Beating boredom, part 3: How to keep dogs occupied when they're home alone

For Howard Magazine
Your dog is probably bored when he's home alone. Here's what you can do to change that.

In previous columns, we covered how to enrich the home environments of cats, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and pocket pets. This issue, we finish with a look at activities for the companion animal most dependent on humans for its mental well-being — the dog.

For dogs, the situation is a little different. Though some dogs develop stress-related separation anxiety when left home alone — potentially leading to serious issues like destructive behavior and house-soiling — most dogs simply spend their boring daytime hours without us alternately sleeping, watching for us to come home or barking at the world outside their windows. Even for dogs without overt behavior problems, there’s much we can do to keep them mentally and physically healthy and engaged, whether they’re home alone or by their owners’ side.

Why is this so important? Dogs are social by nature and need interaction with their family “pack” to thrive. And most dogs were originally bred to do specific jobs; they like and need to “work for a living,” as Tufts University-Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman writes in some of his books.

Of course, typical pet border collies don’t have sheep to supervise, most retrievers don’t retrieve anything other than a tennis ball in a fetch game, and few terriers keep busy rousting rodents from a barn. In the absence of work, bored dogs may develop a variety of behavioral issues, including inappropriate digging, chewing, general destruction and even aggression.

For dogs home alone, provide entertainment by leaving them some of the many available food-dispensing toys. Stuff a hollow rubber Kong toy with peanut butter — but freeze it before leaving it for your dog, since frozen peanut butter offers a longer-lasting challenge.

Visit any pet supply store or website and you’ll find a variety of balls and cubes designed to be filled with kibble, which randomly spill their contents when your dog pushes them around the floor. Such toys are self-rewarding, keep your dog entertained and provide mental and physical stimulation. Some dog owners use these toys to feed regular meals so their dogs have to work for their food. Toy manufacturer Nina Ottosson offers even more challenging puzzle toys with slots, trapdoors and other hiding places for food (available at nina-ottosson.com, Amazon and other retailers).

Whatever toys you try, make sure they’re safe. Dog jaws are capable of inflicting considerable damage, so some toys with breakable components should only be used with human supervision, while others are sturdy enough that there’s little risk your dog will chew them up during your absence and ingest harmful pieces.

Some dogs feel less alone if we leave the TV or radio on, preferably tuned to calm music or a station offering quiet conversational programs.

Dogs also benefit from interesting activities when we’re home with them, and many trainers embrace and teach about enrichment activities. Local trainer Fiona Tobler’s motto: “A tired dog is a happy dog.” Her training programs at Happy Tired Dog integrate enrichment activities with basic training, demonstrating how keeping dogs busy also keeps them out of trouble. As a volunteer at Howard County Animal Control and Adoption Center, Tobler developed an enrichment program for animals awaiting adoption with the added benefit of making them better-behaved pets once they go to their new homes. Watch videos of these toys in action at happytireddog.com.

Local trainer Howard Weinstein at Day-One Dog Training recommends the website dogplay.com as a source of information on dozens of fun indoor and outdoor activities people and dogs can do together, including agility (with instructions on building low-cost, homemade obstacle-course equipment), flyball, rally, tracking, hiking and more. Weinstein’s basic-obedience puppy kindergarten classes incorporate a “show-and-tell” session on interactive puzzle toys, as well as introductions to agility, food-seeking games and advanced tricks.

As with the enrichment activities for cats, small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians covered in previous issues, try these suggestions to make the daily life of your canine companion more challenging, interesting and fun. Your dog will thank you. 

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