How to Manage Your Dog’s Indoor Energy Level – Updated for COVID-19

Hello everyone!  I hope you are are staying safe and healthy!  This is a reposting of an article I wrote quite some time ago about managing your dog’s indoor energy level.  This seems very timely now so I am reposting along with some edits to make sure it’s compatible with the current situation.

One of the most common complaints I get from clients is that their dog is constantly pestering them for attention.  This is especially true now when so many people are trying to work from home.  Except that you can’t work (or relax) because your dog won’t stop pawing at you, whining, or eating your cell phone.  By the end of the day you’re at your wits end because you haven’t had a moment’s peace to rest or take care of household duties.  For many dogs, the root of the problem is that they aren’t getting enough exercise.

One common solution is to increase their amount of daily exercise.  This can definitely help and is a good option if you have the ability to do so. However, brain work is just as important and can tire them out just as much as physical exercise! There are many options that can help reduce your dog’s energy.  The more of these you do, the greater the impact, but even implementing a few of them, can help take the edge off.  I am listing them roughly in order of least to most time, energy and financial investment.  Of course, the solutions that require more investment also tend to have a greater impact.

Reinforce the behaviors you like, not the ones you don’t like.

Teach your dog how to politely ask for what she wants.  Ask her to sit before petting her, playing with her, giving her food or taking her outside.  Do not give in to rude behavior – this will only teach her that it works and make her more likely to continue the behavior!  If your dog has been a pest and finally settles down, give her some (calm and quiet) attention to reinforce her for being relaxed.  Calm petting is a good option.

Petting your dog when she relaxes will teach her that being calm and quiet is a good way to get your attention.
Petting your dog when she relaxes will teach her that being calm and quiet is a good way to get your attention.

Be proactive and anticipate your dog’s needs.

Give your dog attention before he starts misbehaving.  When you come home, many dogs have been at home for hours with little mental or physical stimulation.  Plan on investing some upfront energy in your dog so that both of you can rest easy later on.  The suggestions below give you plenty of ideas to get started.

Feed your dog using interactive toys.

Before being brought into our homes as full time companions, dogs spent most or all of their time outside doing what they love most – searching for and chasing animals.  Tossing dry food in a bowl and putting it down on the floor for them once or twice a day is about as far from this as they can get.  Finding a way to make your dog work a little harder for her food mimics (at least to a degree) the effort she’d be putting into hunting outside.  There are two advantages to this.  First, it gives her additional enrichment – think of it as entertainment – which will help stave off the boredom and excess energy that causes your dog to get into trouble for hours on end.  Second, it keeps her busy a little longer so you can get a short break from supervising.

Which toys are best?  For special treats Kongs are my first choice – peanut butter or cream cheese can be smeared around the inside of the kong.  You can freeze them if you want them to last a little longer.  Still not lasting long enough?  Do a google search for suggestions on “kong stuffing recipes”.  There are plenty of good ones out there.  However, unless you want your dog to balloon out like a goodyear blimp, you have to limit your use of Kongs.  I strongly recommend feeding your dog all or part of his meals from a food dispensing toy as well.  My favorites are busy buddies which are available in a number of various shapes and sizes (you can get them online and at many local dog stores.  In our area, Benson’s carries them).  They work extremely well for dog kibble.  I also like the orbee mazee and snoop at Planet Dog.

Do some training.

Many dogs need exercise for their brains at least as much as they need exercise for their body.  Teach your dog some basic manners (sit, down, stay, etc.) or some tricks using positive reinforcement techniques.  If you want some do-it-yourself tips, I strongly suggest using Dog Star Daily or Karen Pryor Clicker Training.  You can break training sessions up into a few minutes at a time, several times a day, or into longer blocks of 30 minutes once a day, or even a few times a week.  Initially, your dog might only be able to train for a few minutes at a time before getting distracted, but over time, he or she will be able to go for longer and longer periods.

Teaching your dog tricks is fun for both of you and helps engage your dog's mind.
Teaching your dog tricks is fun for both of you and helps engage your dog’s mind.

Play ‘find it’ games.

Hide objects and encourage your dog to find them.  Start off easy and gradually increase the difficulty.  There are a number of ways you can do this.  You can hide toys, treats or even your dog’s food around the house.  The only suggestion I have is to think wisely about where you are putting the food.  Hiding food under couch cushions or on a table, for example, will only teach your dog to search for food in those places – a habit you may not want to establish!

Another great game is playing hide and seek – people hide, your dog seeks.  This can be a great activity for kids and dogs when the weather outside is not cooperative.  It’s also a great way to teach the recall.  Most dog’s LOVE this game.


Dogs love to play and it can be a great way to decrease their energy as well as strengthen the bond between the two of you.  If your dog doesn’t like toys, I suggest reading this short article by Susan Garrett on teaching your dog to be toy motivated.  Worried about tug?  The idea that tug will make your dog aggressive or out of control is a myth.  Especially if you follow certain rules.  For more information on playing tug with your dog, including the rules, check out this article from Whole Dog Journal.  Fetch is another great option.

Play - poodle, ball on beach

Take your dog on field trips.

How would you feel if all you ever got to see was the view from your house and your yard?  For days at a time?  Do you think you’d start to get a little stir crazy?  Our dogs do too!  If it’s safe to do so, take your dog on adventures away from home (but still stay in the local area).  Aim for at least once a week, more if possible.  Go for walks at different parks near your home, if they are still open. Or just choose a different path around your neighborhood that you don’t normally take.  Just make sure that you are choosing area where you can stay well away from other people!  Avoid bike paths or other narrow or heavily crowded areas where you cannot move away from other people.

Outside - laying down, nature

Consider day care

We will never be able to tire our dogs out as efficiently as another dog can.  If your dog is comfortable playing with other dogs, this can be a great option for decreasing their overall energy level. Day cares in many areas are still open and are offering concierge services to avoid or minimize contact. Even going once or twice a week can make a huge difference in your dog’s (and therefore your!) life.  If you are local, Milton Manor is still open for day care.  The staff is incredibly friendly and professional and their staff is well trained.  Not sure if your dog is right for day care or worried about choosing a reputable facility?  Patricia McConnell has an article that can help you address both of these questions.

Play with other dogs is a great way to exercise your dog.
Play with other dogs is a great way to exercise your dog.

Keeping your dog entertained does require some additional effort up front.  However, it will pay off in the long run by giving you more quality time with your dog, resulting in a happier, more relaxed companion.  Not to mention some much needed downtime (or uninterrupted time to work) for you!

Tired dogs - boxers, outside
Nap time after an exciting day!
Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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