I hear it all the time from my clients, they give me the details of the problem behaviors their dog is exhibiting but emphasize the fact that they give their pup plenty of play time in the yard, toys to chew on, and freedom to roam. So why do our dogs still dig holes in the yard, bark at passing neighbors, tear up the furniture, and steal from the counters? There is a common misconception that play is all that is needed to create a happy and fulfilled dog. Although it is a great start to provide our dogs with a large fenced yard to explore and a few toys to play with, we need to do more to mentally and socially enrich them. The sound of training after a long day of work may sound daunting, but it will pay off ten-fold when you have a dog who can relax with you instead of finding their own “hobbies” – like chewing on the couch or your favorite shoes!
You can ‘spice up’ your dog’s meal times by investing in toys that your dog must manipulate to get their meal from – such as slow feeders and food kongs. I love to suggest these tools as they are a great way to add some challenge without a great investment of energy from the owner. You can find them at any local pet store or online. If you are crafty, you can set up your own slow feeder at home by running a pole through the sides of a few bottles, filling them with kibble, and making sure the opening is wide enough so that your dog can paw the bottle and earn their meal as it spins (see image on the left). Feeding your dog at set intervals throughout the day instead of free feeding is also a great idea to avoid obesity and add value to food. My final note on enriching meal times is this: whichever way you choose to feed your dog, have them work a bit for it, either sitting and waiting as you set the bowl down, or doing some more advanced tasks. It will pleasantly surprise you the positive influence starting this habit will have on your dog.
When you let your dog out into the yard, do they engage in behaviors you would rather they not engage in? Do they dig, bark at neighbors, or search for ways to exit the premises? If so, there is a (relatively) easy fix! Stay out in the yard with them! Throw the toy for them, teach them tricks like jumping through a hula hoop, or practice obedience. Dogs are extremely social creatures and our relationship with them thrives the more we engage with them, especially through teaching and play. Furthermore, you will get more out of play time if you add in obedience work too as mental energy is more taxing than straight physical exertion.
I am a huge advocate in giving our dogs a job or hobby. Basic obedience is a critical life skill to teach our pets, but we can take it so much farther and, better yet, meet amazing people and animals along the way. What quirks does your dog have? Are they obsessed with their toys? There are activities like dock diving, flyball, and disc dog which utilize toys both in training and competition to encourage the dog to complete spectacular feats. Does your dog constantly have their nose to the ground? You can capitalize on their natural interests and teach them activities such as scent work, barn hunt, and even become a certified Search and Rescue team. If your dog is more inclined to be around people, work on teaching them how to be a therapy dog – they are frequently used in nursing homes, schools, court rooms, hospitals, therapy offices, and more. As spectacular as they look, do not be intimidated, these activities are not impossible to teach your dog. Working together at a sport or to help your community is a great way to bond closer with your dog and give them a fulfilling sense of purpose.