Some of the biggest canine behavioural problems stem from boredom, experts say.
Dr Nick Hill and his team at Sure Petcare recently launched the new Animo activity and behaviour monitor for dogs which detects barking, scratching and shaking, all potentially key signs that a dog is bored.
And so, this month, with Nick’s help, we are sharing some of the best ways to tell if your dog is bored and how a dog’s age impacts on their behaviour.
Do dogs get bored?
Nick tells us that dogs, like children, can exhibit different behaviours if they’re bored.
“A bored child might become irritable, or they might start to act up, or they might just give up and do nothing. It's the same with dogs. Some dogs will become demanding or pester you for attention, some will become naughty or destructive, and some will just give up and go to sleep. A lot depends on your dog’s age and personality.
“More serious signs of boredom include overgrooming and self-mutilation; for example, when dogs keep licking at a spot until it gets sore. However, because dogs aren’t able to tell us how they feel, we need to look at their lifestyle and think about whether it is fulfilling. This is better than waiting to see signs of a problem.
“Is the dog left alone for long periods, does it interact with very few dogs and people on walks, are most walks in urban street environments, and does the dog have little play time? If so, then the dog will probably be bored, or at least under-stimulated, even if there is no outward sign of a problem.”
How to keep a dog from being bored
Often the best ways to keep your dog engaged and mentally stimulated will depend on your dog.
Nick tells us that to some extent it depends on a dog’s age and what they want to do. He shares his top tips on how to spot the signs of boredom in dogs of different ages and some of the best ways to mentally stimulate your dog when they’re home alone.
“Young and adolescent dogs are highly driven to chew and tear things, partly because they are learning how to use their teeth and jaws, and partly because as their teeth erupt it can be painful; chewing is a way for them to soothe the pain.
“So, up until 18 months of age, a lot of dogs will be destructive around the house; chewing furniture, peeling wallpaper off and pulling the stuffing out of cushions. The best way to deal with this is to provide alternative things for young dogs to destroy before they get a taste for furniture.
“For example, leaving a couple of big, cheap cuddly toys for the dog to pull apart, some nylon chews to exercise teeth on and rolled up newspapers for the dog to shred. Dogs naturally lose their need to destroy things as they grow up, but you can speed this process up by providing a puzzle feeder that dispenses food when the dog plays with them.
“A common example would be an activity ball that drops food treats as it rolls on the floor. This kind of toy rewards the dog for playing with it, and that weans the dog off less profitable activities like shredding things. However, chewing is also a way that dogs shrug off stress, so it is always a good idea to leave chews around for a dog.
“The choice of chew is important. It must be something the dog can get its teeth into and damage; rubber toys that last forever and the dog can’t leave a dent on them are no fun. On the other hand, dogs can choke on chews that they can swallow so it is important that parts cannot break off.
“Adult dogs don’t tend to play on their own, because play is a social activity, so the only way to give them stimulation when nobody is around is through activity feeders and chews.”
Would my dog be less bored if they had another dog to play with?
It has been said that sometimes smelling the same scents over and over again on daily dog walks can make a dog bored. So, can finding new dog walks to explore mentally stimulate a dog?
Sometimes. Again, Nick says it depends on the dog and whether they are comfortable visiting new places and meeting new dogs (and their owners).
“In general, dogs need social contact, play and opportunities to explore. Just as with us, dogs find social contact with their friends to be more valuable, and less stressful, than social contact with strangers. So, it is important to regularly take your dog to meet other dogs that it knows and trusts, and hopefully will play with. This is especially true for dogs that are generally a bit nervous of other dogs but have built up friendships with a few dogs that they like.
“Play is an important part of social contact, and owners should play games with their dogs as often as they can, preferably several times each day. Play the games the dog likes; tug, fetch, hide and seek, running and chasing. Just don’t let things get out of control; stop regularly and get your dog to sit for a few seconds of time out.
“Exploration can involve going to new places, but natural environments with trees and grass are more interesting to dogs. Food finding games at home are also good for dogs; for example, just scattering a handful of dried kibble on the grass for your dog to search for.”
Is barking a sign that a dog is bored?
We asked Nick why he focused on these behaviours and if a dog barks, scratches and shakes what they’re trying to tell us.
“We developed the behaviour monitoring, concentrating on barking, shaking and scratching, as these can be key indicators of an underlying illness, distress or discomfort for the dog. As dogs are unable to tell us how they are feeling, Animo helps to identify what is normal for the dog and highlight when there are significant changes through detailed analysis.
“This could help with early detection of an underlying issue that your dog is facing, helping you to have validated information to share with your vet, should you be concerned.
“Barking is a common sign that dogs are agitated for some reason, but dogs can bark when they are happy and excited as well as when they are anxious, afraid or frustrated. When Animo detects barking it cannot, at the moment, interpret what the barking means. However, when dogs are alone they should expect to feel secure enough to properly rest and relax, so if Animo picks up a lot of barking it is an indication that the dog may be stressed.”
Is scratching a sign that a dog is bored?
“Scratching is interesting, because although we generally see it as a sign of itchiness it can also be a sign of stress; when dogs are worried by something they may scratch more. People do the same. If you are in a meeting, watch the people who are most stressed and you will probably see that they scratch and pick at their head, face and hands more.
“In dogs, monitoring scratching can act as an indicator about health problems like fleas or mange, perhaps reminding us that we have let flea treatment lapse for too long. Quite a lot of dogs have persistent allergies, like atopic dermatitis, and a device like Animo can help us to get the treatment right.
“Shaking is also a key indicator. All dogs shake, when they are wet, cold or anxious however if this continues for a sustained period, there could be an underlying cause.
“Take a particularly anxious dog. There could be a pattern of when they are anxious – such as when the local school finishes, and the noise could be disturbing them. If this is the case, and you notice that this happens around the same time on each incident, you could consider putting your dog in a back room or an area where the noise is less. If you have any further concerns, you should always consult a vet for further guidance.”