One of the most common complaints I get from clients is that their dog is constantly pestering them for attention. Picture the scene – you come home from a long day of work and sit down on the couch to relax. Except that you can’t relax because your dog won’t stop pawing at you, whining, or eating your cell phone. By the end of the evening you’re at your wits end because you haven’t had a moments peace to rest or take care of household duties. For many dogs, the root of the problem is that they aren’t getting enough exercise. The best solution is to increase their amount of daily exercise. But there are many other options as well that can help reduce your dog’s energy. The more of these you do, the greater the impact, but even implementing a few of them, can help take the edge off. I am listing them roughly in order of least to most time, energy and financial investment. Of course the solutions that require more investment also tend to have a greater impact.
Reinforce the behaviors you like, not the ones you don’t like.
Teach your dog how to politely ask for what she wants. Ask her to sit before petting her, playing with her, giving her food or taking her outside. Do not give in to rude behavior – this will only teach her that it works and make her more likely to continue the behavior! If your dog has been a pest and finally settles down, give her some (calm and quiet) attention to reinforce her for being relaxed. Calm petting is a good option.
Be proactive and anticipate your dog’s needs.
Give your dog attention before he starts misbehaving. When you come home, many dogs have been at home for hours with little mental or physical stimulation. Plan on investing some upfront energy in your dog so that both of you can rest easy later on. The suggestions below give you plenty of ideas to get started.
Feed your dog using interactive toys.
Before being brought into our homes as full time companions, dogs spent most or all of their time outside doing what they love most – searching for and chasing animals. Tossing dry food in a bowl and putting it down on the floor for them once or twice a day is about as far from this as they can get. Finding a way to make your dog work a little harder for her food mimics (at least to a degree) the effort she’d be putting into hunting outside. There are two advantages to this. First, it gives her additional enrichment – think of it as entertainment – which will help stave off the boredom and excess energy that causes your dog to get into trouble for hours on end. Second, it keeps her busy a little longer so you can get a short break from supervising.
Which toys are best? For special treats Kongs are my first choice – peanut butter or cream cheese can be smeared around the inside of the kong. You can freeze them if you want them to last a little longer. Still not lasting long enough? Do a google search for suggestions on “kong stuffing recipes”. There are plenty of good ones out there. However, unless you want your dog to balloon out like a goodyear blimp, you have to limit your use of Kongs. I strongly recommend feeding your dog all or part of his meals from a food dispensing toy as well. My favorites are busy buddies which are available in a number of various shapes and sizes (you can get them online and at many local dog stores. In our area, Benson’s carries them). They work extremely well for dog kibble. I also like the orbee mazee and snoop at Planet Dog.
Do some training.
Many dogs need exercise for their brains at least as much as they need exercise for their body. Teach your dog some basic manners (sit, down, stay, etc.) or some tricks using positive reinforcement techniques. If you want some do-it-yourself tips, I strongly suggest using Dog Star Daily or Karen Pryor Clicker Training. You can break training sessions up into a few minutes at a time, several times a day, or into longer blocks of 30 minutes once a day, or even a few times a week. Initially, your dog might only be able to train for a few minutes at a time before getting distracted, but over time, he or she will be able to go for longer and longer periods.
Play ‘find it’ games.
Hide objects and encourage your dog to find them. Start off easy and gradually increase the difficulty. There are a number of ways you can do this. You can hide toys, treats or even your dog’s food around the house. The only suggestion I have is to think wisely about where you are putting the food. Hiding food under couch cushions or on a table, for example, will only teach your dog to search for food in those places – a habit you may not want to establish!
Another great game is playing hide and seek – people hide, your dog seeks. This can be a great activity for kids and dogs when the weather outside is not cooperative. It’s also a great way to teach the recall. Most dog’s LOVE this game.
Dogs love to play and it can be a great way to decrease their energy as well as strengthen the bond between the two of you. If your dog doesn’t like toys, I suggest reading this short article by Susan Garrett on teaching your dog to be toy motivated. Worried about tug? The idea that tug will make your dog aggressive or out of control is a myth. Especially if you follow certain rules. For more information on playing tug with your dog, including the rules, check out this article from Whole Dog Journal. Fetch is another great option.
Take your dog on field trips.
How would you feel if all you ever got to see was the view from your house and your yard? For days at a time? Do you think you’d start to get a little stir crazy? Our dogs do too! Take your dog on adventures away from home. Aim for at least once a week, more if possible. Go for walks in the local nature preserve, or just in a nearby neighborhood that you don’t normally walk in. If you dog is comfortable in busy areas with other people and dogs, you can take your dog to parks, festivals and outdoor events where dogs are allowed. Just be aware of your dog’s comfort level. Not sure what a nervous dog looks like? Check out my previous blog post on reading your dog’s body language for signs that your dog is stressed (or happy).
Set up play dates for your dog.
We will never be able to tire our dogs out as efficiently as another dog can. If your dog is comfortable playing with other dogs, this can be a great option for decreasing their overall energy level. If you know other people with active, social dogs, they will probably love the idea of doggie play dates as a way to wear off some of that extra energy for their own dog. If you don’t know anyone else with a friendly dog, consider day care. Even going once or twice a week can make a huge difference in your dog’s (and therefore your!) life. If you are local, Milton Manor has an excellent day care facility. The staff is incredibly friendly and professional and their day care supervisor, Lauren, is excellent at assessing dogs and managing their play to make sure everyone stays safe and happy. Not sure if your dog is right for day care or worried about choosing a reputable facility? Patricia’s McConnell has an article that can help you address both of these questions.
Get involved in a dog sport.
There are so many great options available for dog sports. You can do them for fun or for competition. Competition is available for mixed breeds and purebreds. Most people are aware of agility and obedience, but there are many other options as well. Rally is similar to obedience, but a bit more relaxed and involves a different set of exercises and different course every time. There is also herding, tracking, lure coursing, nose work, dock diving, frisbee and many other options. Availability varies wildly from area to area, so do an internet search to find out what’s available in your area. You’re almost certain to at least find a place that teaches agility or obedience. As always, choose a trainer that understands the basics of learning theory and uses positive reinforcement techniques. Dog sports are an excellent form of exercise – often for you and your dog. They also strengthen your relationship with your dog and they’re just downright fun!
Keeping your dog entertained does require some additional effort up front. However, it will pay off in the long run by giving you more quality time with your dog, resulting in a happier, more relaxed companion. Not to mention some much needed downtime for you!