When our dogs are bored we sure know all about it. Those are the times when they’re wandering around aimlessly looking for trouble. Whether that’s stealing the meat from the kitchen, chewing on a discarded shoe or digging an escape tunnel in the garden, the chances are it’s not what you would have chosen for them to do.
As frustrating as this is for you, this is just information that needs acting on. It’s telling you that right now your dog needs more stimulation in their life and unless you provide an alternative outlet then those annoying behaviours are going to keep on happening.
The Fallout From a Bored Dog
Boredom and excess energy are two main contributors to behaviour problems, and that shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider your dog’s heritage. The Border Collie, for example, is a canine athlete whose instinct to herd has been honed for generations. They need to make on the spot decisions to ensure the livestock move in the correct direction, all the time listening out for shepherd’s whistle.
Then there are the sporting dogs such as Retrievers who spend all day in the field, attentive to the hunter’s instructions, waiting patiently for their turn to go crashing through the undergrowth to seek out and bring back the fallen game.
When we then bring those breeds into the home and fail to provide an alternative outlet for both their energy and their problem-solving abilities, then we really are asking for trouble. That’s because instincts don’t give up easily, and in the absence of sheep or alternative outlets then you may well find your herding dog rounding up the children or the cats. The retriever will retrieve, but you’re likely to find the tv remote in the garden and your wallet in their bed.
Even those dogs who don’t have a strong working background, would, if not living in the home environment, spend the majority of their waking hours hunting and scavenging for food. Using their noses to seek out that tasty morsel whilst being constantly aware of the safety of their environment is tiring. Then, if we switch our thinking to our pet dogs, being provided with their food in the bowl every day removes the need for all that activity to find their next meal. While we can meet our dog’s physical requirements through daily walks, if that’s all we do, then the chances are that the opportunities for mental stimulation are just too low.
Sometimes even walks can be boring for our dogs, and with the temptation for us to be checking our phone for messages, it can be easy to switch off to our dog’s needs. Having times of the day which are dedicated to some quality one on one activities can be a great way of bonding with our dogs and for them to see us a fun person to be around. Dog puzzle toys are a great fit for this with our dogs getting our undivided attention, a fun game and treats all in one go!
Separation Anxiety in Dogs
There are times where our dogs can find it tough to fit into our daily routines. You may be familiar with the term separation anxiety, as being when a dog becomes very anxious when they are left alone. But some dogs, rather than becoming anxious, become frustrated when everyone goes out. They might bark and become very destructive, leaving the owners to arrive home to a scene of devastation and complaints from the neighbours. For those dogs, tiring out their brains before the family needs to leave home, can make all the difference to their ability to settle quietly by themselves.
Meanwhile, for dogs who generally find the world to be a little scary, learning new things and being rewarded can really build their confidence. For these dogs, it’s important to introduce the puzzle toy with receiving lots of treats and to help them to be successful until they feel ready to have a go themselves.
For more information on separation anxiety and how to deal with it, check out this article on how to help a dog with separation anxiety.
Enrichment Activities for your Dog
The good news is that to meet your dog’s needs, there’s no need to get a herd of sheep or to go out hunting all day. We also don’t need to show our dogs the door so that they can scavenge for their food. What we can do is plan in daily enrichment opportunities to provide stimulation and problem-solving opportunities. Enrichment means using a range of activities to challenge and exercise your dog’s brain. They encourage your dog to problem solve and to learn new skills and that, in turn, can also mean a growth in confidence.
Enrichment encourages and fulfils a dog’s natural behaviours, in a safe and controlled way. There’s no need to destroy the house or steal the food from the table if instead, we can channel those behaviours or frustrations in a more positive direction.
Considerations When Trying to Alleviate Your Dog’s Boredom
Now, your idea of a fun activity may be my idea of sheer boredom, and that’s much the same for our dogs. Some love the opportunity to dig and use their paws to unearth treats whilst others prefer to use their noses to sniff out the goodies. Some dogs become very frustrated when faced with a challenging puzzle and will give up easily, whilst others will love the opportunity to demonstrate their Einstein-like abilities.
So, when you’re considering what form of enrichment is going to be the right one for your dog, you need to think about three different things:
- Their breed or type. What task was your dog originally bred to do and what might be causing them frustration through not being able to fulfil that instinctual drive?
- If given a chance, what would your dog choose to do right now? Dig up the garden, go hunting?
- How persistent is your dog? If a piece of their kibble rolls under the unit in the kitchen, do they give up after a few minutes, or are they still there hours later?
These three pieces of information provide you with a great starting point for working out what you can provide to replace or meet your dog’s needs. And when those needs are met, life is calmer for everyone.
Interactive Dog Toys
Over the last five years or so, there have been a huge number of interactive dog toys appear in the market. Many of these games are treat dispensing, which are great for providing mental stimulation while also being very rewarding for the dog. These dog puzzle toys usually require the dog to use both their noses and paws to get to the treats, and there is a whole range of different designs and set-ups to keep them busy with a new challenge.
One of the best ranges of interactive dog toys is from Trixie. They have cleverly recognised that dogs can be at different stages in the ability to understand how a treat-dispensing toy works and so they have designed different levels of complexity. One way in which they have done this by having some of their puzzle toys be very visual so that the dog can see the treat, but they need to work out how to get access to it while others have the treats hidden and rely on the dog using their amazing scent detection abilities to work out where the treats are. When that’s combined with the need to open drawers, slide open lids and flip cones, then you have a dog puzzle which meets all the criteria for a fantastic brain workout.
A great example of a visual interactive dog toy is the Trixie Slide & Feed Interactive Dog Activity Toy. The central maze area means that they can easily see the food, though it will take them a little longer to retrieve and eat it all compared to it being fed in a bowl. Then there is the opportunity to hide the treats under the sliders which your dog will need to push open with their nose or paw.
As your dog develops their puzzle toy expertise, then they can progress on to more challenging games. The Trixie Poker Box 1 provides a great mental stimulation workout for dogs who are that bit more advanced with puzzle games. A combination of lids to flip or push, ropes to pull and drawers to open provides an awesome game for dogs that need to stretch their brains. And the great thing is, once the game is over then as your dog contentedly falls asleep, you get the quiet time that you need as well!
Top Tips For Dog Puzzle Toy Fun
- Do remember that interactive toys for dogs should be fun for them to play with. If the game is too challenging, they may give up and find their fun elsewhere. So, make it easy for your dog to be successful to begin with and then build up the difficulty as they become puzzle toy experts.
- When introducing a new puzzle game, let your dog see where the treats are being hidden so that they can see what’s involved in the game.
- Remember never to leave your dog alone with their interactive dog toy. They are designed for you and your dog to enjoy together and will not stand up to heavy chewing.
- You don’t have to use extra treats within the puzzle toy; you could use their regular dry kibble. Do be aware though that some dogs can find it very frustrating to receive all their food this way so just save some back for use within their toys.
- The end of a game might be a disappointment, so this can then be a good opportunity for your dog to be distracted by going out to the garden to relieve themselves or to have a chew to munch on before then settling down for a snooze.
Dog puzzle games are great options for curing your dog’s boredom – they provide opportunities for problem-solving, fulfilling instinctual needs, and the upside for most dogs is that they also involve treats! This is also a fantastic way of having quality time with your dog to develop a lifelong bond and friendship.
Lynda Taylor has been a dog trainer and behaviourist for over twenty-five years. She is also a lecturer in Applied Canine Behaviour and Training and holds a Master of Science in Animal Behaviour and Training.