When we compare the lives of wild animals to that of our pets, there is a striking difference in their activity levels. Dogs, cats, birds, hamsters and gerbils of all sorts, spend a large part of their days just lying around with nothing to do. Their wild cousins on the other hand, see their days filled with challenging activities such as hunting, scavenging, foraging, and gathering food. They experience the thrill of tracking a prey, the excitement of finding a new food location and the satisfaction of a nap to recover from all the activity. Of course life in the wild isn’t all rosy and animals are also constantly at risk of being killed by larger and stronger animals, but it’s important to keep in mind, when we look at our furry friends of all shapes and sizes, that this is the life they were built for. Surviving requires lots of exercise and constant problem solving. So what happens to our pets when they’ve lost the opportunity to use those skills?
When humans are put in prison and confined to a life with little change they get very bored and highly motivated for any chance of stimulation. We can’t ask animals if they’re bored or not. So researchers have been looking for objective ways to measure boredom. Boredom in animals has mostly been studied in caged animals. Many zoo or laboratory animals are confined to very small cages with little to do. Due to their limited ability to interact with the world at large, they often present abnormal behaviors. These animals lie down and sleep a lot. They also tend to engage in stereotypical behaviors that are repetitive and don’t seem to serve any particular purpose, like pacing or chewing on the bars of the cage. Rats may chase their own tail, tethered sows can engage in chewing air, monkeys will rock incessantly and parrots will pull out their feathers until they’re completely naked. Caged animals often look apathetic or depressed. Such animals will also over-react by displaying fear and aggression to new or sudden events. These behaviors are said to be abnormal, because they would never occur in the wild.
Just like humans, bored animals also seem to crave stimulation. A study on two groups of captive mink showed that when the animals have nothing to do in their cage, they are three times quicker at investigating new objects than those living in an enriched environment (Meagher & al. 2012). Millions of dogs are confined for extended periods of time. Strays and unwanted dogs, dogs trained for police or service work or dogs used by biochemical research or food industry are all housed in kennels. Concerned for their welfare, many have looked into enrichment options to improve their living conditions. Studies have even shown that when given food enrichment toys, the dogs were generally more active but were also less likely to bark (Schipper & al., 2008). By providing ongoing mental stimulation, enrichment feeding toys have also been shown to slow down our dog’s cognitive decline due to age (Milgram & al., 2005).
When living in a home environment, dogs get more opportunities for stimulations. Many get regular walks or play time with their guardian. Still however, even with the best of intentions, our busy lifestyles cannot provide our canine companions the level of activity and mental stimulation that they need. For most dogs, a typical day consists of lying around for 8-10 hours, waiting for their humans to come home. When the humans finally get home, they are busy with homework, chores, emails to return, Facebook and Twitter to update, phone calls to make, etc…. Once all done, there is often little energy left to spend entertaining Fido. In the end, the luckiest of dogs may get a little over an hour of interaction and activity at best. So what happens when dogs get under-stimulated and bored? They look for things to do. Dogs will raid the laundry basket, tear up stuffed animals or chew on the furniture. They’ll bark at the neighbor’s dog, dig holes in the back yard or look for ways to escape. Just like in other species, many dogs also engage in behaviors such as excessive licking, spinning, tail chasing, hair pulling, nail biting or air biting. In the end, many behavior problems would be avoided by simply providing Bitsy and Rex with something to do.
There are a number of toys on the market, from the squeaky ones to the chewy ones. But most of us have notices that it doesn’t take long for our pooches to ignore them. A recent study confirmed that dogs show a strong interest to new toys but after a short while, when the dog has become familiar with the toy’s smell, taste, sound and feel, they lose their appeal and the dogs quickly ignore them (Pullen & al., 2012).
So how can we keep our dogs busy and happy? Here are a few suggestions:
- We just can’t say it enough: a tired dog is a good dog. A walk in the park is a great way to provide physical activity, mental stimulation and bonding time. Walking the dog for 30 minutes to an hour a day is a really good habit to develop (for more about how walks can benefit your dog visit our blog ‘Walking the dog has big impact‘.
- Dogs love to chew. There are a number of safe chew toys that many dogs really enjoy. Look for antlers, ram horns or Nylabones® . Providing Fido with lots of chewing options will contribute to keeping your belongs untouched.
- Dogs do not need to eat in a bowl. Hide piles of food around the house or in the backyard or scatter your dog’s meal in the lawn. Stuff toys with your dog’s food and hide the toys. The new high tech Pet Tutor® will shoot out the food, little at a time, for the dog to chase making feeding into an energy burning activity.
- As an extension of the point above, there are a number of food puzzles on the market. The Buster® cubes, the Tug-a-Jug™, the Kong® toys, the Tricky Treat™ Ball and many more offer a variety of challenging options for the dog to stay busy while eating. Others such as the Nina Ottosson or Kyjen® puzzles, the IQ Treat Ball™, will stimulate the dog’s problem solving skills. With its variety of features, such as the movement activated remote, the Pet Tutor® can also help transform many toys and objects into interactive and fun enrichment tools.
- Train your dog. There is no limit to what your dog can learn. Spending a few minutes everyday to teach your dog a new trick will not only provide him/her with needed mental stimulation, it’s also quality time spend on your relationship.
- Social time with other dogs. Dogs are social animals and off-leash play times keep your dog’s social skills sharp, reducing the chances of developing reactivity and fear.
- Play with your dog. Nothing replaces a chance to play with you. Many dogs enjoy playing tug-a-war or fetch.
- Sports and other activities. From Freestyle to Flyball, Frisbee, Agility and Nose-work. There are a number of fun things to do that allow the dog to run and use his skills. Stimulating and energy burning, these activities are great for both dogs and owners!
Just as dogs can get tired of any particular toy, enrichment opportunities have to offer variety and constant challenge. Anything, no matter how fun, that is repeated over and over again can turn from fun to torture. So the trick here is to constantly look for new things to do, for new ways to challenge the dog, for games that get increasingly more difficult. Dogs are smart animals and just like people, they need activity and mental stimulation. Our only limit is our imagination…
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.
Video of the new hi tech version of the shell game–> …The Pet Tutor® Shell Game
Just found your site (through a share on fb from Your Pit Bull & You) and love the posts. Great tips & training recommendations! Thanks 🙂
While antlers are long-lasting chews, they are also harmful to a.dog’s teeth. One of my dogs had a three-root molar removed because it split in half. We had no idea until I found half of the tooth under a chair when I was cleaning. She never showed any signs, and the other half of her tooth was dying. All the vets in our practice, along with many others are requesting that their patients no longer chew on antlers. They are comparable to a small piece of concrete. There is better enrichment out there than sedation and tooth removal. 🙂