Can a rubber bone and some doggy treats cure my pet’s canine depression?


John Kelly's dog, Charlie, luxuriates in a patch of sunlight in his Silver Spring home. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist March 30

Is my dog bored?

I confess this isn’t really something I’d thought much about. Isn’t he here to entertain me, rather than the other way around?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But then a reader responded to a column in which I’d offhandedly mentioned that our black Lab, Charlie, likes to lick himself. Such behavior, she wrote, could be a sign of boredom or canine depression.

I started to feel bad. Am I not engaging my dog enough?

When we first got Charlie, more than 10 years ago, we would put him in a dog crate every morning with what’s called a Kong: a hollow rubber ovoid into which we stuffed doggy treats, sealing the hole with peanut butter. Roll it into a crate and there’s not a dog around that’s able to resist bounding in after it and obsessing over its contents.

Eventually we dispensed with the Kong. That’s because we didn’t need the crate. It was clear Charlie wasn’t destructive. He didn’t gnaw on table legs or push over the trash. He didn’t jump up on the couch. He wanted to jump on the couch but we told him not to and he respected that.

When we’re at work, Charlie has the run of the house. I’m home by 5:30 to feed him dinner and take him for a walk.

Of course, there isn’t much for him to do at home by himself. I’ve heard that some breeds — Jack Russells, border collies — have to be kept constantly entertained, lest they turn their surplus energy into mischief and start rearranging your CDs or downloading porn.

Charlie never seemed the devious sort. And now that he’s 13, all he does is sleep most of the day anyway.

But is that what he wants to do?

I mentioned this to My Lovely Wife and she started to feel bad, too, which is something she almost never does. She has a soft spot for children and animals, though, and I could tell she felt her maternal instincts were being impugned by the suggestion that Charlie licked himself because he was bored.

So the next time we were at the big pet warehouse, we made our way to the treat aisle. Boy, the simple Kong has really grown up. Here were all manner of wondrous dog-exciters. There were toys that made noise when various buttons were pushed. There were spheres into which you slotted specially shaped treats, as if you were putting a key in a lock. There were rubber bones that you threaded with flat, round treats.

Products included the Everlasting Fun Ball and the Busy Buddy Magic Mushroom, both of which sounded like they involved hallucinogens.

The complexity of these treat-dispensers reminded me of Faberge eggs — or a bomb from an action movie. You want the rawhide? Cut the blue wire! The blue wire!

We decided on the Bouncy Bone, a fake femur with a purple rubber ball in the middle and a way to put treats on. When we left for work the next morning, we tossed it in Charlie’s bed. That evening it had been disassembled, the treats eaten. The same thing happened the next day.

But on the third day I came home to find the Bouncy Bone untouched. When I picked it up and offered it to him, Charlie gave me a look that said:

Really, sir. Do you hold me in such low esteem that you believe some pathetic treat-bedecked bobble is worthy of my attention? Do you doubt that I possess an inner life as rich in imagination as yours? Can you not accept that I spend my days without you in serene contemplation of things philosophical, that I travel in my mind to the land of my youth, where I relive past glories, vanquish old foes, chase long-dead rabbits?

“Often do I hear you bemoan your lot, the frantic pace of your busy life and how desirous you are of just a few blessed hours unencumbered by deadline or duty. Is it not conceivable that I — a mere dog — have achieved that state to which you so aspire?

“Also, sometimes I just like to lick myself. You should try it sometime.”

At least I think that’s what his look said.

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