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Garden Chaos or Controlled Activity

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

Last week I asked our readers what topics they wanted to hear about. Our lovely Heather Osbourne asked for some tips on how to keep dogs busy during the day while owners are at work. What a great topic!

In our industry we call this Environmental Enrichment. This is a program aimed to promote, maintain, and maximise health and well-being. (McMillan, F, p969, 2002). Enriching is a form of exposure to a sufficiently stimulating environment (Fox and Spencer, 1996; Fox, 1971a) during various stages of an animal’s life. So as owners you can see why this is a particularly important aspect for any animal, not just your dogs. Remember a 10 hour busy work day will pass quickly for you but for your pet dog at home that is a very long time frame.

When dogs are left alone for long periods they can become, bored, lonely, frustrated or even stressed, often these internal emotions manifest themselves into unwanted behaviours developing. (Behaviours that us humans don't particularly like but are usually normal for our dogs). We often see, digging, chewing, barking, pacing or escaping just to name a few!

Most of the time this is just a dogs' way of entertaining themselves, passing the time or looking for companionship. However, on some occasions it might be because they just doesn't cope with being alone. For the latter you will definitely need to seek professional advice as these dogs ma well require medical intervention as well as behaviour modification. However, even other dogs who have developed unwanted skills, often require additional training as these skills are now 'learnt' and quite often have become a habit. Therefore they require firstly, management as well as re-education. Just providing them with enrichment may not resolve any issues.

Anyway lets have a look at some ideas;

Novel forms of feeding

Providing your dog with a variety of activities to obtain his food will not only make his feeding routines longer it will provide mental stimulation and help develop problem solving skills.

We tend to recommend treat dispensing toys as a first choice as a study conducted by Urska Kos, (2005) on dogs revealed, dogs showed a higher preference towards food than other types of enrichment. This type of enrichment is therefore not only novel but an efficient way to address boredom. Once a dog becomes accustomed to this type of feeding regime the task of obtaining food can be made more difficult for the dog, therefore providing stimulation for longer.

This is my own dog enjoying her Kong Wobbler.

There are many treat dispensing toys on the market and one of my favorites is the Foobler. This amazing item has six treat chambers and can be set on a timer. Using a conditioning process your dog learns that when a bell rings, food is available. He will roll the ball around to empty the first chamber. When the ball stops delivering the treats your dog will go off and rest. After 15, 30, 60 or 90 minutes the bell rings again (depending on what settings you have added) and so he can continue to interact with the Foobler keeping him busy a second, third, forth, fifth and sixth time. You can therefore maintain some intermittent enrichment throughout the day. How great is that?!

Here is a short list of some of the other items that I find particularly useful as a treat dispensers.

Always check when you are purchasing toys for your dog that they are suitable for the breed, size and history of your dog's level of chewing.

Treat dispensing toys don't have to be expensive. Some dog's may destroy soft toys so those types of toys would be less than ideal for them. However, if your dog doesn't ingest items and loves to destroy things then let him. Make your own toys out of cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, old t-shirts and so on. You can place treats in all of these and hide them around the garden. You can provide a sandpit for your dog to dig in to find treats. Toss your dog's meal on the grass and let him forage for his meals rather than just using a bowl. Some breeds will spend 20 minutes eating then another 20 minutes checking they haven't missed any!

There are many home made games/items that you can provide your dog with, one is the Muffin Tin. By placing treats under tennis balls he has to remove the balls first to get to the treats.

Picture taken from Pet Place

Click on the link to see how the game works.

You can use something as simple as a container filled with plastic balls to encourage your dog to seek the treats out. Just make sure your dog isn't one that will destroy and ingest the balls.

This is Tommie, one of my dogs. He was afraid of this game to begin with but food is a wonderful motivator. Therefore, not only did it enrich his day, it helped to build confidence as well as firing up those brain cells.

Here we have a Slo-Bowl which can be made really difficult for dogs to get their food from with some good imagination. You can freeze them, then place them inside a box and so on.


As most people are aware dogs investigate their environment with their noses and their sense of smell is somewhat better than ours.

Studies have shown that different smells can assist dogs with different behaviour. Lavender and chamomile has a calming affect on dogs and may possibly reduce barking (vocalising). Coconut, Ginger and Valerian helped with sleep as well as reducing stress. For a more detailed review on these studies click here

This type of sensory stimulation can be applied by the use of a spray bottle with water and a small drop of the scent you wish to use. (Ensure it's not too strong as our dog's noses are very sensitive) You can try a different scent each day, spraying it on some strategically placed fabric or just around the garden in general.

Snuffle Mats are also not only a good scent game but a foraging toy too. They help with calming, relaxation, keep your dog interactive and busy and are lots of fun for your dog.

Auditory Stimulation

We can also utilise our dog's hearing. They often enjoy listening to music playing in the background such as soft, classical music which often promotes calming behaviours in dogs.

Human companionship

Providing your dog with human interaction during the day, such as a neighbour popping in, a dog walker or maybe you can just pop home for lunch. This just helps to break up their day. Any type of interaction with a person during the day is enriching their day and should be considered if you work long hours.

Companionship of con-specifics

We don't recommend you rush out and buy another dog, but there are ways you can provide your dog with opportunities to socialise with his own kind. You can take turns with a friend who also has a lone dog and leave your dog there and vice versa when you are at work. Obviously they need to get along well to spend the day together.

The downfalls of this is if they are both very excitable then no one will be able to interrupt play and reduce arousal levels so they could end up becoming extremely hyped up and learn rough play.

Would you like to purchase some of these products then click here


Fox, M. W. (1971a) – Integrative development of brain and behaviour in the dog. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. In: In: Serpell, J (Ed.) - The Domestic Dog. Cambridge University Press, p184

Fox, M. W and Spencer, J. W (1996) – Exploratory behaviour in the dog: experimental or age dependent. Developmental Psychobiology, 2, 68-74; In: In: Serpell, J (Ed.) - The Domestic Dog. Cambridge University Press, p184

McMillan, F (2002) – Development of a mental wellness program for animals: JAVMA, Vol 220, No. 7 April 1, 2002. Pp.965-972

Urska Kos, (2005) - Do Dog Show Preferences for certain types of environmental enrichments - Vol 2 ISAH 2005 - Warsaw, Poland

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