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Two Bull Terrier puppies wrestling in the grass.
Courtesy of KSnumber1/iStock via Getty Images

In the search for something to do, a bored dog can become a destructive dog, digging up your garden or chewing on the furniture for example. This is especially true of puppies because they are curious, eager to learn about the world around them, and full of energy. Plus, they may not yet understand the rules of the house – what they are and are not allowed to do.

For a healthy, confident, and socialized puppy, it’s important to provide physical exercise and mental stimulation. Think of a toddler who delights in running up and down the hall yet is equally engaged playing with blocks or a puzzle. It’s also essential to train your puppy. Dogs need to know our expectations. And finally, if you understand how dog instincts drive puppy behavior it will help you prevent and manage potential trouble.

Give Your Puppy Physical and Mental Exercise

German Shepherd puppy playing with a toy outdoors.

Your puppy needs a daily workout. But how much exercise your puppy needs a day depends on age and breed. You shouldn’t overdo workouts because your puppy’s bones are still growing. For example, no high jumping or marathon runs. However, you still need to ensure your puppy is getting enough activity to burn off excess energy. Talk to your vet or breeder if you have any questions about your puppy’s physical needs. And although roughhousing and wrestling can be a great workout for your pup, be aware that what you allow from your puppy, you will get from your adult dog. Choose safe and appropriate ways to play and exercise together.

Although a tired dog is a good dog, there is far more to the equation than that. Your puppy needs a daily brain workout too. Your puppy’s cognitive skills are still developing, and mental stimulation and play will assist with things like memory and problem-solving. Cognitive challenges will also help curtail destructive behaviors by keeping your puppy entertained. Not to mention, mental exercise can be as exhausting as the physical kind.

Play with your puppy every day. It’s great to cuddle and have fun but also consider more challenging games that make your dog smarter like hiding treats in a plastic bottle or placing kibble in a set of stacking containers so your puppy has to pull them apart to get the food. There are lots of entertaining indoor games to play with your puppy that can build your puppy’s brain power, like hide-and-seek. You can hide a treat, toss kibble around the room, or even hide and call your puppy to find you. Or how about a game of hidden treasure? Place several small boxes or flower pots upside down on the floor and hide a treat under only one. Let your puppy sniff and explore until the treasure is found.

Don’t forget that fun and games can also teach your puppy important lessons. For example, playing tug-of-war will not make your puppy aggressive. Rather it will teach him valuable skills like Drop It and emotional self-control. Games like fetch can help prevent puppy stealing and keep-away by teaching your dog that good things happen when valuable items are returned to the owner. Plus, these particular activities provide physical exercise too.

Two English Setter puppies playing with a rope outdoors.

Not all mental stimulation needs to come from interacting with you. You can also give your puppy toys that help beat boredom. Cognitively challenging toys often involve hidden food. For example, a snuffle mat is a piece of fabric with pockets and flaps for hiding treats or kibble. Many other puzzle toys require the dog to lift lids, open drawers, or spin layers to expose hidden food. Some toys need to be rolled or thrown for the food inside to escape. There are also plush puzzle toys with smaller stuffed toys hidden inside a larger piece. With so many options to choose from, you can match the toys to your puppy’s size and personality.

Train Your Puppy

One of the first lessons to teach your puppy is where to go to the bathroom. Potty training your puppy will prevent accidents and problems down the road. But equally important is teaching your puppy how to be alone. A puppy that can remain entertained even without humans around, is a puppy that won’t go looking for trouble. Many of those puzzle toys mentioned above can keep your puppy busy when you don’t have time to play. Just be sure they’re safe for your puppy’s play style. For example, a plastic bottle full of kibble might not be the best choice for a power chewer.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppy training on a red leash.

Next comes formal dog training. Don’t wait until your puppy is a teenager before teaching basic manners. Even very young puppies can learn simple behaviors like Sit or Down. Rather than worrying about what your puppy is doing wrong, prevent problem behaviors and reward the good behaviors you want to see repeated with your pup’s favorite Purina® Pro Plan® treats. Break the treats into small pieces that are easy for your puppy to digest. Also, keep your training sessions short and fun – leave your puppy wanting more! Just a few repetitions are enough because even the most eager puppy can become bored. And be patient. Every puppy learns at a different pace and some days will go better than others. If your pup is struggling, take a break and try again later. Never train if you’re angry or frustrated. You want your dog to love working for you, not to avoid it all costs.

With positive reinforcement methods like these, your puppy will come to see your training sessions as playtime. Plus, besides teaching good manners, training is a great way to provide physical exercise and stimulate your dog’s mind. Especially if you advance to more challenging activities like tricks or dog sports. But first, consider making the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Program your primary goal. The program is designed to get you and your pup off to a good start. It’s also super preparation for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, the gold standard for dog manners in our society.

Two puppies running outdoors in the grass.

Even though it’s not formal training, taking your puppy to new places and introducing him to new people and other animals is essential. It will teach him to be comfortable in the world around him. Socializing your puppy involves activities like walking through your neighborhood or taking a trip to the dog park. Let your puppy see, smell, and hear unfamiliar things. Just be sure to let your pup set the pace, never force your dog into an encounter. All these new experiences are great mental stimulation and will prevent trouble, like anxiety, fear, or reactivity, later on.

Meet Your Puppy’s Instinctive Needs

Much of what dog owners call problem behavior is actually dogs being dogs. So, one of the best ways to prevent trouble is to teach puppies safe and appropriate ways to express their instincts. For example, it’s not practical to expect them to never chew or bark. The trick is getting them to chew the right things and bark at the right times. It will take patient training to stop your puppy from nipping at your hands or to teach your puppy how to stop barking at everything. But it’s well worth it for a well-behaved adult dog.

All dogs share certain instincts but breed heritage can play an important role too. Know your puppy’s breed and what that breed was developed to do. For example, terriers were bred to go to ground, following badgers and foxes into their underground dens. So, it’s no wonder that puppies from the Terrier Group love to dig. Providing your terrier puppy with a backyard digging spot, regularly planted with plastic toys, will go a long way to protecting your garden and keeping your puppy fulfilled. Or consider the sport of AKC Earthdog to really tap into those instincts.

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever being trained to leap over an agility pole.

Most dogs thrive when they have a “job” to do, so find a job that really excites your puppy and provides the most suitable mental and physical exercise. For example, herding breeds were developed to control the movement of other animals, so sports like herding or treibball are perfect choices. The scent hounds were bred to hunt with their noses, so tracking or AKC Scent Work make for great fun.

Remember that bored puppies will look for ways to entertain themselves. Lack of physical exercise and mental stimulation can lead to anxiety, frustration, and destructive behavior. By devoting time each day to play and exercise, training good behavior, and meeting your puppy’s instinctive needs, you’re helping your puppy develop the cognitive skills and confidence that will make for a happy and sociable family member.

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