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Dog Training & The Importance of Being Bored

"To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace." -Milan Kundera

Bored Dog

When was the last time you were peaceful? And I don't mean watching Stranger Things, sipping a Chardonnay while adding Kate Bush to your playlist.

I mean literally having nothing to do for a set period of time. No phone. No music. Nothing but your own thoughts. It sounds pretty awful, but in reality, it can be integral to your mental health, as well as your dog's.

I'll explain.

During our pack walk last Sunday, a friend was struggling a bit with their young dog. The dog is wonderful, but full of energy, like all young dogs can be. Now, at the end of the pack walk, the dog had received enough physical exercise, because in addition to the pack walk, the owner had exercised her dog at home prior as well (check out this link to learn how to exercise your dog without walking them). My friend (we'll call her Sally) wanted to talk with me for a minute, but her dog (Turnip) was having none of it. Turnip wanted to go-go-go all the time, no breaks. Like a coked-up hummingbird.

Now Sally is a really good Pilot, who is absolutely dedicated to her dog's health and welfare. She takes her job as Turnip's caretaker and dog parent quite seriously, providing her with the physical activity and the mental stimulation her dog needs.

All. The. Time.

And let's all remember that what a dog needs and what they want are two different things.

I mentioned to Sally that Turnip had absolutely no idea how to be bored. Sally agreed. "You're right", she said. "Turnip has never been bored. I'm constantly entertaining her."

And that is a recipe for burnout and disaster. We all have heard that a bored dog is a destructive dog, but that's not quite true. A bored dog who panics in the face of boredom... now that's a recipe for disaster.

dogs destroying

Let me give you a different example.

Some of you have followed my two daughters on my blog for years. *Robynn (16) and River (14) were frequent topics in my blog posts, as there isn't much difference between raising dogs and raising kids. And you can learn a lot from both

My children, from a very young age, learned how to work. Hard. At 4, they were expected to clean their rooms, make their beds, and do dishes after every meal.

There were other, on-the-fly chores that would be done as well. Vacuuming, raking leaves, etc. At that young age, more often than not, they weren't really "helping" so much as learning how to help. As they got older, they became accustomed to the rituals, and chores and contributing to the household became just as normal as anything else.

Compare that with a kid who's never had to lift a finger to contribute to the household being asked for the first time to mow the lawn.

Yeah, it goes over like a fart in church.

The same thing applies with helping your dog learn how to be comfortable with being bored.

When I first got Arwen at the beginning of this year, she had no impulse control, and a myriad of other issues, but like so many dogs her age, no ability to be intelligently bored.

If left unattended and, uh, unamused, for any period of time, she became destructive and would start her own amusement - namely chewing through laptop chargers. To help her, I started with a place that would be safe, where I could Pilot her easily: the shower.

My master shower has glass doors, and is a separate room from the main bath. There is nothing in there that a dog can easily destroy, plus, the shower doors are clear, and I could see what my little psycho was doing.

The first time I took her in the room with me while I showered, I brought a Kong filled with peanut butter (hint: fill it with PB and then plug the hole with baby carrots - it will last soooo much longer). I put her in a down position, gave her the Kong, and did my thing in the shower while she amused herself with the Kong. We kept this up every day for about a week. Then one day I put her in the down position as usual, and waited about five minutes while I shampooed my hair before retrieving her Kong from the shelf where I had placed it. That short amount of time was bereft of entertainment, but it was such a short amount of time, she didn't panic. Further, she was able to anticipate what she thought was coming next: the Kong. She had an idea, or thought, to focus on, rather than something tangible in front of her.

Gradually we played around with the amount of time she was in possession of the Kong. Sometimes I gave it to her early, but without a lot in there, so she ran out before my shower was concluded. Sometimes I didn't give it to her until I was almost done showering. If she started to panic, I would simply give her a gentle negative until she was calm(er) again, until one day she didn't get the Kong at all. I simply got dressed and we went about doing other things.

By training Arwen to be comfortable with boredom, I was able to set the groundwork for so many other different situations. Camping with her: she needed to be secured to a line while my daughter, River, and I took about 45 minutes to set up camp. Arwen was bored, but she made the best of it by napping in the sun. And then later that same evening, when a sudden a dangerous weather situation forced us to break up camp at 11pm, she was able to calmly lay tethered to the picnic table (in the dark, by herself), as she watched us walk back and forth lugging items to the truck. Arwen was literally the last thing we packed in the truck, but she never panicked - she knew she would have her turn.

When I'm in my office returning phone calls or writing blog posts, she knows we may be in here for a while, so she automatically lays down and chills, either watching me or sleeping. When she wakes up in the morning before everyone else, she knows awake is okay, being hyper and making noise is not. So she stays bored for a bit until everyone else is awake, and we start our day.

Now, this wasn't some magical thing that happened. Initially, I'd have to make sure she had all of her energy out as well as quite a bit of mental work, before I could expect her to be able to utilize impulse control and be bored. But now she's been able to anticipate what may come next (a hike later today followed by a serious fetch session) and reign in her energy for an appropriate time. But to be clear, it is a contract and a deal that both of us make. She still needs her exercise and mental work....just not right now.

By giving Arwen what she needed (Piloting, Activity and Work) she was able to give me what I wanted: a calm, wonderful, happily bored dog.

Calm dog sleeping

Dog Training vs. Dog Life

By focusing on dog life, rather than dog training, our goals can become so much more attainable and clear-cut. Most of us don't want an obedient dog, we just don't want a dis-obedient dog. Robot-style dogs who are afraid of stepping out of line are for certain types of people I guess.

But that's not my style. That's why I developed the Piloting method of dog training over 20 years ago, a force-free method of dog training and puppy training that didn't rely on abusive shock collars or cruel prong collars, yet didn't constantly bribe with non-stop click-n-treat style dog training. I want a bond with my dog based on trust and communication.

Learn more about our Piloting method of dog and puppy training here.

Find out more about our private in home 30 Day Best Dog Ever and 30 Day Best Puppy Ever training packages here.

Have questions about our puppy training or dog training?

border collie dog

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training and Puppy Training

Greater Cleveland Area

Northeast Ohio

*Robynn is referred to as "Eric" in my older posts. I have not updated them with her new name, as Robynn informed me that was who she was then, and she's not ashamed of it, just like a butterfly is never ashamed of having been a caterpillar.


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