10 Habits That Will Improve Your Dog’s Life—And How to Make Them

Use habit stacking to turn your good intentions into everyday good habits.
By Claudia Kawczynska, December 2020, Updated September 2021
Make your dog happy

Good intentions: We all have them, and if we have dogs in our lives, we’re likely to have a dog-specific list. Brush her teeth regularly, add a little home-cooking to her bowl, teach her a useful trick, take her for more walks—no matter how much we do for our dogs, there’s often that one thing we’d like to do better, do more of … or just do at all.

Alas, the road from the intention to the execution of the intention is often full of potholes. One way to make it easier to turn the intention into a habit, something you do almost without thinking about it. Which brings us to habit stacking—more on that following the list.

Here are 10 good habits For Your Dog

We think these 10 good habits will add to your dog’s life as well as your own and those of your community.

1. Volunteer with animal shelter, a dog rescue group or a neighbor. Check in with your local animal shelter and ask how you can help; most have dog-walking or other programs to give dogs one-on-one time in and out of their kennels. Many rescue groups depend on a network of foster caregivers to get dogs ready for their forever homes; step up and give fostering a whirl. Or, do you have a dog-owning neighbor (senior or otherwise) who’s under strict stay-at-home orders? Ask if they’d like you to walk their dog.

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2. Teach your dog something new. Practical skills such as how to walk nicely on a leash, wait at the door or hold a solid stay all pay big dividends. Or, for more shared playtime, teach your dog a new game you can play together; fetch, tug, find it, hide and seek, and chase games are all options (match the game to your dog’s inclinations).

3. Practice mindfulness. Unlike us, dogs don’t ruminate about the past or worry about the future. Take your dogs for long walks and follow them into their here-and-now, sensory world. They’ll show you how to be mindful and live in the moment. 

4. Tackle a new skill with your dog. This might be your year to try out skijoringsnowshoeing or running—invigorating and beneficial for both you and a dog’s wellbeing.

skiing with dogs

5. Work out with your dog. You’ll be surprised to learn how many exercise routines you can do together with your dog, from simple to yoga stretches to advanced dance steps.

6. Cook for your dog. Though the end of the pandemic is in view, it will probably be months (at least) before our lives return to anything approaching normal. Most likely, we’ll continue to spend a lot of time at home. So now’s a good time to re-evaluate how you feed your dog. Even if you don’t go whole hog (sorry about the pun) into home-cooking all your dog’s meals, you can add nutritious toppers to your dog’s kibble without breaking much of a sweat.

cooking for dog

7. Live more simply. Hop on the growing “buy-nothing” bandwagon and declutter and uncomplicate your life by giving away things you don’t use and not purchasing new stuff. It’s not just good for your bank account, but for the planet, too. Luckily, dogs don’t clamor for the latest video game or a new pair of rad sneakers. Their needs are quite simple: a good collar, a comfy bed and regular meals (home-cooked, even better). When it comes to toys, though, dogs do seem to take pleasure in the new, but you can easily DIY playthings and enrichment toys from socks, tee-shirts or other too-worn-to-use fabrics. Or, trade toys with a dog-loving friend; that way, both your friend’s dog and your own will have something new to fascinate them.

8. Get involved in your community. See if your city/town has programs for citizen gardening, tree and native vegetation planting, or even project planning. Is your town thinking of developing a new dog park, or building a new animal shelter? Let your voice be heard by Zooming into local government meetings. Take a seat at the table where decisions are made that affect you, your dog and your community. For more boots-on-the-ground civic engagement, carry a grabber or gloves and a trash bag on your dog walks and pick up litter, sign up for your local dog park’s clean-up day, or carry spare poop bags and collect “forgotten” piles on trails, sidewalks and other pathways.

dogs in community

9. Turn off your cell phone. No more tuning out on walks. Take advantage of these regular outings to engage with your dogs; they thrive on your attention.

10. Learn how to do a DIY physical exam on your dog. Shea Cox, DVM, provides simple-to-follow instructions. Practice when your dog’s in good form so you know what’s normal, which will make detecting changes easier in the future.

Back to habit stacking, or, the “how” of habit-making.

Habit stacking is a way to increase the odds of following through on your good intentions by adding a habit you’d like to acquire to one you already have. Take brushing your dog’s teeth, for example. It’s good for your dog’s overall health, yet somehow, you’re rarely able to carve out the time to do it. Your dog hates it, it’s a struggle and most of the time, you just forget. Then you feel guilty, which does absolutely nothing for your peace of mind (or for your dog’s teeth).

With habit stacking, you attach that intention to something you already do. By pairing it up with an existing habit, you’re more likely to be successful. That might mean before you take her for her daily walk, you spend 30 seconds on the toothbrushing thing—getting her used to the idea, doing a quick brush and, eventually, brushing more thoroughly.

Looked at another way, it’s like applying the principles of dog training to your own behavior: A cue (getting ready for a walk) signals an action (tooth brushing), resulting in a reward (the virtuous glow you get from actually following through).

Good luck and good wishes on whatever enhancements you choose to make—to coin a phrase, it will be a win-win for all involved.

To find out more about the science and psychology that make habit stacking work, read James Clear’s article, or the book from which it was excerpted: Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.

Photo: iStock