There is so much emphasis these days on ensuring your dog has plenty of stimulation, there is a bigger focus on enrichment activities, on making sure your dog isn’t bored, and providing plenty of activities. But where do you draw the line?
There is no question that all these things are important, but as with anything, there is a balance. If we focus too much on keeping our dogs busy and stimulated, there’s a risk that we don’t give them enough space to actually rest and perhaps even be a bit bored at times. Is it really as bad as we think for our dogs to have some moments where they might be bored?
A lot of dog owners feel guilty about feeling like they don’t do enough with their dogs, when actually some of the happiest dogs are the ones who spend a good portion of their day on their own while their owners are working. Of course this isn’t right for all dogs, but the mentality that we need to be constantly stimulating our dogs and never leaving them on their own isn’t always necessary.
Each dog is different, you can’t follow a set of rules just because that’s what everyone around you does or because that’s what you’ve read about. If your dog is happy to spend time on their own, you shouldn’t feel bad about that, it’s an important skill for a dog to learn to do nothing.
Obviously that doesn’t mean you stop doing anything with your dog, but you need a realistic balance between stimulation and relaxation. If you start this with your puppy from a young age, it makes life much easier as they mature and develop. For older dogs it can be more of a shock when they have to learn to do nothing and this is where you may see more attention seeking behaviours as they find the change more of a challenge.
Start them young
Prevention is better than cure. If you can teach your puppy to switch off from day one, you stand a much better chance at having a dog who carries this skill through their life. So many people avoid leaving their puppies, they like to be with them all the time and make sure they’re okay all the time, but this only creates bigger problems later on.
It’s important to build up alone time carefully, but equally important to start it early so it doesn’t become a big event.
Even when you’re with your dog, you don’t want them to expect to be centre of attention all the time, it’s not practical and it’s essential they can do nothing when you’re around too. Dogs learn what works so you have to show them how to choose the most appropriate behaviours
- Don’t just let them loose and see what happens, give them access to one room or area first, somewhere free of potential mistakes, like chewing valuable items or stealing socks.
- Make the area safe, where opportunities for mistakes are limited, and where there are plenty of good choices.
- Provide suitable chew toys, safe items to explore, and a place to relax.
- When your puppy has a safe space and can’t make mistakes, you can leave them for appropriate durations and allow them time to enjoy their own company. Don’t push it too far too soon, keep to durations where they remain happy and relaxed.
- Your puppy may spend time sleeping, chewing their toys, or even just sitting quietly and looking around, as long as they’re relaxed, it’s okay for them to choose what they do!
Gradually you can add in new areas or allow more freedom but keep up your management to avoid mistakes. Don’t start leaving tempting items out too soon, and if your puppy does start to steal items or get up to mischief, you can go back a step and manage their space more carefully again. This is likely something you will have to do throughout puppyhood and adolescence.
Micromanagement should enable you to teach your puppy to spend time on their own and not need to have your constant attention or stimulation. They can learn to entertain themselves in appropriate way (e.g. chewing their toys or happily watching the household around them), allowing you to carry on without always entertaining the puppy.
Your feedback is important though, you can’t always leave your puppy to entertain themselves, you still need to reinforce those good choices and tell them when they’re doing the right thing! If you never give your puppy any attention for the good behaviours, they will soon work out other ways to get your attention, and usually that involves something you can’t ignore … like barking, chewing your furniture or stealing things! Your dog won’t discover those unwanted behaviours if you focus on reinforcing behaviours you like and providing outlets for their needs.
When they’re young, and likely through adolescence, your dog will need more feedback and reinforcement to acknowledge good behaviours and ensure they continue to make good choices.
When the problems start
If you haven’t spent the early days managing your puppy’s environment, when you do then put management in place, your dog is more likely to struggle with the change. This is where you may see more attention seeking as they find it hard to adjust to the new ‘rules’.
It’s not unusual for dogs to seek out the behaviours which are most likely to gain our attention, and if those behaviours stop working, or aren’t accessible, then your dog will try harder to find alternatives. For example, if you decide your dogs’ stealing behaviour is becoming annoying so you put them in a crate to stop them having access to things, they may start barking out of frustration or stress from the sudden change.
Leaving these types of problem behaviours until they become unmanageable, just makes it harder to overcome later on. It can become a battle to stop attention seeking and one which often requires a lot of dedication and consistency. You have to be able to give your dog appropriate outlets and activities, while also reinforce them and give attention at the right times. Ignoring attention seeking behaviours is rarely an effective solution, it has to be a small part of a much bigger plan.
The appropriate reinforcement
We are always looking to reward our dogs for good choices, we want to avoid them practicing unwanted behaviours and make sure we focus on the good rather than the bad. However, if we don’t reinforce thoughtfully, we can end up in a situation where it’s hard to get our dogs to fully switch off from us.
This is especially relevant when we’re working on reinforcing calm, settled behaviours. Many dog owners will find their dog settles perfectly in certain spaces, for example, a crate, a pen, or specific room, but outside of this, they are restless or constantly seeking attention. Teaching your dog to settle in more areas and situations means reinforcing calm behaviours and managing them to avoid the unwanted ones. Your timing and type of reinforcement is key to teaching your dog to settle effectively:
- Keep random reward schedules. If your dog expects a treat every 10 seconds, they are likely to act accordingly, perhaps barking if the treat hasn’t been given, jumping at you or mouthing you. Reward flexibly so they don’t become frustrated when it doesn’t happen quickly enough
- Reward for settled choices. Don’t reward as soon as you ask your dog to lie down, wait for them to show some sign of relaxing first. Initially your rewards may be more frequent, but aim to quickly move onto mixed durations and more settled behaviours
- Use verbal praise. This is so often neglected, food rewards don’t have to be everything, we can use verbal praise to reinforce in between food rewards … most dogs love hearing they’re being good or being smiled at! Just keep it calm and neutral so your dog doesn’t get excited by it
- Be clear and consistent. If your dog keeps getting up, make sure you keep putting him back and then think about your reinforcement to help him relax for longer
- Don’t make a big fuss. If every time your dog gets up, you make a big drama about asking him to go to his bed, it becomes a more reinforcing event for him. Instead have a lead on him so you can take him back to his bed with minimal fuss, or just give him a moment to see what he chooses, he may choose to lie somewhere else or have a little sniff around before settling down.
You have to give your dog some time too. There is a balance in management, if you constantly fuss over your dog or react to their behaviours, it makes it harder for them to make their own choices. Some dogs won’t be ready to make good choices, but for others, they will be at a stage where you can give them more time and space, wait for a good choice and then reinforce them.
For dogs who have learnt since puppyhood, to enjoy their own space and make good choices, you can quickly move on from frequent rewards and strict management, these dogs are in a better place to make their own choices and need less specific feedback. Likewise, if you’ve been working on calm behaviours for a while, you will reach the point where you have to step back the reinforcement and management and see how your dog copes. If you spend too long in the high levels of rewards stage, you make it harder to move onto the next step because your dogs’ expectations will be higher and therefore they will experience more frustration when the rewards stop.
As with anything involving rewards, you can’t go cold-turkey, that creates such high levels of frustration or leads to your dog losing all interest. But the aim should always be to move onto random, less frequent food rewards, mixed in with calm verbal praise. Not forgetting management where needed and appropriate outlets for your dog’s needs.
More stimulation or better direction?
If you feel you have met all your dogs needs, and he still won’t settle, there comes a point where you may simply need to give your dog more direction. Rather than feeling like you need to give your dog yet another activity, maybe it’s time you were a bit clearer and firmer with your dog. That doesn’t mean you shout at him to lie down or you scare him into a ball in the corner, but sometimes people seem hesitant to simply tell their dogs to just do nothing.
This isn’t appropriate if you know you haven’t met your dogs needs. If he desperately needs some exercise or some stimulation, that’s a different story. But you will know when your dog has had a good level of stimulation and he needs to accept it’s time to chill out. You also know what you’re prepared to offer your dog, if you can’t exercise him for hours every day, that’s okay, but provide him with some activities and then show him that it’s time to settle.
For some dogs, they just need that bit of direction, they can relax better if they receive a bit of guidance from you. Some dogs get into the habit of pacing around or restlessly looking for something to do, but if you can calmly tell them to lie down, that bit of direction is all they need to realise they can relax, and actually relaxing is relaxing … calmness feeds calmness!