Ask A Vet: Tips on Keeping a Dog Occupied While You're Away at Work

Ask A Vet: Tips on Keeping a Dog Occupied While You're Away at Work

Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!

Q: What's the best way to keep my pooch occupied and calm when I go to work?

A: Many owners are at their wits end, and who wouldn’t be? Nuisance behaviors—jumping, stealing things, trash diving, charging through the door all the other things dogs do to entertain themselves or to get our attention will drive us crazy— they can be frustrating and can decrease the enjoyment of a happy life with a dog.

Solution: Have realistic expectations. How long can a dog be left alone? This depends on age, breed and temperament. Typically, 4-6 hours is feasible for most adult dogs – puppies should be taken out every 2-4 hours.

Know what motivates your dog. Is it food? Is it toys? Is it his bed? Make sure your dog has places for both play and rest.

Set your dog up for success. Before leaving your dog home alone for any period of time, always make sure he is sufficiently exercised and has relieved himself outside. Then, provide him with the tools to express himself appropriately.

Physical and Mental Stimulation

Not only is physical exercise fundamental to good health, lack of activity can lead to nuisance behaviors. The majority of dogs were bred with a working purpose in mind – and when I say most breeds, I really mean most breeds, not just hounds and sheep dogs. Your terrier has just as strong a drive to do his “job.” Tired dogs chew less, bark less, sleep more, and are more likely to relax when home alone.

If your dog rearranges your home while you are gone, he is making his own game to keep himself occupied. This means that you may not be giving him appropriate outlets for his mental exercise. Much as people turn to crossword puzzles, books, chess games, and other brain-vitalizing activities for the fun of mental gymnastics, dogs need to solve doggie problems.

Importantly, dogs are meant to work for their food. In the wild, nobody just handed them a bowl of kibble. Dogs are natural hunters and problem solvers, so the closer we can mimic this process, the less trouble a dog is likely to get into. Serving all the dog’s meals in a stuffed Kong or treat ball, in a food-dispensing device, or through a game such as hide-and-seek or busy box toys can relieve many nuisance behaviors. By feeding your dog in bowl you missing out on a great enrichment opportunity.  We’ve found some great puzzle feeders at Pet Food Express. They have a large selection and are bound to have ones of varying diffuculty that will stupify your dog (only at first – you will want to change out puzzle toys from time to time to keep your dog entertained. Consider a puzzle toy exchange with your friends or at your dog park to keep everyone’s dogs bewildered!).

A good daily workout and, if the dog is social, regular play sessions with other dogs, are essential to any dog’s health and happiness. So is time spent interacting with his owner, whether that’s playing hide-and-seek in the yard or coming along to the office. If that is not an option consider hiring a dog walkers or find a neighbor that stays home and would like some company, doggy day care or a companion dog.

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