If you feel guilty about leaving your dogs home by themselves while you go to work, join the club. Most of us dislike it, though, truth be told, the majority of dogs do just fine. Many of them simply relax and sleep for a good part of the day while we stress out at work.
I say “many of them” because I’m absolutely not including dogs who are too young to handle a lot of time alone, or those who are struggling with separation anxiety or some other condition that makes being at home without you truly traumatic, somewhat upsetting or even just unpleasant. I’m talking about typical, behaviorally healthy dogs who really don’t mind the daily rhythm that includes your regular workday absence (though obviously, they would rather you stayed home).
Along with making sure that their basic needs are met, what do we owe the dogs who hold down the fort while we’re gone? Some dogs are fine with a cozy place to snooze, and some may be satisfied with a compatible dog buddy or some toys. Others need a little help in finding interesting ways to stay occupied while we go out and earn the money to support them in the style to which they have become accustomed. A great way to help these dogs is to provide them with multiple activity stations around the house.
Activity stations are just what they sound like: places for dogs to engage in activities that can be done alone. Setting up different activity stations in distinct areas of the house allows dogs to make good choices and to have fun even when they’re on their own.
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This kind of enrichment won’t cure separation anxiety or help a dog overcome a fear of traffic, airplanes, passersby or the sound of sirens, and it’s not a cure for excessive barking or destructive chewing. What it can do, however, is make being alone more fun.
Deciding what sorts of activity stations will work best for your dog requires you to give some thought to your home’s layout and your dog’s interests and abilities. But basically, they are really only limited by safety concerns and your creativity.
Some stations are extremely simple, involving nothing more than a tug toy attached to the wall with a carabiner and a sturdy hook. Dogs who love to tug often do best if the toy is a little stretchy to compensate for the fact that nobody is on the other end giving it life and motion. The toy must be safe—no chance of the dog choking on it, becoming entangled in it or shredding it. A tug station is not suitable for dogs who would either become obsessive about it or frustrated by it. To interest your dog in it, shake the toy a little to make it move; once your dog has hold of it, let him tug on his own. Putting peanut butter on the toy makes it more enticing and helps many dogs engage.
A related activity station is for dogs who like to bat at toys rather than tug them. As long as the dog won’t become entangled in the toy or attempt to ingest it, this sort of station can occupy those who love to use their paws in play. Toys with multiple hanging parts often appeal to dogs who like to play this way.
Another activity station with simplicity in its favor consists of providing your dog with something safe to chew or eat. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to buy hundreds of new items. Rotating your dog’s durable favorites, supplemented by an occasional new treat, keeps this from costing a fortune. You can also use stuffable toys such as Kongs, or toys that the dog has to chase around or otherwise manipulate for the food to be dispensed —for example, the Wobbling Treatball, Kong Wobbler, West Paw Design's Toppl or Buster Cube.
Make sure you are not giving your dog anything that poses a choking hazard or other dangers. Avoid rawhides and rope toys, and check with your vet about what else may be dangerous for an unsupervised dog. All dogs need to learn to enjoy an activity station is that it provides good things. For safety and convenience, site the station away from areas that are off limits to the dog, such as the counter or where kids store their toys.
On a related note, you can also keep your dog occupied by making the whole house (or at least a room or two) a place for food-searching activity. Hide treats while your dog is in another room, say “find your treats” and then head out for the day. (If your dog is sure to follow you, tell him/her to stay, or close a gate or door while you hide the treats.) Teaching your dog to search for food in response to the cue “find your treats” is not hard, but it’s critical to start by making it easy and gradually working up to greater challenges. Start with the food in full view and point to it or tap your toe by each treat until your dog gets the hang of it. You can also hide treats in canine puzzle toys that are specifically designed for this purpose.
A basket of toys is a great activity station, but for most dogs, it’s only appealing if the contents change frequently. To maintain your dog’s interest, rotate toys in and out and add new ones regularly. That way, your dog will never know which toys will be available on a given day. If your dog has a couple of favorites, make sure they’re always on hand. The purpose of rotating toys is to prevent your dog from becoming bored, not to take away toys just for the sake of removing them periodically.
For dogs who like to fetch, independent play may seem harder to provide. However, some dogs can be taught to fetch on their own using a ball and a ramp or an iFetch. There needs to be enough space for them to chase after the ball without injury to themselves or to your furnishings. It takes practice and patience, but once dogs get it, they are able to play on their own.
To teach dogs to use a ramp at a fetching station, start by placing the ball on the ramp and letting it roll away. This accustoms dogs to fetching a ball that has been “thrown” by the ramp. Then, teach them to drop the ball at the top of the ramp themselves. Once dogs realize that they can make the ramp work for them, many really enjoy the activity, though I’ve yet to meet a dog who didn’t prefer fetch played as a social game outdoors. (Caution: this activity station is not suitable for dogs who are so obsessive about fetch that they would play all day and drive themselves mad.)
Again, the safety of the stations and their elements is critical. Don’t use anything that could in any way strangle or trap a dog. Only use toys that can handle serious chewing, the level of which varies from dog to dog. Avoid rawhide or rope toys that a dog can choke on. If in doubt, put the toy away before you leave.
Don’t expect dogs to automatically be interested in activity stations just because you’ve set them up, however lovingly. The statement “If you build it, they will come” rarely applies. Dogs have to be taught what to do and to understand that the stations have entertainment value before they will engage on their own.
Activity stations can be antidotes to the boredom dogs may experience when left home alone. Providing them with something constructive to do can improve their quality of life, even though they may be fine with being alone. The stations can also help us fulfill our responsibility to make sure our dogs are happy, stimulated and entertained (not to mention relieve our guilt!) when we leave the house without our dogs, as most of us must do daily. Above all, they’re a wonderful way to change our dogs’ daily alone time from “fine” to “fun”!