Have you considered how the life of dogs has changed over the years? They’ve swapped their “day jobs” of herding, hunting game, killing vermin, and chasing rabbits, for the simple pleasure of being our companions. These days most dogs are “wined and dined”!
Sounds like a cushy deal – free food and board for just hanging around with you as their favourite person, but on the flipside their domestic lives can be a little boring at times. For a puppy, boredom equals complete destruction of your home, shoes, and possibly the odd iPhone or TV control.
I know my life can get busy, and I’m sure it’s the same for most of us? We can’t spend as much time as we would like with our dogs – leaving them not only bored (and jobless) but alone as well.
If your dog is confined in a yard for most of the day, he faces many of the same problems exhibited by exotic zoo animals. A lack of stimulation and opportunity to interact naturally with the environment causes the animal to display stress related behaviours – for your dog this could be excessive barking, destructive chewing, digging, and sometimes self-mutilation such as gnawing at their paws.
Thankfully we can learn from the time and thought Zookeepers have put in to “environmental enrichment” programs, as their findings can be used to tackle boredom in dogs as well!
In this guide to boredom busters for dogs we’ll consider their environment (i.e. giving them a dog friendly play area), all manner of toys and make-at-home boredom busters, and how you can use their food as the perfect way to keep them occupied and help them learn!
Creating a dog-friendly play area
Did you know your home environment plays a big part in how destructive or non-destructive your dog may be? Most dog owners never consider this, but a few tweaks and considerations around your home can work wonders in letting your dog expend some of his natural instincts in a positive, non-destructive way!
Below are some great things to consider:
Give your dog a view of the world
Research has shown dogs can be entertained for hours if they are able to see passers by and observe other daily events.
Allowing access to a fenced front yard, a see-through side gate, or even a front window in the home can be a practical and easy way to keep your dog amused. If your dog is inside most of the time, is there a sofa or something you can put near a window which they can sit on and see the world?
For smaller dogs it’s possible to buy a “window perch” like in the following picture, but I haven’t found anywhere in Australia which sells them:
Letting your dog sit and look out of a window is scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and alleviate boredom in pets (cats included).
A doggy door is an excellent way to provide your dog with choices about his daily routine – a factor which has proven to reduce stress in dogs. Many dogs prefer to sleep inside the house (den) and have only short outings throughout the day to “monitor” the backyard. Allowing access into the home even when you are away can be effective in reducing nuisance barking and improving separation anxiety.
Obviously it depends on the size of dog and where you live, but there’s some super smart doggy doors these days which offer you security yet still allow your dog to go in and out (such as with a collar tag).
Make your back garden an interactive play-zone
Try to provide a variety of mini-environments in your back garden making it more interesting for your dog to explore.
Don’t worry, this is easier than you may think. I don’t want you to turn your yard into a Crufts agility course!
Simple suggestions include a grassed lawn area (for rolling, eating, bones, stretching out and running around with toys) a shrubby area under trees (for sniffing and exploring), a rock garden (great for attracting entertaining little lizards to chase), a pond (without delicate plants or fish!), a cool spot under the house (for deep sleep and privacy), or the perennial favorite – a shady verandah (close to house, elevated, protected position).
A child’s “clam shell” is the ultimate garden boredom buster!
A sand pit or designated digging area is an excellent way to satisfy your dog’s natural desire to explore his environment with his paws and claws.
Either allocate an area of your back garden which may be used for this purpose or buy a child’s clam shell and fill it with sand . Lace this area daily with food treats such as raw hides, just beneath the surface. As your dog becomes more proficient you can bury the treats deeper. Periodically rake the sand again – dogs are attracted to areas that have been recently disturbed which is the reason they so often love to dig-up the plants you’ve just planted!
If you get a double clam shell you can use the other half for a wading pool – great in the Aussie summer! Even dogs who don’t like swimming often enjoy cooling their feet or tummy in a shallow pool – my dog hated the waves at the beach, but on the first hot day of her puppyhood she submerged herself happily in the pond!
Your dog may well invent other games to play with his pool. One dog, whose owner had put a rubber hose handle onto the wading pool soon learned that pulling the pool around the garden was almost as much fun as getting wet!
Another kelpie with a pool enjoyed dipping empty flower pots into the pool and holding them up until the water emptied out – this was repeated until bored!
A novel idea is to fill the clam shell with the balls they put in “kid’s ballrooms”. Toss in several yummy treats and then add one small dog such as a Jack Russell and watch the fun begin! Just make sure they don’t destroy the balls as they can be a choke hazard (depends on your dog).
Some dogs soon become “ball pit addicts” – a great way to burn off energy before you head off to work.
Bring the birds to the yard – get a bird feeder!
Did you know how entertaining birds are to a dog?
Crazy as it sounds, simply installing a bird feeder can alleviate some boredom in your dog. As prey animals they love to watch things which move (I talked about this in an article about how bad a dog’s eyesight is, and the reason they see movement better than colour), and avian visitors are great to watch.
Just two precautions with this one:
- Make sure the feeder is high enough so your dog can’t reach the birds themselves, and
- If your dog is the type who would rather bark at birds than watch them in silence, then skip ahead to the next suggestion!
Boredom busting with a…. Garden Table!
Did you know a cheap garden table from the local classified can be worth it’s weight in gold?
Dogs enjoy both elevated positions with a better view to the world, and snug, den-like places under things – depending on whether they’re in the mood for investigating or resting. A simple sturdy table can easily provide both these environments for your dog!
The table should be large and sturdy enough for the dog to be able to jump up and lie down comfortably. This is his “view of the world area”.
Beneath the table place a comfy dog bed such as one of the many trampoline varieties (more durable outside). Depending on your dog’s inclination he can chose whether he feels like being “on watch patrol” or safely curled up asleep in his “den”.
Tyres and inner tubes can be put to a myriad of uses and are especially good for “destructo dogs”.
- To hang from a tree, put a length of PVC piping on the rope to prevent the dog getting tangled in the rope. Secure the pipe in place by knotting the rope.
- As above but attach a short rope to the bottom of a bike tyre and teach the dog to tug on it to get the tyre swinging.
- A car tyre on the ground is a great place to hide treats, and tough dogs can push and shove into them without doing any harm to themselves or the tyre.
Car inner tubes can also be used as tug toys and are often available free of charge. Fold in half, cut one end, bind half the inner tube together with string, leaving the half on the cut end loose so the dog can grip. Attach a rope through the other end and then attach to a high tree branch or similar so that the tube swings. Again, it is a good idea to cover the attaching rope with a PVC pipe.
The “Home Alone” interactive dog toy
For the dog who seriously loves to tug, the Home Alone Interactive Dog Toy (available from Aussie Dogs, PET Stock, and other places) is a great choice. It’s a combination treat ball, bungee ball, and tug toy which can be hung from a tree or other high place. It’s available in 4 sizes to suit your specific dog.
Let your dog see you place a small amount of food in the ball. In the dog’s attempt to reach the food by pulling the grip, food will fall around the dog and it will release it’s grip to get the food – if that makes sense? The toy then springs back above your dog’s head.
Many dogs will tug even without the reward of food falling from the ball! I recommend it as it’s a heavy duty toy and will suit very active dogs of any
size (I have a Border Collie, so you know what I’m saying! Craziness!)
For inspiration of this and similar toys, here’s two Border Collies playing Swing Ball (or Tetherball):
Other good boredom buster toys
Heavy duty balls such as the indestructible bully ball made of hard plastic can keep some dogs amused off and on for hours. These balls are designed to be pushed around by the dogs chest and shoulders rather than be carried in the mouth.
I’ll interrupt myself briefly to recommend you only buy quality toys. Most dogs will chew a cheap toy to bits in no time, and these are often choke hazards. It may surprise you, but the lack of standards in Australia around pet toys means they don’t need to be safe. Lot’s of dogs end up at the vets having devoured a cheap hard-plastic toy.
Bully balls are easy to push and roll and chew up loads of energy! Some dogs may even need to have their time limited with these balls to prevent strain and exhaustion, especially on hot days.
Not quite as tough but still loads of fun for smaller dogs are the “exercise balls” used in gyms. The principle is the same – the dog loves to push the ball around and mount mock “attacks”.
Balls that dogs can throw themselves are great – such as soccer balls surrounded by a cotton rope “net” making them easy for your dog to grab and toss. Similarly, some large hard plastic balls on the market include a handle for your dog to grab and toss himself – they work well.
All of the above can be left in your dog’s everyday living area to enhance his environment and to provide him with opportunities for play.
What’s the trick Zookeepers have learned to bust boredom?
We all enjoy change and new challenges. For that reason it helps to vary they toys we provide our dogs, but there is still a better way to keep your dog occupied for hours!
Zookeepers around the world have been doing it for years and now dog owners are beginning to realise the benefits of it too – so what is it?
Simply giving your dog the opportunity to work for his food just as he would have done in nature!
Make the most of your dog’s daily food intake
Perhaps you have seen the chimpanzees at the zoo hunting for termites, or poking for honey using long thin sticks?
Devising clever ways to make exotic animals “work for their supper” has become one of the major developments in animal care. Giving these animals a “job to do” has made a major difference in the quality of their lives, reducing boredom and stress.
Your dog is no different.
Rather than providing your dog with a free meal served up in a bowl at the end of the day (total enjoyment for most dogs equals just a few seconds!) – it is a far better idea to allocate all or some of the meal to home alone activities.
Although you may add some special treats to the mix, using meal rations prevents problems of obesity and/or unbalanced nutrition. Now, instead of waiting for a few seconds of joy at the end of each day, your dog will be able to enjoy the very natural sequence of search, chase, bite, hold and dissect in exchange for a “reward meal”.
This process will take far longer and expend more energy than the time it would take him to gulp a meal down from a bowl.
The good news is that while your dog is dissecting your hidden treat/rewards he’s not destroying other things in your garden like the washing, prized pot plants or hoses.
Dogs have finely-tuned senses and brains wired to utilise the information they provide. A dog’s nose is a work of art – able to track minute traces of scent great distances. You don’t have to teach your dog how to scent – he already knows – just give him the opportunity and he’ll soon become a treat tracking fanatic.
It’s no wonder the vast majority of “home alone” toys are based on the premise of making your dog work to receive a self-released food reward.
Some of the best Boredom Busters for Dogs in Australia
Below are what I consider five of the best boredom busters for dogs. The first one I consider an essential investment for all dog owners, and they’re well worth a few bucks. The rest are free! (Or close to free).
Kongs and similar hollow rubber toys, or even smoked marrow bones, can provide hours of entertainment for your dog. By Kong I mean the classic Kongs, which look like a small rubber beehive with a hollow center.
There are endless ways to stuff a Kong with recipes ranging from beginners level (loosely stuffed with large treats) to university level – for experienced treat dissectors with lots of yummy things jammed into every crevice.
Common foods to use as stuffing include dry dog food, cheese, canned dog food, BARF, peanut butter (the proper peanut stuff), a little vegemite or liverwurst (to seal the ends) leftovers, dried liver, mince, or commercial dog treats (please choose decent treats).
In most cases it is important to vary the contents to keep your dog really interested. You may choose to simply hand your dog his stuffed treat as you walk out the door, although a better option once your dog understands the game is to hide the stuffed object somewhere in the garden. You can even hide two or three!
The ultimate luxury (only from the USA I think) is a Kong Dispenser which will dispense up to five stuffed Kongs throughout the course of the day!
Buster cubes and similar devices are cubes and balls made of plastic or rubber which are filled with dry doggy treats. The ball or cube has an opening which can be adjusted to make it easier or harder for treats to come out. Your dog will learn to push these toys around using his feet or nose to slowly dispense the treats inside.
A home-made buster cubes alternative
A cheap and simple alternative is to half fill a plastic PET bottle with kibble, ZIWI Peak (a great air-dried raw food), or water, and allow your dog to toss it around.
If you leave the top off, the treats or food will slowly spill out – this is how they keep your dog occupied for a longer period of time.
Alternately, put a PET bottle sealed into the freezer for a short time. When removed, the change in air temperature will make it expand. A lot of dogs will like the noise it makes and enjoy trying to “catch” it in their mouths. (Note: some dogs may need supervision with a PET bottle if they are likely to swallow the plastic.)
Dog food “Easter egg hunt”
Throw tiny pieces of dry dog food or cat kibble around the backyard while your puppy spends hours making sure he hasn’t missed a single one! Very hard to spot on pebbles, concrete, or scattered in garden beds.
Just be wary of throwing food on recently mown lawns or around any plants you don’t want him to munch on (let alone destroy). Make sure you don’s use chemicals in your garden, and if your dog shows signs of an upset tummy then make sure you consider why.
This is the cheapest boredom buster toy of the lot!
Simply rear rags into long strips, and in each strip place a little treat before tying it into knots. Make the bundle as tight as possible, then give it to your dog to explore and dissect. Most dogs become really absorbed trying to reach the hidden delectable treats.
In some cases the center treasure could be a tennis ball or other popular toy.
The best boredom buster on a hot day!
Iced treats, Kongs (an other stuffed toys), or simple ice cream containers can be filled with diluted stock, bone broth, or other liquid sensations and frozen. Add a really special treat into the center and watch your dog lick away trying to reach the frozen center!
Just keep it healthy!
Frozen treats are the perfect boredom buster for a hot day’s entertainment, keeping your dog hydrated at the same time!
By using food in this way you are not only giving him valuable nutrition, but are also providing him with mental stimulation and perhaps most importantly providing an outlet for natural dog behaviours such as chewing, digging, exploring, and dissecting.
REMEMBER: The most important boredom buster is You!
While it is great to find ways to help your dog amuse himself in your absence there is no substitute for time spent with you. The most environmentally enriched back yard is still a poor second to a long walk or a free run.
Many dogs could probably relate to the little boy who gets a terrific kite for Christmas only to discover it isn’t much fun unless someone takes you to the park so you can fly it together.
Make the most of the above boredom busters, but never forget your dog’s best friend will always be you!
Which of the above boredom busters for dogs did you like the best?
What boredom busters do you use to keep your dog occupied?
Let me know down below!
Gina & Maisy