A Bored Dog is an Unhappy Dog
Like you, your dog has a mind, and like you, she craves mental stimulation. Without any stimulation your dog can get bored, and if left to her own devices your bored dog might try:
- Playing “how many barks in a row can I bark?”
- Digging up your garden or flowerbed
- Sampling your shoe collection, savoring the flavor and texture of each shoe
- Emptying all the trash cans in your house
You are responsible for keeping your dog’s mind stimulated, or you risk your bored dog coming up with her own entertainment, whatever that ends up being. While usually the consequences of a bored dog might be simply a nuisance, for some dogs, the effects of boredom can be much, much worse. Some bored dogs cause house destruction on an epic scale, leading to costly headaches or even surrender of the dog. Other dogs experience emotional disorders or develop compulsive behaviors. If you have seen the effects of any of these, then you know how devastating boredom can be for dogs. It’s tragic, especially because we often have the tools to prevent our dogs from becoming bored.
Beat Boredom with Foraging
Something that’s very natural and pleasurable for dogs is to spend time finding and eating their food. Foraging for food is an engaging activity that requires her to think and interact with her environment, putting her mind and time to good use.
And yet despite these facts, the vast majority of folks I know feed their dogs out of a bowl once or twice a day. Many dogs inhale their kibble in about 30 seconds and move on – a missed opportunity for engaging their minds and enriching their lives.
Feeding Hacks to Keep Your Dog Happy
One way to feed your dog interactively is to train using food rewards. It’s a great way to build a bond with your pet and stimulate her mind. Training sessions work best when they are short – only five to fifteen minutes at a time, and done at intervals throughout the day.
Another great way to make your dog’s eating experience lengthier and more cognitively stimulating is to feed from interactive food toys. And these do not need to be costly new gadgets, although there are some cool ones out there. Here are some simple and proven examples:
- Stuffable Chews and Toys—The Kong is an extremely reliable and easy to use interactive toy. You can stuff it with different “recipes” – dry food softened with water, mixed with treats or a swirl of peanut butter, whatever your pup likes! I make batches at a time, then pop them in the freezer. When it’s time to leave my dog alone, I grab one out of the freezer and my pup goes right to his crate, anticipating hours of eating enjoyment to come. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, try this trick and your pup may just start to look forward to his alone time! Besides the Kong, there are many other stuffable chews on the market. Look for something that’s easy to stuff and easy to clean. A hollow beef bone can also work for many dogs.
- Treat Balls—Another type of interactive toy I like is the treat ball. There are a lot of models out there, but it doesn’t have to be too fancy. It’s simply a ball with one or more small holes where treats can come out as the dog plays with it. Although it’s called a “treat ball,” they are perfect for filling with dinner kibble as well. Aside from the treat ball, another style is the “wobbler” toy, a weighted food dispenser that’s easy to refill and easy to clean.
- Puzzle Toys—These toys are often stationary and require your dog to solve a puzzle to reveal treats. You can find a variety of options at the pet store or you can go the DIY route by filling a cupcake pan with food and covering each cup with a tennis ball. However, if puzzle toys contain small plastic pieces, you may not want to leave the toy out without supervising your dog, at least until you know she will not chew the plastic pieces.
- Play While You’re Away—I like to hide treats throughout the house for my dog to find while I’m gone, or hide a couple smaller stuffed bones and also leave a treat ball out. If you use a crate with your dog while you’re out, a frozen stuffed chew is a great choice for daily use. Feeding your dog daily with this method has been shown to cut down on nuisance barking by 90%, which is the same effect as using a bark collar. Except, instead of causing your dog discomfort, it enriches her life.
Things to Keep in Mind
When feeding from interactive toys and from your hand, it’s extremely critical to pay attention to the amount you are feeding. Even a few extra pounds can take quality years away from your dog, so feeding the right amount is important. Calories in foods like peanut butter add up and can quickly exceed the amount your dog should be eating. It’s fun for us and for our dogs to vary their diet a bit, by adding different treats along the way, but we have to make sure that all of those extra treats and additions are being counted towards the total calories they can have in a day. You can dial down the kibble a little to compensate for treating. However, be sure your dog’s diet is made up of mainly dog food, unless you know a lot about providing a nutritionally complete and appropriate diet to dogs. When in doubt, speak with your vet about an appropriate diet.
While eliminating the food bowl completely from your pet’s life is a great goal, you may still find situations where a quick feeding makes the most sense. Any time your dog is going to be out and active with you, she won’t be getting bored of course. In those cases it may make sense to give her breakfast out of a bowl, unless you’re inclined to put it in your pocket and use it as rewards for good behavior throughout the day.
Making this small change in your dog’s life can be one of the easiest ways to rapidly improve her quality of life with very little effort on your part. A mentally active dog is a happy dog!
About the Author: Sarah is a pet lover with an interest in scientifically proven methods for enhancing the human-animal bond and helping our pets reach their fullest possible contribution to society. She is a data analyst for Trupanion by day and a canine “citizen scientist” by night.