Like kids, dogs get bored easily, but unlike kids, how they tell us they’re bored is much different. So, do you have a bored dog? Here’s what to look for, and how to combat dog boredom.
One of the most obvious signs of a bored dog? If your dog is lying around and not engaging with his environment, says Lara Joseph, the owner of The Animal Behavior Center, an international education center focusing on positive reinforcement and behavior analysis.
“Another sign of boredom is destructive behaviors,” Lara adds. “For example, chewing on things you don’t want them chewing on. Excessive behaviors, such as excessive barking, are another sign.”
So, if your dog is sleeping more than usual, he might be bored. If he starts tears apart a couch cushion, he’s definitely bored. Lara uses the example of excessive barking, but that’s not the only thing dogs might do. They could whine excessively, like my German Shepherd Dog, Forest. Female dogs might start humping objects or toys to relieve boredom.
Whatever your dog does to express his boredom, you’ll want to redirect his negative behaviors instead of punishing him. After all, it’s not his fault he’s bored.
A quick side note from Lara. “Before I give any behavior advice, I always tell people to make sure their dog has a wellness checkup and that everything is medically fine,” she advises. A lethargic dog might be sick, so have your vet look him over.
Taking your dog for a walk is one of the easiest and most surefire ways to combat dog boredom. But, there are other boredom busters that can be far more stimulating, depending on your dog.
“Enrichment is my No. 1, go-to to redirect behavior,” Lara says. “The type of enrichment I like the best is positive reinforcement training. It’s not only physically stimulating but also mentally stimulating. Your dog learns from it, and it also builds a relationship between you and your dog. If you’re using positive reinforcement, your dog will always look forward to interacting with you.
Positive reinforcement training is something dogs (and many other animals) love Lara says, adding that studies show that animals prefer this form of enrichment.
We can’t spend all day training our dogs, Lara points out. “My No. 2 fallback is tactile enrichment, or enrichment that doesn’t involve me,” she says. “This type [of] enrichment includes objects that a dog can manipulate and move. Studies have shown that animals prefer enrichment objects that change shape.”
Dog toys are the best examples of tactile enrichment. When dog toys “change shape,” that means your dog has most likely pulled out all of the toy’s stuffing. That’s something you shouldn’t be worried about, either, Lara says, pointing out that a lot of dog owners don’t realize that this is actually a good thing. “People will stop providing certain types of toys because the dog destroys them,” she says. “But you want [your dog] destroying [the toy]. If they’re destroying it, they’re not destroying your couch.”
Basically, Lara says, “A toy destroyed is a toy enjoyed.”
Different dogs prefer different toys and it might take some trial and error to find a toy your dog absolutely loves. “When we have dogs that come over to my center for training, I watch what they’re interacting with and why,” Lara says. “If a dog sits down and starts chewing on a cardboard box, we need to ask why he’s destroying it. If there’s nothing in the box, is it just the act of tearing something apart that the dog likes?”
Does your dog just like the act of destroying a box? Then you know that type of “toy” is a winner in your dog’s book. Lara will then experiment with other types of materials, such as rope toys, squeaky toys, etc., to see what else the dog likes. Once she has a list of favorites, she then slowly levels up the complexity of the toy, making it so the dog has to spend more time trying to destroy it.
Keeping a toy type interesting and complex is crucial for keeping a dog from getting bored with it. After all, a dog can only destroy a box so many times before the novelty wears off. It’s something a lot of dog owners don’t realize, Lara says. What they see is a dog that stops playing with a toy, and they think he’s no longer interested in that toy type. They stop providing it, and it’s not long before they see negative behaviors popping up again.
The point is, it will take some creative thinking on your part to keep toys interesting for your dog. My German Shepherd Dog River loves to destroy boxes. To keep things interesting, I provide a lot of different types of cardboard for her to play with. One day she might get a thick cardboard box used to ship packages. (Thank you, Amazon.) Other times, she might get a cereal box made with thin cardboard. Then, to make a toy more complex, I might stuff a box in a box, along with some toys and paper so River has to chew through several layers to get to the box inside. Sometimes, as an incentive to get her chewing, I hide a treat or two deep within the various layers. That’s another way to add a level of complexity.
Important note: Be sure that your dog isn’t eating the cardboard instead of the treats or food.
Of course, destroying a toy isn’t the only type of tactile enrichment. Foraging is another, and that basically means making your dog work for his food. Instead of serving his food in a bowl, change it up by stuffing it in a Kong or hiding it around the house for him to find using his sense of smell. When Forest was a puppy, I would hide his food inside leftover soda can boxes, stuffed full with toys/towels and holes so the food could fall out. The goal was for him to pull the toys out to get to the food or bat the box around until the kibble fell out.
Nowadays, however, Forest isn’t as keen to bat boxes around. So, I try to change things up with toys that he has to push around to get the kibble loose. There are plenty of foraging toys out there to choose from, from puzzle toys to interactive toys that can be really complex. They might involve a dog pushing a flap open and/or moving a lever before he can get the kibble out.
Lara likes to use foraging toys that can be set on timers. Every 15 or 30 minutes, the toy dings and a chamber opens up on the foraging toy that a dog then has to manipulate for food to dispense. There are also Bluetooth-activated foraging toys that Lara likes using, too — if she’s away, she can hit a button on her phone, and the foraging toy is set off at home.
The possibilities to entertain a bored dog are endless.
Tell us: How do you keep your dogs entertained? What type of enrichment do they love best?
Thumbnail: Photography ©dosecreative | Thinkstock.
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