Keep Dogs Busy: Why, How Much, And With What?

Keep Dogs Busy: Why, How Much, And With What?

Dogs are intelligent and highly social creatures.

They can solve problems and make friends. You have opinions and preferences. And they are obviously capable of learning and remembering.

The right level of activity will help keep dogs happy and balanced. It is often misunderstood what constitutes good employment from a dog’s point of view.

Because employment does not mean that dogs need a 24/7 animation program with us as lead dancers.

Here I will show you what is important when it comes to the physical and mental workload of the dog.

What is meant by the utilization and occupation of the dog?

Words like “utilization” and “employment” are often interpreted too literally.

Many think that it is about the dog being actively involved with a certain thing (toys, training, movement…) until he is so tired or overworked that he no longer does nonsense at home.

When it comes to employment, however, it is not at all about forcing the dog to engage in indiscriminate fun leisure activities in order to relieve our own guilty conscience.

In the English-speaking world, the word ” enrichment ” is used in the context of dog fun. That’s more to the point: It’s about filling the dog’s everyday life with options that are interesting for him.

Dog-friendly activity is about giving the dog opportunities to develop and live out things in a way that it cannot do at any time in normal everyday life.

It is one of a dog’s basic needs that we give it the appropriate opportunity to exercise its natural behavior.

Natural behaviors include simple things like running, hunting, digging, sleeping late, defending the property, sniffing for food, foraging for food, sniffing other dogs behind, or rolling in carrion grass.

Employment should therefore, among other things, enable species-appropriate behavior.

Most dogs are already happy and content with their normal everyday life. If they get enough walks and a goodie or a little attention here and there, they don’t miss anything.

That certainly also depends on whether you were honest with yourself and chose the right type of dog for your lifestyle.

Because some dogs are actually overwhelmed or underwhelmed with their everyday life, frustrated, dissatisfied, or suffer from chronic stress or chronic boredom.

Depending on what the dog is missing, the type of activity can be used to integrate situations into the dog’s everyday life in which he has to use his brain, can relax better, or release pent-up energy.

Excitement is part of a dog’s life and wild, exuberant play is just plain fun. It is more about the long-term everyday life of the dog.

It is always important to find the right means and the right amount of activity for your own dog. What works for one dog may not be right for all dogs.

Good activity should make our dogs happy and enrich their everyday life. Positive experiences lead to positive feelings in the dog. If the dog is beaming from ear to ear, then we’ve done a good job.

Signs of improper utilization: boredom and hyperactivity

Our life demands a lot from dogs.

Not every dog ​​copes equally well with visits to excursion restaurants, car rides, or city life with its thousand (unpleasant) smells.

Many dogs are constantly aroused by too much stimulation and action.

On the other hand, there is a lack of opportunities to keep the gray matter busy. We rarely play or exercise with our adult dogs. And when we find the time, we rarely try something new.

A dog that lacks certain opportunities to live out or relax in everyday life can have a psychological impact. In extreme cases, this will sooner or later become visible in his behavior.

If the dog shows conspicuous behavior, these are not always correctly interpreted. Because many of the following behaviors are not just signs of boredom and frustration, but can also indicate that you are overwhelmed and overstimulated with no opportunity to relax :

  • Neurotic behavior, anxiety, and phobias
  • Low psychological resistance, slowly recovers from stressful situations
  • Fidgety Dog Syndrome, unable to concentrate
  • Hyperactivity, never resting, always on the move
  • Prolonged barking for no real reason
  • Demanding behavior such as pawing, laying head, crying
  • Climbing behavior, you could miss something
  • Impulsive behavior, quickly “running out of one’s fur”
  • Irritated behavior, little patience with other dogs, for example
  • Run away, don’t listen anymore, and look for your own adventures
  • Running back and forth hyper (“zoomies”, “having his 5 minutes”)
  • Lick things, suckle, and nibble
  • Excessive personal hygieneacral lick dermatitis
  • Frenetic digging (not only outside, but also in upholstered furniture)
  • Bad habits (picking wallpaper, chewing shoes, clearing out the garbage…)
  • Stereotypies, compulsive behavior, OCD, i.e. repeated behavior without a function, e.g. chasing lights, snapping at invisible flies, turning in circles
  • Listlessness, depression, sadness

Not all of these behaviors are directly related to the dog’s leisure activities.

Psychological problems can also be the result of neurological diseases, “a difficult childhood” or too harsh training methods.

Of course, there is no reason to worry if the family dog ​​briefly shows one or the other of these behaviors.

As long as the same behavior does not occur regularly and the dog can stop it on its own, everything is fine.

Every dog ​​has an exciting day. Young dogs in particular often sparkle with energy and tend to behave impulsively.

And all dogs sometimes bark, ask for attention, sometimes chase their own rod in the game, sometimes get “their 5 minutes” or sometimes do nonsense.

Excitement is often misinterpreted as joy

Unfortunately, some of these signs are misinterpreted by many people as “he’s really energetic ” or “he’s having fun”.

A dog that is out and about from morning to night with wide-open eyes, wagging its wings like a maniac, carrying its toys around and frantically looking for the next action is rarely a happy dog.

But someone who is completely overwhelmed has never learned to relax or simply does not get the opportunity to do so.

It sometimes takes a bit of intuition or an expert opinion to distinguish fun and joie de vivre from the frenetic frenzy.

Stress-relieving behavior can be addictive

Just think of the extreme cases, i.e. all the kennel dogs or dogs that sit in small folding boxes for far too long without being spoken to. Or vegetate in tethered housing alone in allotment gardens. Unfortunately, there is also something like that in Germany.

The problem is that many of the above activities feel good for the dog. Behaviors such as licking your own paws or pacing up and down have a distracting, self-soothing, and thus self-rewarding effect.

And what feels good can make even sensible people addicted. These are sort of the canine equivalents of alcoholism and nail-biting.

Dogs that are kept in extremely low-stimulus conditions suffer physically from a lack of stimulation and social contact.

When a dog is consistently not given a way to regulate their energy and emotions in a healthy way, tension-relieving behavior can sometimes turn into OCD.

From this point on, the dog can only be rehabilitated and saved from this spiral with long-term professional behavioral therapy and possibly medication.

More action is not a cure for dogs with behavioral problems!

Appropriate activity should prevent the dog from experiencing emotional states that permanently overwhelm him and are reflected in his behavior.

Good activity can ensure that an improperly exercised dog returns to normal. Incorrect activity can also aggravate the situation for the dog.

Employment is designed to meet a dog’s individual needs

Every dog ​​is an individual with their own character, talents, and preferences.

No matter how we spend our free time with our dogs, not all dogs react equally to the same offer. Otherwise, there would be no dog breeds and personalities. Otherwise, it would be boring.

Not every dog ​​enjoys it when we drag it to the dog park, to dog playgroups, or to errands. That’s when other dogs really blossom.

It’s up to us to find out what really gives our dog joy in life and where the good middle ground lies between a varied life and enough rest periods.

Dogs need time to lie around lazily

Before we think about the right activity for our own dog, we should check whether it has enough time to process exciting experiences at all.

Idleness is many dogs’ favorite pastime!

Dogs need a lot of sleep. An adult dog should have around 12-14 hours of rest, sleep, and dream time per day. With young puppies, it is even around 18 hours.

And most of the waking hours are spent dozing and lounging.

Involved in our hectic lifestyle from a dog’s point of view and the compulsion that every dog ​​needs one or more hobbies, we often do too much with our dogs. I also highly recommend the article by veterinarian Ralph Rückert on the subject: With the best of intentions or is it too much?

Employment should drive away boredom

The old age of the dog, joint diseases, moving to a city apartment without a garden, bad weather, dark winter days, and convalescence after injuries are all reasons to keep the dog under house arrest for longer than he would like.

And some days you just don’t have time for long walks.

If he was used to more variety, then of course he lacks that.

Before the dog gets mad due to a lack of exercise and activity, it is important to stimulate it accordingly.

Here you can provide variety through social interaction and small gifts in between, short indoor training units, and new toys.

And even if you don’t want the dog to move or get excited, you can give it new impressions by offering it new foods or simply bringing nature inside and bringing it something to sniff from outside.

Employment should help to stay alone

If you work and the dog is at home alone a lot, he probably sleeps a lot during this time. Here you should rather focus on keeping the dog busy before and after being alone through walks and interaction.

It certainly doesn’t hurt, for example, to offer him chew toys and turn on soft background music.

Just for fun, it’s worth setting up a camera to see what the dog does in your absence and to plan activities accordingly.

Does he touch the things offered at all? What does he particularly like?

If the dog experiences separation anxiety and howls while you’re away, no toy on earth will distract it. Only management and training can help here.

Whether you take your dog to doggy daycare during the day does not only depend on your own financial situation. You should spend a lot of time researching a good offer.

Very few dogs feel comfortable when they are thrown into a randomly mixed-up group of 20 strange dogs and there is turmoil all day long. And I think you have to trust a stranger a lot to put your dog in their care.

I find it better to leave the dog with a private dog sitter or hire a walker.

Here the composition of the dog groups is often more constant and smaller, which allows for rest periods and breaks. This in turn makes the situation more manageable and relaxed.

If a person in your family or circle of friends who is inexperienced with dogs is supposed to look after your dog, it can be helpful to give them a few activities and chews.

This prevents the dog from looking for its own activities and the caregiver not knowing how to react or conflict situations with the dog.

Employment should burn energy

Exercise is the best remedy for pent-up energy. Daily walks are a must in dog ownership!

After all, it was precisely for this reason that quite a few dogs were bought in the first place: Because then you have a reason to go out into nature and exercise yourself.

How much walking is “right” depends on the dog. Young, active dogs want more than old and unhealthy dogs.

A dog that is free to roam a large plot needs fewer trips than a dog that lives in a city apartment.

And a dog that is allowed to run free will cover more distance during the walk than one that is on a leash.

A healthy dog ​​should spend at least 1-3 hours a day outside, divided into several walks.

In a 2019 survey of households with and without a dog in Liverpool, UK, scientists found that dog owners spend an average of around 250 minutes a week exercising much more than non-dog owners ( sources: Westgarth et. al. 2019).

Yes, evenly distributed over the days of the week, that means a ridiculous 35 minutes of daily exercise with the dog. And still more than non-dog owners! Wow…

But it’s not just about being outside. Every fit dog should be given a regular opportunity to sniff to their heart’s content without being able to run off a leash and roll in the grass.

Some dogs take exercise outside very seriously and would chase after any rabbit without a leash. Until the retrieval training is not also distracted (and with some dogs, this is never reliable), the delinquent must be on a leash!

Dogs that are permanently on a leash should be given a well-fitting harness. This allows freer movement, in which the dog can sometimes pull moderately following a scent trail without choking off its air.

And it’s simply the safer option to walk the dog on a leash that’s as long as possible to give it a bit of freedom.

Very important: Let the dog sniff around at his own pace. Outside time is his time, not yours! Otherwise, you tend to pull the dog with you all the time because you want to go for a walk yourself. This is highly frustrating for leashed dogs.

Other ways to encourage the dog to exercise include catching and running games with the dog, intelligent dummy and fetch games (throw games only in moderation!), playing with other dogs (if your own dog likes it), and of course training and dog sports.

But watch out: It’s easy to overdo it and train your dog up to the point where he demands his daily exercise routine and becomes unpalatable when you’re sick.

Employment is designed to reduce stress

This is a very important point: activity should help the dog to relax in the long term and not scratch it up and cause additional stress!

In everyday life, impulsive and reactive dogs in particular have plenty of situations in which they get upset about something.

And sometimes the stressors are self-made, too, because you’ve turned the dog up a lot during training or a game, or you’ve taken him to a dog event or an exciting outing.

Especially during and after exciting experiences, excited dogs should be given an opportunity for “mental decompression” to calm them down again.

The classics are chewing snacks and food toys where the dog has to work for a long time. This has a calming effect on many dogs.

But cuddling, a slow sniffing walk or just sitting there with the dog and looking at the landscape are also possible. It depends on the individual dog, which helps him to relax.

Dogs that are permanently tense don’t always need surprises and new experiences.

Here, calculable rituals and processes can give the dog security. For example, you can always offer a feeding game after coming home to make the transition to the resting phase easier for the dog.

Employment should stimulate the mind

There is much debate about the level of canine intelligence. Our dogs don’t read books, don’t think of philosophical thoughts, or follow cultural programs on the radio.

However, dogs are definitely able to grasp certain problems and solve them. Everyone knows the videos of dogs pulling their own dog bed to the next sunspot, covering themselves up in the cold, or avoiding obstacles.

Trainability is one factor in which dog breeds differ. And the will and ability to develop problem-solving strategies also depend on the type of dog.

An interesting small study from Sweden in 2014 concluded that dogs prefer to work for their reward or to be in control of receiving a reward. It doesn’t seem to be just the incentive of a treat itself that makes dogs happy ( sources: McGowan et al. 2014).

There is also evidence that regular activity and mental stimulation can delay and slow the onset of dementia-like symptoms in old age.

I wrote more about this and about employment ideas for senior dogs in the article about dementia in dogs.

In order for the dog to use its cognitive resources, we have to offer it small challenges.

These can be intelligence toys or search and hide-and-seek games. Probably the most obvious option for memory training is dog training with methods and training situations that give the dog the freedom to think alone and to freely choose its options for action.

Employment for (hyper)active dogs and working dogs

This section is particularly close to my heart because there are so many misunderstood dogs here.

With many working dog breeds, not only has a special talent for a specific activity (herding, hunting, retrieving,…) been strengthened through breeding, but also the unconditional will to be able and willing to work at any time and under any circumstances.

The nature of many working dogs means that their representatives have a bit of a pleasure-seeking tendency. No action seems enough, the dog always wants more and more.

This is of course also wanted for a working dog in such a way that it knows no bounds and tends to overestimate its own limits. You want a working tool. What’s the use of a watchdog or herding dog that says “No, do it yourself, I don’t feel like it today”?

And this unconditional willingness to work and excitability often leads to the misconception that giving all these dogs full-time jobs is the right thing to do.

And that in turn leads to being told by breed connoisseurs even before you buy them that these dogs need to be kept busy to be happy.

As the owner of such a dog, one constantly gets well-meaning comments: “ Oh, [ insert any hunting or herding dog breed here], but they have to do a lot with that! “.

Then of course you start to ponder, you have been warned and want to do everything right: ” Does my dog ​​need more exercise? 

And then the misfortune takes its course: many terriers and herding dogs are kept busy until the proverbial doctor comes.

From puppyhood on, there are several hour-long walks every day, you throw balls for hours, run to the dog park, buy a treadmill for the dog, go cycling, and at home there is trick training and lots of toys. Everything to keep the dog reasonably happy.

A second dog is bought to play with, naughtiness is talked about as a breed characteristic (Aussies just bark, Border Collies just guard, Malis just bite) and you are proud of your athletic dog.

The more frenetic the dog gets, the more things are done to it.

Busy is often equated with tired. Some people think that if their dog: they’ve done a good job at night.

busy ≠ exhausted

In truth, you just breed a muscled-up, frenetic, over-stimulated ball junkie that quickly demands more than we can give.

Unfortunately, I’ve recently read on social media about an alarming number of Border Collies who, for these reasons of their own, are already attested to be “hyperactive” as young dogs and are prescribed psychotropic drugs. Ouch.

So that we don’t have any misunderstandings: Even if I am of the opinion that less is often more, this article is not a plea for not doing anything with the dog because it could get upset. Working dogs definitely have high demands that we have to satisfy. Just appropriate.

  • Yes, working dogs need mental stimulation to be happy.
  • Yes, (not only) working dogs need exercise to be happy.
  • Yes, working dogs have a problem relaxing.

For these dogs, mentally demanding activities such as training, search, and food games are worth much more than just “action”.

Throwing games as the only program is just about the most brainless of all occupations for such dogs and does not do justice to their intelligence and efficiency.

(And please, letting a hyper-hyped dog chase a laser pointer until it screeches in frustration isn’t funny, it’s animal welfare relevant.)

And often people forget to think about how to help these dogs get off the “high” after playing and having fun.

One of the first goals of training with a hyperactive dog is the ability to relax.

Brainteasers, in which not the body but the brain is moved, make you more tired than any racing game.

Hard chews and food balls that the dog can suck on are also challenging and calming at the same time.

Or be it with the limitation of opportunities for self-amusement. Many puppies in particular claim they are not tired, but fall asleep after a short when you put them in a large folding box next to you.

Fixed rituals, clear procedures, and calming activities help an overexcited dog relax. In fact, these dogs often have to be forced to accept that they can endure a bit of boredom.

How much employment is appropriate?

That cannot be answered in general.

Running along in normal human everyday life is often very exhausting and eventful. You’ve probably already experienced that your dog was exhausted after a trip (bus ride, restaurant, etc.), where he didn’t have to do anything except play along and be good.

Employment should have a tension-relieving and relaxing effect.

First ask yourself the question: What is missing from the dog in normal everyday life? What could enrich his days? More sleep? More time in the countryside? Movement? Relaxation? brainteaser?

This determines what kind of activity is appropriate for your dog and how much of it it needs.

Young dogs generally need more input than older dogs. Easy-going dog breeds and dog types are satisfied with less than performance-bred dogs.

When in doubt, less is more! Brain teasers and quiet study of new objects smells, and tasks are better than constant action.

And a regular job is better than a packed program just on weekends.

I think a daily program of 2 to a maximum of 4 hours is appropriate.

This includes feeding times, training, body care, cuddling, and walks. Sporting dogs should be kept busy more intensely than longer, so there is enough time for bedtime (and your own life).

A good rule of thumb is to offer 1-2 activity options daily in addition to the long and short walks at different locations, e.g. a food toy or something to nibble on after the walk. Sprinkle a few biscuits in the carpet of feed is no problem.

You make and buy new dog toys regularly anyway because it’s fun to treat your dog to something.

Intensive and young dogs receive at least one training session of 5-20 minutes a day with new training goals and tasks. Older and chilled dogs can now and then perform the best of their favorite tricks for a fee because it makes them happy.

Cuddling and body care are available as needed. When it rains and on hot summer days, people just sleep on the couch.

You should listen to your gut feeling and answer a few questions before indiscriminately showering the dog with too many recreational options.

Thoughts on the employment of puppies and young dogs

Raising puppies and adolescent dogs can be brutally exhausting, I know.

Young dogs are bursting with energy and are given plenty of toys and snacks anyway so that they can keep themselves busy.

But one must not forget that such a puppy’s life is already damn exciting. In the waking state, we are constantly observing and learning whether we plan it that way or not.

Additional employment and hobbies are not necessary.

You already do so much with puppies: bonding, socializing outings, grossly overrated puppy play groups, training house training, and manners, …

And you shouldn’t forget that you are laying the groundwork now and working on rituals for the dog’s later life.

Young dogs have to learn one thing before starting any hobby: Relax!

If the dog doesn’t learn to calm down on its own after excitement, with our help, this can become a problem.

This is also the reason why the rumor of the “rule of movement” is still dogmatically spread among dog people.

Young dogs are supposedly only allowed to go for a walk for 5 minutes per month of life, otherwise, there is a risk of… well, what actually? HD? Psychosis? The end of the world?

There is no factual background as to how many minutes of walking a puppy is too much or too little. Or what consequences deviations can have in both directions.

The good intention behind it is clear: one should not overdo it.

But you don’t have to follow such wisdom quite literally.

Because too little stimulation is probably just as stupid as too much.


Only you can decide whether and which activity is appropriate for your dog.

Factors such as dog age, character, dog breed, and lifestyle are decisive.

When in doubt, less is more. Because many dogs that appear underutilized are actually overstimulated and unbalanced.

Several walks daily of 1-3 hours total time and a few small extra offers in the form of short training sessions, social interaction, and food games are just right for most dogs.

Pay attention to how your dog reacts to changes in his daily routine. Is he happier overall or are you artificially stressing him out?

If your dog seems happy and content, you don’t have to change anything. It’s the little joys here and there that add variety to everyday life.

And most dogs are already quite busy with their normal life, walks, little attention in between, and the opportunity to sniff around in places of their choice.

Employment and utilization should offer the dog opportunities to live out its needs and not just encourage it to become meaningless.

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