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Monday, July 8, 2013

Dealing With Bored Dogs

Here's a great behavioral question sent from Nicole....


I have a roughly 9 month old border collie x blue heeler. On paper we probably shouldn't have such a breed- we live in a large capital city (Melbourne, Australia) in the inner city with a small block. However, Ted was a rescue pup, came to us very submissive and malnourished and in the 2 months we have had him he his confidence and personality have flourished, he has a thick healthy coat and he has developed into a delightful, confident companion.
I am concerned about what to do with him in the days we both work (usually only 2-3 days a week when we are both out but he is alone 8-10 hours). We walk him twice a day, every day for about 1/2 an hour each time (no matter how cold it is at 7am). He is attending obedience class once a week plus training him for short bursts each day. We stuff a kong with meat and have a treat ball containing kibble that we leave him with (measured amounts to ensure correct quantity). We have been leaving him with a bone 2 days per week but after seeing him strain and pass a small amount of bright red blood with a very hard bony poop we will not be giving him bones anymore- plus I read the posts on bones on your blog after this episode. He doesn't play with any of his toys unless we are there to throw them and on the days he doesn't have a bone to keep him busy he excavates the yard, remodels the outdoor furniture or spends the day trying to break in to the house (as evidenced by the tooth marks on the back door).
Is there anything you can suggest that I can safely leave him with to chew unsupervised (he is a BIG chewer and I have never seen any chewing behaviour that concerns me- he doesn't tend to swallow chunks)? And is there any other hints or tips or toys you can suggest?


Bored dogs are not unusual, especially in certain breeds.  While it may seem a bit silly to discuss boredom in dogs, Nicole has pointed out that this can be a big problem.  Take an active, young dog, give it nothing to do, and wait for the mess.  Dogs need an outlet for their energy and curiosity, and if those outlets aren't provided they will find some way to make it happen.  Unfortunately that tends to be very destructive behaviors, such as digging holes or chewing up things around the house.

One of the first things everyone should do is to understand their breed.  In Nicole's case she has two very energetic breeds mixed together.  Border collies and heelers are bred with a strong instinct to run around and herd.  This is natural behavior for them and results in dogs that tend to be quite active.  As she said, if given a choice a small inner city region is not the best location for such dogs.  However, given that this is a rescue situation we can skip that part as I'm not going to chastise anyone who has provided good health and home to a pet like this.

Obedience classes are a great start and I recommend that for every dog, not just those with behavioral problems.  But that's not going to be enough.  A 30 minute walk twice daily is also not sufficient if this is the only opportunity for exercise.  He is a young dog and comes from energetic breeds.  The idea here is to tire him out.  Basically give him as much exercise as it takes to get him worn out.  Instead of a walk, take him for a jog (assuming that you can do so yourself).  Try to find a park nearby that allows off-leash dogs and teach him to catch a Frisbee or ball.  If you are in an apartment building or have something like that nearby, take him up and down stairs several times.  Get creative, but you need to give him an outlet for that energy.

Okay, now for the chewing.  Kongs are great, so keep doing that.  For a heavy chewer young not going to find many things better, and they make them in various "strengths".  It doesn't sound like standard chew toys and treats are going to last long enough for him, so keep those to a minimum.  Besides the meat you can seal one end, pour cooled chicken broth in it, and freeze it until solid.  Rotate the types of things you put in there.

There are other ways to provide environmental enrichment when you're not home.  Look into puzzle toys.  These are balls, cubes, and so on that have a small opening or two to allow kibble or treats to fall out when the dog moves it a certain way.  The principle is that the dog has to spend time thinking and figuring out how to move it to get the treats out rather than simply chewing something up in a few minutes.  Another thing you can do is to take a cue from what zoos do to keep their animals engaged and active.  Find some areas where you can hide special treats, such as in a hollow stump, under a plastic flower pot, and so on.  Each day before leaving put some treats around the yard in specific places where he doesn't need to dig or be destructive.  He will have to use time and energy to search them out, thus keeping him occupied and have an outlet for his boredom.  Put them in different locations so he doesn't get used to a pattern.

Some of this may improve as he becomes and adult and gets older, but this kind of energy and boredom can be a problem for several years.  If the problem becomes worse, talk to your vet about antianxiety medications, though this should be a last resort and only after he has reached full maturity.


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