Environmental enrichment for dogs left home alone

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Dogs have evolved with humans over hundreds of thousands of years.  And, as pack animals, it is not natural for a dog to be left home alone all day with no mental or physical stimulation, or to be kept exclusively outdoors with little family play time. Environmental enrichment is vital.

Of course it is not always possible to avoid leaving your dog at home alone all day and, unfortunately, 20% of Australian dogs still live exclusively outside.

So what can we do to help ensure these dogs receive the stimulation and exercise they need in order to keep them happy, healthy and to endeavour to prevent behaviour problems such as separation anxiety, barking, destructive chewing, digging and more?

Whilst different dogs require various levels of exercise, ALL dogs require a degree of physical and mental stimulation.   A bored/frustrated dog is much more likely to suffer from problem behaviours, so if we do not supply our dogs with adequate stimulation, then they will look for it within their environment.

For dogs that are kept exclusively outdoors, if there is no way they can be allowed inside to join the family at least some of the time (where they absolutely want to be with their pack/owner), then it is imperative that their family/owner spends a lot of time outside playing interactive games with them, and spending time in their ‘home’ so they don’t feel excluded from their pack, distressed and lonely.

Depending on how your dog likes to play, this might be a morning and evening game of ball, frisbee or tug of war.  Aussie Dog Products have some great toy options for interactive play that are non-toxic and durable.

Whilst you are at work, or if they are left alone for long periods, both indoor and outdoor dogs should be left with ‘home alone’ toys that require problem solving and /or effort (ie: slow release treat dispensing toys), as this provides dogs with both the mental and physical stimulation and exercise they require.

When dealing with many common behaviour problems in dogs, ‘environmental enrichment’ is key to providing the stimulation or exercise that they are missing.

What is ‘Environmental Enrichment’

Exercise: Ensure that your dog receives DAILY exercise appropriate to its breed age and temperament. For the large majority of adult dogs this means AT LEAST a 30 minute walk a day, whilst active breeds require much more. 

Interactive Toys: When it comes to toys, they need to be interactive and designed to mentally and physically stimulate them and be alternated each day or two. They need to be shown how to use them and leaving lots of non-interactive toys or balls around is of no use, especially if no one is at the end of the toy to play a game of tug or throw ball with them.

Aussie Dog Products have some great toy options for interactive play that are non-toxic and durable. You can feed them their daily meal or treats this way, so they can spend their time working out how to get their food, like they would in the wild.  Another good one is to freeze meat into a KONG Wobbler and leaving it with them when you go to work or out.  It can provide hours of mental stimulation for a dog.

You can even throw their kibble around the yard so they spend time having to search for it.

Raw meaty bones: These should be appropriate for the size of dog and will help keep them occupied during the day.

A sandpit for digging dogs:  If your dog tends to dig, and you’ve tried everything else, you can use a sandpit to divert the digging to a designated area and bury treats or toys to encourage them here.

Human contact: Dogs need human companionship. They’re pack animals and are not designed to be left alone all day or out in the backyard with little interaction with their family.   The company of another pet is not always enough either. A dog walker is a great option for people who don’t have the time or are at work all day.

Family Playtime: If your dog is one of the 20% left exclusively outdoors, it is vital that the owner/family spends goes outside to spend time with the dog as often as possible throughout the day/evening. For either dogs left outside exclusively, or even if just when you are out or at work, playing games requiring exercise in between are great; tug of war, fetching balls, frisbee etc. Ideally though, it is important to let your dog inside with you as regularly as possible as to them you are their pack, their family, so they actually need to be with you.

Trips/activities outside of home: Dogs are social animals and love to get outside of their home environment to help keep them stimulated.  Take them with you and walk to the shops, it gets you and them fit, or even if you travel to the shops and other places but aren’t getting out, then take them in the car with you so they can still see and smell the world around them,  visit family/friends, take them to the park, doggy day care is also an awesome exercise to keep your dog physically and mentally stimulated when you are at work.

Obedience training: Short daily bouts of obedience training will also help as it gives a dog something to think about and develops great owner leadership and bonding with your dog. It also provides additional physical and mental exercise.

Get the help of a dog trainer

If your dog is still experiencing behaviour problems that the above environmental enrichment solutions don’t seem to relieve then then seek the assistance of an experienced trainer to help you and your dog find the right balance and happiness you BOTH deserve.

About the Author:  Lara Shannon is a certified dog behaviourist and trainer, pet food nutrition specialist, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of World of Dogs and Eat, Play, Love Your Dog

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