Preventing Boredom for Your Dog

Posted by  on June 14, 2010

Summer vacation is almost here, and parents are already dreading those two awful words:  “I’m bored!”  But did you ever stop to think about how bored your dog might get while you’re at work or otherwise engaged?  Very few dogs are lucky enough to have human companionship all day every day, yet they are very social animals and crave your attention.

Why is it important to keep your dog entertained?

You’re right.  We’re talking about dogs here, not human children.  However, as pet parents, we have an obligation to provide for all of our dog’s needs, not just the physical ones like shelter and food.  Dogs have a pack mentality that makes them thrive when they are around others.  A dog is happiest when he or she has a job to do or at least something to occupy his or her mind.

Think about the last time you went to a zoo.  Remember the tires in the gorilla enclosure and the various toys set out for almost all of the animals?  Animals are thinking creatures, and they must have something to do in order to remain happy.  Your dog is no different.

Keeping your dog from getting bored is not only in the animal’s best interest; it helps you as well.  Bored dogs are destructive dogs, so it’s worth taking the time to be proactive in planning some activities to keep your dog’s mind engaged.

For example, a dog who stays out in the yard all day alone is likely to begin digging holes under the fence just for something to do.  Inside dogs might chew up couch cushions to see what’s inside, or they may troll for food on your counters.  Left alone, dogs are also likely to become obese because they will eat out of boredom, making this an important health issue, as well.

Separation anxiety vs. boredom

Some of a dog’s destructive behavior when you’re gone may be due to separation anxiety.  How do you know if a dog is misbehaving due to boredom or due to separation anxiety?  There are a couple of key clues.  First of all, a dog who is destroying things that specifically have your scent on them, is likely having a hard time being away from you.  If the destruction is more general, it’s probably boredom.

The second clue is how your dog acts when you find the destruction upon returning home.  A dog who has destroyed things out of boredom knows that he or she has done something wrong and will act remorseful or at least guilty.  He or she may slink away from you, looking for a spot to crawl under the carpet and hide.  A dog who has separation anxiety will have no guilt because in the dog’s mind, the destruction is your fault for leaving.

Finally, take a look at when your dog is destroying your stuff.  If the damage is pretty consistent no matter how long you are gone, it is likely as a result of separation anxiety.  However, if the destruction is worse when you are gone for longer periods than when you just run to the corner store, you are likely dealing with boredom.

Consider the dog’s environment

It’s true that most adult dogs sleep about 12 – 14 hours per day, but you must consider that at least half of this time is at night while you’re also sleeping.  That leaves only about 6 or 7 hours of sleep during the day, meaning you must fill the rest of the day with activities to keep the dog from following his or her natural urges to dig, chew, bark, chase, and in general destroy your home.

There are many options available for your dog when you aren’t at home.  You may confine him or her to a certain area of your home or to a crate, or you may leave the dog outside when no one is at home to entertain the animal.  Alternatively, you might send the dog to a day care to avoid the problem entirely.

No matter which of the at-home options you choose, you have several responsibilities as a guardian.  Aside from providing for the basics like shelter and water, you must also provide an outlet for the dog’s mental and physical energy.  This is especially important for puppies through about age two, but older dogs will appreciate your efforts as well.

You might want to try alternating your dog’s environment between the various options to keep things fresh.  For example, maybe you will send the dog to day care on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leave him or her outside in the fenced-in yard (weather permitting) on Wednesdays, crate him or her on Mondays and Fridays, then let him or her roam the house when you are away for short errands on the weekends.

Before you leave

Doing a little preparation before you leave the house can go a long way toward allowing you to come back to an intact home and happy neighbors.  Make sure that whatever area you leave available to your dog is fully dog-proofed.  There should be nothing left out that might be interesting to the dog such as food to eat, pillows to tear open, or paper to shred.

Look for hazards that might harm your dog while you are away.  Check out the plants to make sure they are not poisonous.  A list of plants poisonous to your dog is available from the ASPCA’s poison control center.  Make sure electrical cords that a dog might chew are out of the way.  Lower the blinds so that the strings aren’t hanging where your dog can get tangled in them.  This also prevents your dog from seeing everything happening outside, which may help lessen barking.

Spend some time playing actively with your dog for about 15 minutes before you leave.  This serves two functions:  it provides some interactive “pack” time, and it tires the dog out.  Whether you take a short walk, play tug, or throw a ball or a stick for the dog to fetch, your best friend will appreciate the effort you are making to engage him or her in something interesting.


Make sure that the dog has things available in his or her designated area to provide mental and physical stimulation.  Appropriate chew toys can help cut down on the number of unacceptable things your dog might chew.  If you don’t provide something to chew on, there’s no question the dog will find something on his or her own.  Provide a variety of bones, squeaky toys, and plush toys so the dog has a choice, depending on which mood strikes while you are gone.

It may be especially helpful to invest in some of the types of toys that require your dog to think.  The company that makes Kong brand toys is known for their innovation in creating toys that you can put treats in, so the dog has to manipulate the toy to get to the treat.

There are various other challenge toys for your dog, most of which contain some sort of compartment for treats.  Your dog must use his or her brain to get the treat out, which is obviously going to provide the mental stimulation some dogs crave.  You can see a wide variety of mentally challenging dog toys at Best Friends General Store.  For added fun, hide the toy so your dog has to find it before he can begin working out the puzzle.

If your budget is tight, you can make your own challenge toys by putting a small amount of dry dog food in a toilet paper tube and crumpling up the ends.  You will end up having to clean up the cardboard when you get home, assuming your dog didn’t eat it, but it may provide enough stimulation for your dog to protect your other stuff.  You can also put some dog food in an empty milk jug and leave it out for your dog to play with in a quest to dislodge the food.


If your dog spends time alone in your yard, consider giving him or her an alternative to digging holes.  Attach a strong rope to a tree or fence post with bungee cords and teach the dog how to play tug all by himself.  Make a tunnel out of cardboard boxes or large PVC pipe.  Hide treats under the topsoil in an area where you don’t care if your dog digs.  He or she may soon learn it’s preferable to dig in that area, which just might keep the animal out of your garden.

Protecting the furniture

If you have furniture that your dog has found particularly appealing in the past, you may want to treat it with an aversive spray such as bitter apple before you leave.  Bitter apple is totally safe for your dog, as it can even be sprayed on the dog’s body to prevent self-destructive behaviors like fur biting and excessive licking.   Most dogs don’t like the taste and will leave alone whatever has been treated with this spray.  It is best to test it on a small area of your furniture before spraying the entire piece with it, just to make sure that the particular brand of spray you have chosen doesn’t harm the upholstery or wood finish.

When you come home

Even though you have put in a grueling day at work, your dog is likely full of boundless energy and will want to play when you come home.  Don’t ignore the dog!  A nice walk when you come home is a great way to reward your buddy for behaving while you were away.   You might also start teaching your dog new tricks each day as you come home.  This gives the dog something to look forward to, as progress is usually rewarded with lots of attention and a treat or two.

Plan some special time with your dog on your days off so that the weekends aren’t just more of the same.  Try to carve out a bit of time for a long walk or take your dog with you when you run your errands if possible.  A trip to the dog park might be a good way to let your dog interact with others, and it will burn off some energy as well.

Keeping your dog active and challenged are important steps not only to improving his or her health and sense of well-being but also to keeping your neighbors from complaining about excessive barking and to keeping your home in one piece.