Bored dogs are problem dogs.
One of the easiest ways to try and tackle certain problematic behavior is to find out if your dog is bored, and then tackle their boredom. So what does a bored dog look like?
1. Your dog digs in the trash.
Foraging for their food is an extremely natural dog behavior. "Wild" domesticated dogs, unlike wolves, don't hunt in packs to take down prey. Instead, street dogs scavange! It's a natural instinct for dogs to forage for their food like this.
However, it doesn't make them ideal to live with when we have garbage all over, not to mention the risks to their health. Putting the trash can where the dog can't access it, or putting a lid on the bin, can help manage this behavior - but a dog that is obsessively digging in the trash also might need some extra enrichment. Foraging games and food puzzles are ideal for these dogs, including hiding food and treats around the house for your dog to find rather than feeding them out of a boring bowl.
2. Your dog whines or barks at you.
A dog that's obsessively staring at you and whining or barking - when it's not dinner time, they don't have to go outside, and the water bowl is full - very well might be a dog that's bored and doesn't know what else to do. Instead of being bored, they've invented a new game - make my owner pay attention to me by whining or barking!
With my own dogs, I know that if they truly can't settle down and they are whining at me, they NEED something to do. It usually happens if their schedules have drastically changed for days at a time, such as if I'm sick and skimp on giving them what they need to busy their brains. Pulling a Kong toy stuffed with food out of the freezer is perfect for these scenarios - I've already prepared them in advance, so it doesn't take extra time, and it's long lasting for my dogs.
3. Your dog sniffs obsessively on walks and doesn't pay attention.
True, this one could easily be a training problem. Keep in mind though - a dog's nose is their best sense and they "see" the world through smelling. Sniffing is the BEST enrichment for many dogs. If your dog is stuck inside without any activities most of the time, that walk is their time to explore and be excited (kind of like all of us in quarantine right now, right? Leaving the house for any reason becomes extra exciting)!
I'm a huge believer in letting dogs sniff on walks. If your dog is pulling on the leash or struggling in other ways on the walk, besides just wanting to sniff as you go, reach out so we can set up a training consultation. One great way to use the power of sniffing is to ask your dog to do something you want to see more of (sitting or walking close to you, for example) and then letting them sniff as a reward.
4. Your dog is digging holes in the backyard.
Just like the rest of these on the list, digging is a natural behavior for dogs. Just because we want to landscape our yards in a certain way doesn't take away a dog's desire to dig! If you're finding your dog obsessively digging holes (and you don't have moles or critters they're chasing) then you might have a dog that's creating their own fun due to boredom.
An easy way to address their boredom without forcing them to stop a natural behavior is to give them a specified dig box. A kiddie pool or sandbox can be a perfect location to fill with sand, pea gravel, or whatever substance your dog enjoys digging in (I personally avoid dirt so it doesn't turn to mud!). If you catch your dog digging in another area, redirect them to their dig box (and hide toys and treats to encourage them to dig in that location). Indoors, a box of shredded paper can work well too!
5. Your dog has obsessive behaviors, like light chasing or licking.
This one is tricky, because obsessive behaviors can also have a medical reason. Dogs that chase light might have a true obsessive disorder, and licking can be a sign of allergies or other illnesses. However, if your vet has ruled out a medical cause, obsessions can sometimes be created out of boredom.
How might obsessions be due to boredom?
Being bored sucks. Licking is self soothing.
Plus, if your dog likes to chase and engage with things, and no outlet is provided, they might turn to lights or shadows to fulfill their needs to chase something. Try providing your dog with some extra enrichment and see if the obsessive behaviors decrease or not. When in doubt, a second opinion from a veterinarian or a visit to the veterinary behaviorist can help diagnose more severe issues.
What can I do about my dog's boredom?
If you're realizing that your dog might be bored, congratulations on taking the first step! Once we understand our dog's needs a little better, we can make choices to help them.
Our Snuffle Mats and Snuffle Balls are perfect enrichment opportunities - they let dogs forage for their kibbles.
You can check out our other blog posts relating to enrichment for dogs.
We also have self-paced course option for those of you wanting more inspiration or to dig a little deeper. In Creating a Happier and Calmer Dog: DIY Canine Enrichment you'll learn about why enrichment is necessary, and get access to dozens of ideas using items often already in your home.
How do you know when your dog is bored? What's their favorite boredom-busting activity?