The 21st century is hard on dogs. They have swapped their day jobs of herding, retrieving game, killing vermin and chasing rabbits for the simple pleasure of being our companions.
Sounds like a cushy deal - free food and board for just hanging around with your favourite person, but in many cases they've been duped! Most of us are unable to 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.
In the dog these could be excessive barking, destructive chewing and digging and self-mutilation. Zookeepers have put a lot of time and thought into environmental enrichment programs and dog owners can now benefit from their expertise.
Planning a dog friendly area A good environment starts with an area that is clean and safe with the basic needs of adequate shelter and free access to water being met. From this one can add elements which will allow your dog to expend some of his natural instincts in positive, non-destructive way. Some things you might like to consider are:
All of the above can be left in your dogs everyday living area to enhance his environment and to provide him with opportunities for play. However we all enjoy change and new challenges.
While rotating toys is a good idea there is a still better way to keep your dog busy for hours. Zookeepers around the world have been doing it for years and now dog owners are beginning to recognize the benefits too what is it? Simply giving your dog the opportunity to work for his food just as he would have done in nature.
Making 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 then 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 then the time it takes to gulp down a meal in a bowl. And 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 utilize 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 is no wonder then that 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 Food Based Boredom Busters are:
By using food in this way you are not only meeting your dog's daily nutritional requirements, 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.
The most important boredom buster 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 our boredom busters, but never forget your dog's best friend will always be you.
Visit Aussie Dog at: www.aussiedog.com.au *Kongs are a rubber hollow toy -visit their website full of Kong recipies at www.kongcompany.com
This article first appeared in Dogs Life magazine March/April 2003 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Karin Larsen Bridge, part owner of Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney - a dog training school specializing in positive training classes for pet dogs. She is a Delta Accredited Canine Good Citizen (TM) Instructor and writes and lectures frequently on dogs and dog related issues such as positive training methods, behavioural problems and responsible pet ownership.