Boredom Blasters for Dogs

Enriching your dog's environment

What's inside your dog's head? With dogs that I see, it's often a soggy brain. A splodgy mass of underused grey matter that has hardly been exercised at all.

In the real estate world, they would say it's a brain with 'lots of potential'. Many a dog's head is an unimproved cerebral wasteland devoid of any active neurons, crying out for a caring brain architect to connect the neurons and to develop a fun park of intelligence.

If you have a dog which is 'home alone' all day or have a work-depleted working dog, it too, is likely to have a soggy brain unless you know what to do. Boredom is the scourge of backyard dogs.

How do you know if your dog is bored?

Look for destructive behaviours and noise. If your dog digs swimming-pool-sized holes in your garden, if it rips washing from the line, destroys garden furniture and savages sprinkler systems then it's a bored backyard dog.

If it is chewing holes in your wooden fences or gates or is chewing the door jambs or destroying the fly screens on your back door it has a bigger problem. If it howls, barks or whines for most of the day and your letter box is jammed with hate mail when you get home from work, or worse still, if your dog is perpetually escaping, it has a serious problem. It is even worse if your dog is trembling, shaking, hyperventilating or salivating excessively when you are away from it.

All of these disasters happen when a dog is bored - or worse still, when it has a separation anxiety. Casual boredom during the day can quickly become a full-blown separation anxiety as the dog learns that whenever you leave for work you are always gone for a long time.

How to ban boredom

The solution is to provide a healthy and stimulating lifestyle for your pet when you're home and when you're away. You don't want a dull area of dismal confinement equivalent to pooch purgatory. Instead, your back yard should be a Happy Hound's Playground, a Mutt's Mind-Enriching Nirvana, a Dog's Arena of Delight.

How do you create that for your dog?

'When Home' Boredom Blasters

Firstly, be sure you have a happy hound - not a street freak.

Aerobic exercise, especially when owners get involved, is a delight for dogs. However, many dog owners think that taking the dog for long walks to a local park or for a daily vigorous jog is the best form of exercise.

To me, this focus is wrong. While the exercise is good, the location is not. Where does your dog spend most of its time? In your backyard. Therefore, the backyard needs to become the focus, not the street beyond.

Your dog needs to know that the grass is greener on your side of the fence. Rather than spending five days per week walking or jogging your dog around the suburbs, you would do a lot better spending at least four of those days doing aerobic exercise and brain work with your dog in your own backyard. The yard has to be much more fun than the street.

So what can you do for your dog when you are at home?

Playing Ball

For a start, throwing a ball or Frisbee is excellent exercise for both of you. Where you can, give a command to 'SIT' and 'STAY' first and then throw the ball as a reward. As your dog learns the rules, get it to 'LEAVE' the ball alone in mid-flight, to wait for a few seconds, and then to 'FETCH' it again. Don't forget the poochy praise.

The best 'ball' I have seen is a classic Kong. This toy is shaped like the Michelin Man without arms and legs. It is a rounded, three level pyramid that bounces unpredictably. This adds to the fun of the game.

It is made of hard rubber and withstands chewing. However, it also has a hole through the centre. This makes it like a bone with intelligence as you can place all manner of foodstuffs in the hole to give your dog something to work on when you are not at home.

Consider playing touch football with your dog. Let it score a victory with the ball and chase it around the yard but not for too long. When you are ready, stop, command the dog to 'LEAVE' or to 'DROP' the ball and don't continue until your dog has responded. This way, you are in control. Some dogs become obsessive with ball play and will dominate their owners constantly as they demand the ball is thrown again and again. Be sure that you control the process all the way through.

Backyard Agility Tasks

Teach your dog to walk over a seesaw. Use a wide plank first, on a low piece of timber or a brick. Narrow the timber and make it higher as your dog learns. Walking a balance beam can be taught in the same manner.

Jumping hurdles is fun. Put some light timber between pine uprights and teach your dog to jump 'OVER' the hurdles. Increase the height as you progress. Jumping over the swings in a child's play set or sliding down the slippery slide is fun for some dogs.

Get some old tyres and fix them together so they form a tunnel. Now train your dog to climb through the tunnel or to jump over the tunnel. This is also good for the kids!

The 'SEEK' command is also useful. Train your dog to seek titbits of food. Initially, put your dog in a SIT/STAY position, and then place the food about one metre in front of the dog. Now encourage it to eat the food using the word 'SEEK'.

Now progress by moving the food further away from your dog. When doing this, drag the food along the ground to leave a scent trail for your dog to follow. Eventually, place the food out of sight, such as under a rock or brick in a garden bed. The next step is to hide titbits of food around the garden in various areas that your pooch must locate.

If you have children, you can involve them by getting your dog to 'seek' the children as they hide. If they have a food reward, they can use this to further reinforce the dog's interest when it succeeds.

'Home Alone' Boredom Blasters

With some creativity, you can develop all kinds of 'delayed action' rewards that have an effect some time after you leave for work. Try the following brainstorms:

The Stuffed Kong

Kong toys can have a delayed action. Fill a Kong with a good brand of canned dog food or with fresh meat chunks, perhaps laced with pieces of kabana and freeze it! Give this to your dog as you leave for work and, while it will be boring initially, as it defrosts some time later it will become an island of joy for your pooch in the middle of the day.

The Kong Wobbler is a weighted, impossible-to-knock-over, Kong shaped brain puzzle for pooches! Many other dog brain-teaser toys are also available.

Frozen Cows

Get some tetra packs of lactose-free pet milk from the pet shelf in your supermarket. Put them all in the freezer. Each day, open a pack and put the frozen milk in a bowl for your dog (or cat). The milk will defrost, gradually giving your pet a slow-release reward.

Frozen Soup

The same effect can be achieved with soup. Make up a nutritious broth for your dog, or simply dissolve some Vegemite or a stock cube (the reduced salt version) in warm water. Add chunks of meat and a few vegetables. Freeze it in a plastic lunch box or butter container and place it in a bowl for your dog before you leave.

Ice Timer

This is a neat trick. Start with a 250ml plastic cup and a length of nylon twine about 20cm long. Fill the cup with water and place the ends of the twine in the water so that a loop of string hangs out. Now freeze the whole lot.

When frozen, the ice acts like a frozen knot joining the string together. When the ice melts, the knot 'releases'.

In the morning, remove the ice timer from its plastic cup and hook the string up high over a nail, on your washing line or wherever else you can secure it.

Now place whatever you would like to give to your pooch later in the day, in the hole created by the loop of string and the ice.

When the ice melts, the object will be delivered to your pooch!!

Not all the treats delivered need to be food, either. Try securing the following inside the hole:

  • A stuffed, frozen Kong
  • A safe bone or pig's ear
  • Your pooch's favourite toy
  • A tin can with your dog's dry food in it, secured by another length of string so that it falls to the ground with a CLANG

Note that you can make a dozen of these timers using a plastic ice cube tray. Each will last about an hour. A 250ml cup is likely to last about two hours and a two litre ice cream container - who knows???

The Automatic Pet Feeder

In a similar manner to the Ice Timer, a range of Automatic Pet Feeders is commercially available. This is basically a food bowl with a lid and some models include an ice chamber to keep food cool. The programmable timer enables you to deliver a food reward, such as some dry dog food, at a specific time after you leave. You can set up your feeder so that the food drops from the feeder onto the ground, then have a rubber door mat (the type with large holes in it) below the feeder to trap the biscuits. Your dog will have to engage in a search and slurp mission to find and eat the biscuits.

The Leaking Milk Bottle

For this trick you will need a one, two or three-litre plastic milk carton, a length of light wood such as a ruler and a small tin containing some food rewards.

Put a slit or hole in the bottom of the carton. Fill the carton with water. The water will slowly leak out over time, the length of which is determined by the amount of water you use. Now place the length of wood high up on a ledge with the leaking bottle to balance it. Place the food can on the other end. The milk bottle balances the weight of the ruler and the can. When enough water has leaked out, the ruler and food will clang to the ground and give a sudden food treat to your dog.

Clam Shell Sand Pits

A clam shell sand pit, commonly used for children, is wonderful for dogs that dig. Fill one half of the shell with water and the other half with sand. Bury the dog's toys under the sand or place them in the water. Vary the toys each day so that as your dog explores, it will discover new joys.

Day Walkers

Why not consider hiring a dog walker to visit your dog regularly while you are at work? Select a person who is prepared to spend 15 to 30 minutes with your dog in your own backyard, but limit the street walking. During this time the dog walker should play with your dog and most importantly, train it to learn different 'fun' tasks in your back yard. This will alleviate boredom and give your dog the company it needs.

Companion Animals

Many dog owners ask me if getting a companion for their pets will be useful. A second dog often provides a playmate but this doesn't always work. The dog wants your company, not necessarily the company of another dog and I have seen many dogs with companions that have another dog as a companion.

Sometimes a 'non-dog' companion works well. A pen of chooks is often useful and, for the right dog, having a pair of free ranging chooks provides 'dog TV'. Naturally, you need to be certain your dog will not chase or hurt the chooks. If you get the chicks as day old chickens, they imprint well on humans, make good pets and even seem to enjoy the dog's interest.

If you think your dog is bored or worse still, has separation anxiety, contact your local vet or canine behaviourist for help.

By Dr Cam Day BVSc - Last updated 5 February 2014

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