One doesn’t have to be the loneliest number

So, you are going out for the day and your dog will be all alone for 10 hours until you get home and another 8 hours when you are asleep. What should you do? That very much depends on you and the dog.

Providing an interesting and loving environment is key to making your dog a happy and well-balanced pet. Dogs enjoy playing games and intimate grooming the same as humans. Putting time aside for games that incorporate your training routines in a fun way is most important. Grooming, patting and massaging can be done while you read or watch TV.

One of the highlights of a dog’s day and an important factor in both their and your health and wellbeing is the walk. This should be done at least once daily. Dogs love to follow their noses, so allow them to have at least one section where they can drift from one interesting scent to another. Dog walkers and Doggy Day Care centres can be paid to do what you cannot provide if need be.

Dogs also like to just hang out with humans, other dogs and other pets. Allowing your dog to spend time inside the house with the family is very desirable. However, make sure you have periods of ‘Time Out’ where the dog is confined to the yard or a special area while people are active in the house. It is important that they do not become dependent on your company.

So how can you make the home environment more stimulating when you are out, asleep or having a ‘Time Out’ period? Here are a few of my favourite environmental enrichment strategies that you can try out with your dog — involving toys that can be purchased or home-made.

Environmental enrichment strategies

Being outdoors

A garden is preferable to a room. Exposure to more sounds, smells, insect and bird life is somewhat stimulating. However a large garden does not provide love or fun games.

Chewing

Chewing is a pleasurable activity for all dogs. Young dogs will chew anything, so providing them with better options than your furniture is essential. Anything harder than a raw bone can damage the teeth. Avoid hard plastic and woods and abrasive objects such as tennis balls that wear down the teeth. Tennis balls are fine for interactive play; just don’t leave them around to be chewed up. Raw Bones are the traditional favourite and large bones can be left for dogs to chew on through the day. If you have not yet offered your dog a raw bone, it is best to be present when you first introduce one to make sure that she chews the bone and does not swallow it whole.

Chew toys that contain food to enhance their appeal are a great way to keep your dog busy. Tough rubber toys such as ‘The Kong‘ and rawhide and rope chews are safe to leave with your dog.

Puppy with KongPuppy with a Kong

Food

Food can be fed in a bowl or it can be turned into a challenge for dogs to find or eke out. Hiding food around the house and garden is easy and well suited to dry kibble. Many toys such as the Buster Cube, and treat balls, incorporate a food challenge.

Interactive Toys

Interactive Toys are toys that you only take out for a play session and then return to the cupboard. Some are designed for self play and are most suitable for young inquisitive puppies and farm breeds with excessive energy. Tough rubber, rope and ball toys designed to be chased are also on the market.

Ideas for home-made toys:

  • Cardboard tubes (toilet paper rolls, glad wrap rolls) — containing treats or treats rolled in bread and stuffed in a tube.
  • Lolly scramble — scattering your dog’s regular food ration over the lawn or floor.
  • Piñata for dogs — Place a hole in the bottom of a milk bottle big enough for the treats to fall out of. Hang the plastic bottle from a tree branch. If your dog has not had a piñata before, hang it just above nose height and show him that by knocking the milk bottle around, the treats will fall out.
  • Doggy bag — Brown paper bag or newspaper wrapping scrunched up and containing dog biscuits.
  • Dog ice blocks — Dissolve Stock cube in hot water and freeze into dog bowls, ice cream containers, ice cube trays etc. Place in dog’s bowl to defrost slowly over the day. You can also add some chew treats into the mix.

Note: Food used in training routines and left hidden, inside a toy or given as a chew must be included in your nutritional plan for the day. Tasty treats are usually high in protein and fat and should be fed as very small pieces. The meat and marrow of a bone are high quality, calorie dense foods.

Puppy with KongDog with a Buster Cube

Digging

Digging is a common activity for young dogs and the scent breeds. They are also keen to help in the veggie patch and your feature flower gardens. Fencing off these areas is the only effective preventative. Setting up a digging pit can also be useful. This needs to be a designated area of freshly turned soil that you include in some of your games. Bury bones and toys to arouse interest. Digging under the fence is normal for adventurous dogs and can only be prevented with suitable barriers. This type of digging can also be associated with anxiety induced by being left alone all day.

Comfort toys

Comfort toys are very important for young dogs and anxiety prone pets that do not have the company of another animal. The Teddy Bear type toy is popular as are pillows and cushions, mats and blankets, and rags. Dogs are particularly comforted by the smell of their primary carers. Have you ever wondered why they have a predilection for shoes, socks and under garments?

Secure spot

A secure spot is a very useful addition to the home environment for young puppies and anxious dogs. Creating a special corner or small room, kennel or crate is very helpful. Small and snug, dim light and padded to limit sound is preferred. Add an old shirt that smells of you, a comfort toy, a chew toy or bone and their favourite mat and blanket to crawl under and your pet will feel much more content. If you believe your dog is suffering from any type of anxiety, please consult a Veterinary Behaviourist.

Overall

It is important to rotate the toys and activities each day to prevent your dog from becoming bored. It is also worth keeping a diary of what enrichment you have provided each day, and the state of your yard when you return home, to work out what strategies work best for your dog.

If during your six wakeful hours at home you take your dog for a walk, play fun games and engage in training games together, have a grooming and petting session while watching TV and generally hang out together, then your dog will be very happy.

For young puppies, all of the strategies are appropriate. For a well-balanced and mature dog, the enrichment strategies will be appreciated but are not essential. For an anxious dog, the comforting toys are critical. Dr Andrew DarganFor a hyperactive dog, interactive toys, rubber balls, chews and digging pits are very useful.

Dedicated to Dr Andrew Dargan 16/10/50 – 04/01/14

You are by far the best boss that I have ever had. You were a great mentor, a keen behaviourist, the maddest of scientists, and not to mention a wonderful Veterinarian. I would not be the trainer that I am today if it wasn’t for you. I am forever grateful!
Thank you.

Images: Top image of Moose by Matthew Degiorgio. Bernese Mountain Dog puppy from Berner Learner. Image of Puppy with Buster Cube from Dogdayz.

Michelle O'Brien

Michelle started her career at the age of 14 as an Animal Attendant and in her early 20’s became a Veterinary Nurse. Her dog training career started 12 years ago when she was offered the opportunity to run puppy preschool classes.

Michelle's training qualifications centre around positive reinforcement methods, being a Delta Canine Good Citizen Trainer and gaining a Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services. Michelle is also a member of the Delta Professional Dog Trainers Association.