Part I: Behavioral Enrichment for Your Canine(s)

How Do I Know if my Dog is Bored?

Dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, reptiles, rabbits, gerbils, and animals of all sorts, spend most of their days lying around with nothing to do. While they’re busy lying around, their wild relatives experience days filled with activities such as hunting, scavenging, foraging, and gathering food for survival. They experience the thrill of tracking a prey, the excitement of finding a new location to store food, and the satisfaction of a nice nap to recover once they’re all done.

Unfortunately, animals in captivity (meaning pets, too) can’t tell us when they’re bored.  Instead, we have to look at objective data (i.e., observable) to measure boredom, and this data often presents itself in the form(s) of abnormal behaviors—whether it’s some kind of stereotypy (e.g., pacing, excessive licking, rocking, etc.) or behaviors that are generally viewed as being unwanted or “bad” (e.g., tearing up shoes in the home, digging in the yard, excessive barking, etc.).

Before I continue, let me briefly explain that stereotypy describes a behavior in a human or animal that is repetitive and serves no particular purpose (or function).  For example, you may observe a wild cat pacing back and forth in a zoo exhibit or notice a chimpanzee rocking back and forth.  With dogs, you may observe excessive licking or chewing, spinning, tail chasing, hair pulling, nail biting, or biting the air. With humans, you may see hand flapping, hair pulling, or biting nails. Unfortunately, there is no specific variable that causes stereotypical behavior(s) to develop, but there are several potential causes (e.g., increased stress, lack of mental stimulation, etc.) that we can predict are responsible.

That being said, you can never know for sure if your dog is bored, but by observing behaviors your dog engages in, you can begin to determine whether or not boredom is a likely explanation for why your dog engages in abnormal behaviors (including aggression).

What Can I Do if I Think My Dog is Bored?

The answer lies in an area of research known as behavioral enrichment.  Behavioral enrichment is a principle of animal husbandry that enhances the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being.

The fact that animals have to interact with humans at all causes the animal to assume behaviors that may be deviant in comparison to their wild relatives. For example, we put dogs on strict feeding schedules, altering such things as hunting time, choice of food to eat, and their natural eating patterns.  We decide when it’s time to be calm and when it’s okay to be playful (which can be VERY confusing for your dog). We clean up after them and pick up their droppings.  Although this seems completely normal to us, it is not completely normal for our canines (and other pets).

It’s important to recognize that their housing situation and social environment will always be inappropriate for their species (i.e., unnatural), and that this can ultimately cause unwanted behaviors such as aggression, boredom, and physical or psychological illness, to develop. It is the pet owner’s responsibility to attempt to decrease these problems by providing an enriching environment.

There are three different areas of enrichment I will be covering over the course of this week, and they include physical exercise (Part I), mental exercise (Part II), and breed-specific activities (Part III).  So, let’s start out with the easiest one: physical exercise.

Physical Exercise 

Dogs are active by nature. Their ancestors, wolves, covered many miles every day in search of food for survival.  Many domestic dogs were selectively bred to be even more active, with a focus on hunting, herding, or patrolling. Preventing them from their genetically programmed activity level can build frustration, which may exhibit itself in the form of hyperactivity, chewing on items not meant for chewing, chasing cats in the home, barking, digging, tail chasing, and home destruction.

Exercise also helps to prevent obesity. As with humans, obesity is becoming a major health problem in dogs. Obesity prevents dogs from enjoying many physical activities and can make it more difficult for dogs to deal with heat. Obesity is also associated with certain medical problems, including arthritis, increased risk of torn ligaments, back problems, cardiac problems, difficulty breathing, increased risks during surgery, and various skin problems.

So…what are you waiting for?! Let’s check out some ideas on how to get your dog more physically active so you both can lead happier and healthier lives!

  • Go for a walk/jog/skip/sprint (whatever your dog prefers!)

Bringing your pup along for your morning walk/jog helps to increase stamina and strengthen muscles. However, if you choose to do this, remember it’s your dog’s outing, too!

You should be willing to stop when the dog wants to smell the surroundings or greet another dog.

Remember to ALWAYS stop if your canine friend needs to go to the bathroom, and don’t forget to bring poop bags!  Not only is it important for cleanliness of neighborhoods, parks, and trails, but it also helps with disease control, fly control, and preventing other dogs from consuming what your dog left behind. Plus, cleaning up after your pet is just part of being a responsible pet owner, right?  Right!

  • Get involved in Flyball 

In this sport, dogs are part of teams and the rules are similar to a human relay race. Dogs race down a course with four hurdles. At the end of the first leg sits a box with tennis balls. The dog must stomp on this box to release a ball and then return to the starting line carrying the ball while jumping the hurdles. Once he or she crosses the starting line, the next dog takes off. The goal is to be the fastest team without any penalties. Penalties may include dropping the ball or a dog taking off down the course before his or her teammate crosses the starting line.

  • Check out Tracking

Not all dogs are tracking breeds, but just about any dog can participate in the sport of tracking, which is a competitive event for dogs and handlers. Hours before the competition, a scent trail is laid out. Once the trail is set, dogs (and their owners) begin the work of finding an object at the end of the trail.  Not only is this activity fulfilling for the dog, but it’s also fun for owners to see their innate scenting skills at work!

  • Find an agility group or class

If your dog has a lot of energy or extra weight to lose, find an agility group or class. This high-energy sport is not only great exercise, but it also helps to develop confidence and other important skills. This activity was designed to demonstrate a dog’s willingness to work with his/her handler in a variety of situations.  Dogs and handlers must negotiate an obstacle course while racing against the clock.

It’s important to mention that you don’t have to compete to enjoy agility! So don’t let the fear of competition stop you from getting involved. Just taking an agility class offers many other benefits for you and your dog.

  • Play a game of fetch

Fetch is easy to fit into your crazy schedule, and it’s a great way to use up extra energy as well as bond with your dog. You could go to a nearby park or just play in your backyard!  Something else that’s neat about fetch is that it can be an indoor sport, played from the comfort of your favorite couch or chair.  If your dog doesn’t know how to play fetch, you can train them!  Remember, you don’t have to commit to playing fetch for 30 minutes a day, every single day.  Start out with an amount of time you know will be consistent with (it can even be 5 minutes to start), and slowly build this over time.

What I’m trying to say is that there are no excuses for why you can’t play fetch with your canine friend(s).

  • Play with other dogs!

Have you ever been to a dog park and just observed how the dogs play with each other?  If you haven’t, it’s amazing to watch how they create their own games and expend their extra energy.

Too many owners are scared of having their dog socialize with other dogs.  Unfortunately, when owners are nervous or fearful, they engage in behaviors that the dog often picks up on (such as nervous tics, increased physiological responses, changes in vocal patterns, etc.). Then, the dog often engages in abnormal behaviors (such as barking or increased aggression), which leads the owner to conclude that their dog doesn’t like other dogs.  Because of this, the dog may be forced to become even more isolated, which can lead to even more abnormal behaviors developing over time.  Anyway, you get the idea.  It can develop into a vicious cycle.  Dogs are social animals and they should be given the opportunity to learn from and interact with other dogs.

  • Don’t forget about toys!

These are just a few toys that my friend, Anja, loves to play with.  There are several types of balls, stuffed animals with squeakers inside, and tug toys (her personal favorite).

One thing I always emphasize with pet owners, is that you need to find the right toy for your canine.  Just because one dog enjoys tennis balls does not mean that your dog will.

My advice is to go out and purchase a nice variety of toys and play around to find out which one(s) your dog prefers.  You could take them out one at a time or you could lay them out and let them seek out which toy they want. Do they enjoy tug toys?  Frisbees?  Stuffed animals?  Toys with squeakers?  Toys without squeakers?  Long toys?  Short toys?  None of the above?  If so, donating slightly used toys to your local humane society is always a fantastic idea (I often do this with toys my animals don’t use)! As a pet owner, it’s important that you take some time to really figure out what toy(s) your pet prefers.

Lastly, an important point to mention is that preferences change over time—sometimes even within the same day or hour!  That’s why I recommend you experiment with which toys your dog prefers on a daily basis.  It’s not fair to assume that they will love the same ball for 2 years (or 2 days/weeks if your dog gets bored easily).  Wouldn’t you get bored playing with the same toy over and over again?

Although there are LOTS of other options for physical exercise, you would get way too bored listening to me go on and on about it.  You should plan to take some time out of your day to research different physical activities you and your dog(s) will enjoy.  Not only will they be happier and healthier, but you will be happier and healthier, too!

Stay tuned for Part II coming this week!  I’ll be discussing the importance of providing mental stimulation, as well as different ideas for you to try out with your dog(s). 

Until next time,

Ayriel and the team at Ohana Animal Hospital


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