Time at home with our dogs has recently increased for many, and hopefully we all agree that it has been a valuable opportunity to get to know one another, build relationships, and a great reminder of why it is we have pets in the first place. Dogs are great company after all, get us active, socialising and engaging more with our communities, provide us with a sense of purpose and even physical benefits like lower blood pressure has been associated with pet ownership. When we’re in a situation where there’s a heap of ‘indoor’ time together though, occupying our pets can become a challenge, particularly when we’re balancing other time-consuming tasks.
It’s worth remembering that dogs are what we call social obligates, meaning that they love spending time with their human(s). They see contact with us as something of great value, so let’s be sure not to deny them of it (which can cause frustration or anxiety), and engage in some fun activities to keep both their minds and bodies healthy.
With all this time together we may also have uncovered some behavioural issues or bad habits which we would rather didn’t happen. Engaging your dog in some of the interactions below will keep them on the right track and help address these issues too.
- Simply, have a cuddle: It might not need to be said for some (those who don’t mind their dog on the bed or sofa), or may sound weird for others (if you’re in a rural setting or have a working dog, for example), but the therapy of touch is well known, for both you and your dog. Taking some time from your day to have a pat and simply sit calmly with one another is priceless and puts the world into perspective. Our dogs ‘live in the now’ reality is a great press of the ‘reset button’, particularly when working from home and other stresses are upon you.
- Groom: Similar to the above, a good brush, nail-trim, shampoo or even haircut acclimatises you to each-other’s presence and can become a big part of your quality time together. If your dog is stressed by vigorous brushing, stripping a thick coat, taking a bath or nail-clipping, take one thing at a time and slowly train them into familiarity with the grooming process. When done well, it keeps their skin and coat healthy, and can be a very positive experience for your dog.
- Teach them a trick or two… or three: It’s never too late to learn something new, and every moment you are with your dog is a training opportunity. When training, it’s always handy to go back-to-basics and remind yourself of what’s called ‘operant conditioning’. We all learn though association and your dog’s behaviour can be modified by clearly showing them the consequences of their actions: the ‘this equals that!’ theory. While some may reach for the stick (punishment when things are done ‘wrong’), it’s very well recognised that lasting and stress-free learning comes from positive reinforcement of ‘good’ behaviour. Use treats and praise within 2-3 seconds of a desired act when reinforcing outcomes (like a ‘sit’, or ‘heel’ or ‘shake’). Training sessions come in handy when it comes to tweaking ‘problem’ behaviours, and the activity process reinforces that you’re taking a guiding role in your dog’s development and provides them with lots of mental stimulation.
- Do a ‘scavenger’ hunt: These are great if you’re looking for a less time-consuming activity for you, and to burn up a bit of their energy while enriching their environment. Find something that your dog finds irresistible like treats (beware not too many, given their calorie content), kibble from their daily meal allowance or favourite toys, and hide them throughout the house. Many set up a hunt for occupying their dog while out of the house, but be sure that they understand what’s going on and start with a supervised session, and rewards in more obvious hiding spots before moving to complex, tricky challenges
- Engage in activity feeding: A variation on the above which can involve some hide-and-seek elements too, some dog owners choose to ‘ban the bowl’ entirely and feed their pets only by means of food toys or activity stations. Clear drink bottles with holes cut out of them or kitchen towel and toilet rolls can be easily fashioned into kibble-dispensers. Plus, there are a number of commercially made devices and toys of various complexities which reward them with a morsel of food after cracking a code, rolling a ball in the right direction or opening a door. They’re a great way to pass the time.
- Toys, toys, toys! These can be a great stimulant for the idle mind and great way to expend energy. Toys like tug-ropes which incorporate interaction with a human will help reinforce your relationship, and those for solo-play like chew bones and softer teddy bears can be both a comfort and calming agent. Let’s remember that chewing is a natural behaviour for dogs and can help dissipate stress in their lives. Finding the toys that they like best is a fun game of trial-and-error itself, and it’s often advised that you rotate toys, making them available only for an allotted time before hiding them away or rotating them out for others, so your dog finds them novel when they’re available.
- Indoor (dog) Olympics: Combining all the above and more, this is a great activity to get the kids, your family, housemates or friends with dogs involved in. Big outdoor agility courses are fine if you’re living on acreage, but with a bit of creativity these things can be done in your living room and through the house. Once your home is dog-proofed, tunnels, zig-zag and leg-weave courses, find-the-treat stations, seek-the-squeak challenges, fetching, jumps and roll-overs will get them thinking in overtime, and incorporate some of your training too. Do the course a few times throughout the day and see if you can improve in time over repeat performances.
- Desensitise them to ‘stressors’: this can be a particularly important practise, to address stressful situations and avoid anxiety and associated behavioural issues in the long-term. If you find your dog is sensitive to something that’s happening in their environment (loud noises, storms, new people, other dogs or pets, you leaving the house, for example), you can gently teach them that these things are okay, not a threat and part of everyday life. This is about gradual exposure, and positive reinforcement (as mentioned in point 3). Introduce mild versions of the stimulus that causes them the issue, not to the point of inciting lots of stress, but allowing the ‘irritant’ to be noticed. Provide them with something positive like a treat or praise for remaining calm during this time, and they’ll come to the realisation that these occurrences can happen in normal life without negative consequences.
- Build a nest… and use it: Most will know that dogs need somewhere in their environment to unravel. We often call this a nest, refer to a ‘quiet corner’ and it’s the role that a crate takes, particularly in puppyhood. Having a safe place to retreat too just the same as we have our bedrooms is important to allow them to step off an ‘emotional rollercoaster’ should they see fit. Ensure that your dog isn’t disturbed when they seek out this place, and creating a space with physical barriers to others, cosy bedding and familiar smells will help.
There is a plethora of indoor activities we can undertake with our dogs, many of which you’re likely already undertaking in one form or another. Let’s remind ourselves that these are great opportunities to bond with our four-legged friends. Indoors or out, they will always appreciate any time and effort we take to remind each other of how good life is when you have the company of a pet.