Don’t Shame the Dog – Look at Yourself (addressing boredom and “bad dogs”)

When I see various “dog shaming” posts online, I do not see bad dogs.   I often see bored dogs not having physical and mental needs met.  Who is responsible for alleviating boredom?  Ultimately, the dog owner is responsible for addressing boredom in meaningful ways. Are you doing enough?

Take a look at the video. These dogs are not bad.  They are bored.  Nor are they feeling guilty.  What you are seeing is a response to what the humans are doing.  The dogs are indicating stress.  They are very perceptive.  So, this video is bored dogs, dog who were not well-managed, and dogs who are responding to what the humans are doing.  I am not going to discuss guilt in dogs at this point.  Suffice it to say dogs do not feel guilt as humans define it.  They respond to what we do and the actions we are showing at that moment.  When we catch them at something, they respond to our behaviors and not what they were doing to cause them.

When I am called to advise on a destructive dog, one of the first things I look for are things for the dog to do inside and outside.  Often destructive dogs are dogs needing more mental and physical activity.  Add in a lack of supervision and teaching dogs to seek out appropriate activities, and well, a lot of trouble can happen.  When we are not in a position to observe and teach, this is when we need a safe place for our dog to stay.  This safe spot must be carefully chosen.  If not, well, it is amazing what a bored Jack Russell Terrier puppy can do when he is confined to a bathroom and his toy of choice is that water pipe behind the toilet.  (Yes this happened to the cousin of a former client to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in damage to the house before she got home from work). I prefer to crate train my dogs who are not able to safely be out when I am not home or awake.  Crates are not cruel if used carefully.  You can also use a long-term confinement set up such as a small kennel set up with a potty spot, bed, and area for toys.  These areas should not take the place of proper supervision.  They are to keep your dog safe when you are truly unable to supervise your dog.

When I look at toys provided for the dog, I look at what behaviors do the toys encourage? Will they engage the body and mind to complete a task?  Are they toys that the dog seems to like and seek out? Toys and activities that engage body and mind are beneficial to all dogs.  Some of my favorite, easy games with dogs involve feeding times.  Toys like the Omega Paw Ball or Kong Wobbler for all dry meals gets the dog working to eat.  There are puzzle bowls that dogs have to work kibble and canned food through.  Buster Cubes, Squirrel Dudes, Tug-a-Jugs, and activities such as in the following video are great ideas.  Now with the video, you do not have to get that elaborate.  You can do things such as put the bottles between two cinder blocks for outside activities or hang the bar between a couple of chairs, etc.

Also, provide toys for your dogs to have quieter time with.  As I am typing this my dogs have come in from hanging outside and are working on bones.  As I edit this, they are now out back with my daughter as she cleans the yard.

Classic Kong toys are great for stuffing food inside.  There are other similar toys such as the Sumo.  I take canned food, pureed fruits and veggies, kibble, peanut butter, squirt cheese, etc, stuff the toy and freeze it.  One of my favorite things to keep on hand if needed in a pinch are Purina Beyond and ProPlan meal enhancers.  They are pureed foods in pounches.  No additives.  A few minutes is all it takes to squish some into a Kong, add some kibble and I run out.  The night before I am going to sub teach for a whole day, I layer the toys with things and freeze them.  My dogs will work on these for some time and then nap.  As the stuff inside thaws, they can work some more.

Since some dogs will become frustrated if the food does not work out easily, I will leave space at the large opening and before giving to my dogs, I will put some unfrozen food on top.  If you stuff your Kongs or similar toys and do not freeze them, that is fine too.  Make sure you do not pack them so tightly the dogs become frustrated and using the toy.  This can happen with dog cookies the dogs cannot work out.  I will take peanut butter or a little squirt cheese and coat the inside edge.  Then I will add some kibble, add a later of goopy stuff, a little more kibble and a later of something like peanut butter to hold it in.  I feed my dogs half of their breakfast this way.  They get a little kibble in their bowls.  Then more of their ration is scattered in the back yard for some great work sniffing out food, the rest is in a Kong they get when I leave.  If we are going out for an evening, they get a little kibble in a bowl, some food finding games outside and the rest in Kongs.

When buying toys for use with any food, make sure they have two holes.  If there is only one hole, the dog can build up suction while licking and do serious damage to his mouth and tongue.  You can always drill a hole to help reduce the risk of suction.  Choose carefully and observe your dog.

For outside activity, platforms the dogs can climb up, tunnels, ramps, tug ropes ties to posts, areas framed off with sandy soil for digging, wading pools, etc., can help alleviate boredom.  (Keep these things away from fences so your dogs do not use them to escape). Two of our dogs love the ramp to the playhouse and slide on our old swing set.  Uhura (the Standard Schnauzer), uses the play house on a daily basis. The human kids no longer use the swing set so we will be removing the swing section but leaving the ramp and slide.  The climbing rope will be removed and a tug station will be hung from where the rope ladder is.  Bungee cords holding the tug rope will give a good tug.  I have done similar tug set ups with tree branches and fence posts.  Get outside and teach the dog how to play with these areas.  The more you give your dog to do outside (and the more you teach him to use these areas), the happier he will be.  Make some agility equipment and get playing.


Ravyn sleeping on our teeter.


Splash hanging out in the play house.


Now, along with mental activity we must address exercise needs.  What is enough exercise?  This varies dog to dog.

For me, a good activity session is one where my pet is not looking for more to do. He is not so tired he cannot function and he becomes less tolerant of things in his exhaustion.  Nor is my dog manic, demanding more activity or destroying things out of boredom.  My dog is relaxed, may go rest or calmly find something else to do such as chewing a bone.  There are many ways to meet your pet’s physical needs:  free play with dogs he likes, swimming, formal activities like agility or nose work, chasing things (flirt pole work or formal lure coursing), hunting for kibble scattered through the yard or house (do not do this on chemically treated lawns) are a few ideas.


Old picture of Hunter and my son, Connor.  Hunter loved to swim.


What about walks?  Walks are important but your dog needs time to be a dog while on them.  I am not saying allow rude behavior like barking or lunging, etc., but allow your dog to poke at things, sniff and investigate.  Go to a safe place where he will not annoy people or get into danger, put him on a long leash and let him roam about.  Walk in new places.  This area has a host of county, state, and national parks with great trails.  Teach him to carry a backpack.  Look at urban mushing or skijoring!  Teach your dog to pull a cart.  Physical activity is more than tossing a ball in your back yard.

TN 2014 (11)

Sarah and Uhura when she was a pup, exploring in Tennessee.


Determining your dog’s physical needs is ultimately determined by your dog. To help determine daily needs I often recommend journaling the date, duration of the physical activity, type or activity, and how was the dog after.  Keeping track of things is important.  I had a client who was convinced her small dog was getting at least 30 minutes a walk.  This was twice a day.  This combined with games should have been adequate.  However, when my client began charting what her dog was getting for exercise in reality, and mental stimulation, it was a fraction of this.  When she began to increase what she was doing and changing up walk routes, different games and toys, etc., the dog became easier to work with.  Each dog is an individual when it comes to needs.  One person’s higher energy dog is the other person’s moderate energy dog. It is not fair to expect a higher energy dog to be a couch potato all day.  I have done evaluations where owners refused to understand the needs of a high energy, working breed.  It was assumed that all the dog needed was training in order to learn to be calm.  Well that and a large fenced yard, a couple hours of human-led activity a day, things to alleviate boredom in a breed bred to problem solve and ideally, a formal activity and owners willing to meet all his needs.  They insisted he was a bad dog and not trainable.  No, he was a dog and nothing more.  He was the exact dog you would see on dog shaming pages.

No pet is trying to be bad.  In the majority of cases I have found destructive dogs were bored and had energy to burn.  Dogs will work to meet their needs if we do not.  There is a good chance you may not like what the pet chooses to do.  Instead of shaming your dog, address what he needs instead.

Karen Peak is the owner of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, VA and the founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project.

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