How to Know When Your Dog Is Bored (and What to Do)
Bored dogs can end up having other, more significant behavior problems. Here are some smart ways to keep them engaged and happy.
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The doggy doldrums
With so much doom and gloom in the headlines over the past year, it’s easy to overlook one silver lining: Pet adoptions and fostering hit an all-time high during the pandemic. Along with hand sanitizer and toilet paper shortages, there were literal puppy shortages. But all those new pet owners may be in for a surprise: Animals, like humans, can get bored. Some got bored during lockdown when dog parks and pet daycares shut down; in fact, one in five pet owners reported that their furry pal’s behavior got worse during COVID, according to a survey by OnePoll for Zoetis Petcare. And as restrictions ease and more people start spending more time outside the home again, we may start seeing similar issues among bored dogs who were used to constant human companionship and may now experience some separation anxiety.
You really can’t blame them. After all, how would you feel if you were stuck at home for hours without any way to entertain yourself? Dogs, like people, need mental and physical stimulation. This is true in varying degrees for the smartest dog breeds, the most independent dog breeds, and the most low-maintenance dog breeds, but it’s particularly an issue for dogs like German Shepherds, Border Collies, and Labrador Retrievers, for whom working, herding, and sporting is part of their DNA. Without it, they can be destructive or even aggressive. Luckily, you don’t have to be completely housebound to give your pup some much-needed fun and interaction. These expert tips can help, once you figure out if boredom is a problem for your pup.
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Fighting their instincts
This isn’t just a pandemic-related issue, of course. All dogs can get bored, and what’s more, their instincts are often at odds with their modern lives. After all, in the wild, dogs used to get plenty of enrichment through chasing prey, sniffing things, and scavenging food, says Erica N. Feuerbacher, PhD, an assistant professor of applied animal behavior and welfare at Virginia Tech. Domesticated life doesn’t offer as much opportunity to pursue those activities, which can result in a bored dog.
The problem can be compounded when dogs don’t get a lot of socialization. “Dogs are pack animals,” says Feuerbacher. “They are a social species.” Whether their pack is canine or human, a lack of interaction can be detrimental to their emotional health.
RELATED: Mistakes Every Dog Owner Makes
Is it boredom?
Boredom won’t look the same in every dog. A bored dog might sleep more than usual, have diminished enthusiasm for toys or food, or do naughty things like chew the baseboards. In fact, “boredom is the root of most of the problem or nuisance behaviors our trainers see,” says Emily Benson, marketing director for StarMark Academy, a school for professional dog trainers. That behavior can include the aforementioned chewing of inappropriate items, digging in the yard, and excessively barking. Additionally, Feuerbacher says, “if a dog is not getting enough engagement, you’re heightening its arousal level, and it might display behavior like jumping, overexcitement, and grabbing you with its mouth, which can be mistaken for aggression.” Typically, boredom sets in when pets are left home alone without any interaction for long periods.
There may be more subtle signs, as well. “We tend to wait for a big explosion like growling or snapping or biting,” says Feuerbacher, “but if your dog avoids your gaze, tucks his tail, licks her lips, or yawns excessively, those can all be signs of discomfort.”
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Addressing the issue
If you’ve noticed concerning behavior, and especially if you’ve seen a change in your pet’s behavior, Feuerbacher advises seeing a vet first to rule out any medical issues. Then, change the environment to give your pup more opportunities for enrichment. “If providing more exercise and enrichment doesn’t resolve the issue, then we might need to look at more training or even professional behavioral support to help with the issue,” Feuerbacher says. The key is not to let it go. If you’ve seen the aforementioned signs, it’s time to do something about them. These expert tips and tricks should help.
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Make them work for dinner
Dogs are natural foragers, so rather than filling a bowl with kibble they’ll wolf down in seconds, try putting a portion of their dinner in a treat-dispensing toy, like StarMark’s Bob-a-Lot. Your dog will have to roll the toy to get his food, and that will keep him physically and mentally active while he eats, turning mealtime into a game and preventing him from eating his meals too quickly, says Benson.
You can also transform eating from a mindless activity into a meaningful one by using what’s known as a snuffle mat. This genius invention looks like fuzzy fabric dust mop, and it basically hides food so your dog has to hunt for it. No more bored dog at dinner! What should you be serving your discerning canine? These are the dog food brands veterinarians feed their own pets.
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Puzzle their muzzle
Lots of companies make puzzle toys for dogs, which are designed to hold treats that take a bit of work for your pup to get out. This will not only occupy your dog but also engage his senses. The number one boredom buster from Omega Paw is the Tricky Treat Ball, which has more than 2,800 positive reviews on Amazon. It’s great for mental stimulation as your dog figures out how to get the treats out, and it’s also a good source of exercise as he rolls it around the house. Similarly, PetSafe’s Bristle Bone anchors a disc-shaped treat between sections of rubber nubs and nylon bristles. The different textures help stimulate a dog’s senses, and as an added bonus, it simultaneously acts as a toothbrush for your chewer!
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Let them run it off
Some dogs have what is known as a high prey drive, which means they’d chase squirrels all day long if they could. These puppers tend to have a lot of pent-up energy, so going on regular walks won’t cut it. Enter SwiftPaws, whose tagline is: “The best game of chase ever.” The product recreates the sport of lure coursing, where dogs chase a mechanized lure (a stand-in for an actual squirrel) in your backyard—or basement, as they recently developed an indoor version. It taps into a dog’s natural instincts, according to SwiftPaws founder Meghan Wolfgram, and provides great exercise. Plus, it’s fun for owners to watch! “Two play sessions per dog per day is all they need,” says Wolfgram. In general, this is how much exercise your dog really needs.
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Give them some variety
“Dogs truly need mental exercises as well as physical,” says Anna Mynchenberg, manager and resident training expert at Bark. “The more senses you use, the better.” Delivery services like BarkBox, which deliver new toys, puzzles, and treats every month, can provide a welcome sensory variety. There are even special boxes devoted to super chewers who gnaw everything. While you’ll want to nab one of these for your own furry BFF, they also make great gifts for the other dog lovers on your list.
And while it’s understandable to want to spoil your pet with toys, make sure you rotate the ones they play with. This is standard advice if you have kids, but it works for bored dogs, too. If a dog sees the same toys every day, he won’t be as excited to play with them. Keep toys in a box out of reach, and swap them out every few days or once a week to keep your pup engaged.
Teach them new tricks
Obedience school isn’t just for misbehaving pups. “Training is a great tool,” says Mynchenberg. “It strengthens your bond and utilizes their mind. You can do short, little 15-minute sessions and teach them new tricks or practice existing ones.”
Gradually adding distractions like toys, treats, or other dogs can make even old tricks seem new. Mynchenberg recently started playing around with scent detection work. “Dogs using their nose has been found to be stress-relieving for them. Anything that involves them searching for the reward with their nose will be a big win.”
Heading to the park or getting active in your backyard can help alleviate your dog’s boredom—and get you both some fresh air and exercise. Tug or fetch may not seem like much to us, but these simple games can be very stimulating for dogs, says Laura Morgan, a digital marketing specialist for P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You). Toys like the IncrediBall or Mammoth Pet’s TireBiter can provide plenty of fun and stimulation. Here are more indestructible dog toys even the toughest Fido can’t break.
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Practice alone time
“When offices and schools were closed, dogs were loving the extra time with their family members, but with some communities returning to work and school, dogs are having to readjust to being on their own again,” says Andy Wunsch, vice president of sales and marketing for West Paw. His advice? “Don’t allow your dog to follow you everywhere in the house. Periodically go to another room in your home and close the door.” During your absence, give your pup a puzzle toy filled with treats, like West Paw’s Toppl, Qwizl, or Tux, to create and reinforce a positive experience.
Go for a walk
“Never underestimate the power of a walk with your furry friend,” says Morgan. “Getting them out and about can be a great way not only to exercise, but also to stimulate their senses with all the new sights, sounds, and smells. This can also be a great bonding time for pet parents and their dogs, and may help with dogs who need more attention.” If you have a pup who pulls on walks, check out this list of the best dog harnesses.
Make treats harder to get
Bored dogs can almost always be engaged with food, and dinner isn’t the only time you can do this. Making treats more difficult to get is a great tactic because it turns eating into a game and helps to combat pet obesity. Kong, maker of the almost universally beloved dog toy that can be filled with peanut butter, recommends freezing toys or ice with treats inside. That way, your pup has to work to get at the prize. Another good interactive treat dispenser designed to keep your dog engaged is Kong’s Tiltz. What should you put in there? Try these simple homemade treats your dog will love.
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Give them something to sniff
“A dog experiences the world way more through its nose than any other sense like sight or taste,” says Adam Beatty, president of Playology Dog Toys. He worked with universities on canine behavior and material design to develop his line of toys, which contain microscopic bubbles that break and release more scent as the dog plays with the toy, increasing engagement. What’s more, he guarantees the company’s products, so if your dog isn’t happy, Playology will send out another toy to replace it. There’s even a toy finder on the website to help match the right toy to your dog. Fun fact: Did you know dogs can smell these 10 things that humans can’t?
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Tire them out
It can be tough to entertain an energetic pup 24/7 when you’re trying to work from home, but if you can sneak in a walk or two, a round of fetch, or use some interactive toys, your pup is bound to be thankful you did. And ultimately, a dog that is tired, both mentally and physically, is a happy dog, and one that is less likely to act out. And after all they do for us, we want our pets to be as happy as they make us, even during these stressful times. Next, find out the other things your dog wishes you knew.
- Emily Benson, marketing director for StarMark Academy
- Erica N. Feuerbacher, PhD, an assistant professor of applied animal behavior and welfare at Virginia Tech
- Meghan Wolfgram, founder of SwiftPaws
- Anna Mynchenberg, manager and resident training expert at Bark
- Laura Morgan, a digital marketing specialist for P.L.A.Y.
- Andy Wunsch, vice president of sales and marketing for West Paw
- Adam Beatty, president of Playology Dog Toys