How to Occupy (and Tire Out) a Dog Who’s Bored and Restless

This behavior quagmire is easier to solve than you might think, even if it's late and you're indoors.


Anyone who has lived with a dog knows that moment where you’re lying on the couch enjoying a movie and suddenly there is a wet nose poking at your elbow. Or you’re taking a nap and then a soggy tennis ball appears on your lap, and you ignore that and next you’re treated with a soggy decapitated purple rabbit, and finally if you’ve maganged to ignore all that you are treated to a musical performance of a squeaky toy on repeat in your ear.

You’ve got a bored dog. Now what do you do about it? It’s a training and behavior quagmire.

An easy answer is a long walk, or a run in the park, but sometimes that isn’t possible or doesn’t sound particularly exciting — like when it’s late at night, or raining, or there’s a street festival, or a block party (I live in New York City, and these things happen all the time). As I’ve talked about in past columns, I love our trips to the park, but I’m a big fan of activities I can do inside the apartment to burn off energy and keep my dogs mentally stimulated. What always amazes me is how a bit of mental stimulation can tire my dogs out for the rest of the afternoon.

As I talked about a few weeks ago, trick training is a great way to bond with your dogs and keep their brain muscles exercised. If tricks aren’t your thing, or you’re looking for something a little different, here are a couple fun ideas for interactive play:

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, there’s even a competitive dog sport that’s focused on the impressive ways you can teach your dog to find and alert to certain smells. Dogs “see” so much of their world through smells, it can be fun to see what your dog can do. For this game take some treats — the smellier the better — then hide the treats and encourage your dog to search for them. When you are first getting started let your dog watch you hide the treat somewhere relatively easy like under a chair, or behind a partially closed door. As your dog catches on make the hiding spots increasingly tricky, and don’t let puppy watch you hide them!

Last year for Christmas, Santa Paws brought Charlotte a Kyjen Dog Games Treat Wheel puzzle. I like this one because there are ways to increase the difficulty of the game. She mastered it the first time in about a minute, and now she can do the puzzle in seconds. We don’t pull this one out too frequently because I like to give her a little time to keep things fresh. A dog buddy and I have joked about setting up a regular rotation of canine puzzle swap with other dog buddies, because the puzzles aren’t cheap and it would be fun to have a regular supply of new challenges for our canine kids. Because I’m a constant doggie window shopper — I know that I would really like to try any of the Nina Ottosson Wooden Dog Puzzels but especially Treat Fighter and Tornado. I’m also curious about Linkables. A fast DIY puzzle toy, to see if this type of thing is something your dog would like, is to put tennis balls over the openings of a muffin tin, with treats under some of the balls.

No matter how much we love our dogs, sometimes we all need a break and want to see our dogs entertain themselves for a little while. I really appreciate that our dogs are quite skilled at finding ways to entertain themselves, and its definitely something I like to encourage. One of my favorite strategies is to turn dinner into a puzzle. The Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball is a favorite around our house. I remember the first generation of treat balls that I had in the 1990s and the telltale sound that the hard plastic made as it rammed into every wall or piece of furniture. This toy is made of a much softer material and quiet even on our hardwood floors. I don’t actually use it for treats, instead when Charlotte is particularly rambunctious and a long walk isn’t possible I’ll feed her breakfast or dinner in the ball. Suddenly mealtime (which she finds fairly boring half the time) is a fun game that keeps her engaged for at least the next 20 minutes and usually leaves her much calmer.

Like many dog folks I’m pretty evangelical about the benefits of stuffed Kongs. They are practically indestructible and have so many possibilities of things to stuff into them. Charlotte and Mercury are usually crated when I’m away from the house, and they both run to their crates when they hear us say “kennel up” because they know a peanut butter stuffed kong is waiting for them. Soaked kibble, peanut butter, frozen wet food — these are all great stuffers, and much less expressive than the commercially sold kong stuffer.

I believe that every moment we spent with our dogs we are teaching them something, whether during an intentional training session for working on a particular skill, or a relaxed afternoon in the living room where you’ve given her a tasty bone or other safe chew and she’s learning how to self-soothe and relax without your constant attention. Make sure that whenever possible you are teaching your dogs what you want them to be doing. Bored dogs quickly have the potential to become destructive dogs so let’s keep those fuzzy paws busy!

What are your favorite ways to entertain your dogs inside? What are your favorite games or toys for solo play?

About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.

Read more by Sassafras Lowrey:

2 thoughts on “How to Occupy (and Tire Out) a Dog Who’s Bored and Restless”

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