to cook. Or have one person hide and ask your dog to find her. (If you do this outside your home, please keep your dog fenced in or on a leash. Safety first!) A quick Internet search for “brain games for dogs” will bring up lots of ideas for other homemade toys and games.
There are also ways to work mental challenges into everyday life. My dog Teddy, for instance, always used to bring in the newspaper and the mail. Lily, my current companion, carries dirty socks to the hamper and clean ones from the dryer to the bedroom. She also carries plastic bottles and jugs to the recycling bin and hands them to me. Dogs like to be useful.
Use your own imagination to engage your dog’s. Even something as simple as changing the route of your daily walk can help fend off boredom. Give him new things to see and smell— always allow some time for this favorite canine pursuit! Dogs experience the world largely through their noses, and sniffing along the way is absolutely part of a satisfying outing. When you get home, take a few minutes for meaningful interactions with your dog. Give him a short grooming session, some back scratching, or a nice belly rub. It’s good for both of you.
Sheila Webster Boneham, PhD, writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, much of it focused on animals, nature, and travel. Sheila has published 17 nonfiction books about animals, six of which have been named best in their categories by the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association. In addition to her own dogs, Sheila has fostered many rescue dogs and cats, and helped found two rescue programs. Sheila trains and competes in several canine sports, and her dogs have served as therapy dogs in schools, hospitals, libraries, and nursing homes. In addition to her Aussies, Sheila has had at least one Labrador Retriever in her home since 1988, and in November 2012, she and her husband adopted a 12-year-young Golden Retriever.