On Being Bored
Bored: an adjective, meaning feeling weary because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one's current activity.
I rarely feel bored. In fact, when I do, I’m usually surrounded by chattering people at a party. Small talk holds no interest for me. On my own, I usually have plenty of ways to fill my time and my mind. My dogs figure prominently in the ways I keep boredom at bay, as does writing.
But what about dogs? Do they experience boredom as easily as we do? Their lives are hitched to ours, following our routines, going where we go and doing what we do; most have little control over their experiences. They also spend a great percentage of their time snoozing, one ear and eye open in case something intriguing happens, but otherwise appearing quite bored, yet contentedly so.
What I have observed is that dogs – like people – seem to have individual levels of tolerance for routine and boredom.
I first noticed this in my Malamute, Maia. I got her as a pup, and once she started running with me, we often ran the same few routes through city parks or along streets with decent sidewalks or shoulders in urban areas north of Seattle. There were always people about, some with dogs and even better, some with babies in strollers, so Maia and I rarely felt bored despite regularly running the same paths because there were always new things to see and beings to greet.
When Maia was two, I got Meadow, another Malamute, and eventually she joined us on our runs. Both loved greeting people, dogs and babies, so I timed our runs to maximize those interactions, making our outings more fun for all of us. I began noticing that the girls remembered certain people we’d see occasionally on these runs, people who had dog treats or fawned over them. One in particular, an older gentleman named George who came to the park to fish in the lake, was their absolute favorite because he doted on them and gave them lots of treats. (George loved dogs and came more for them than for the fishing; he kept a large bag of treats under the painter’s bucket he used as a seat while holding his fishing pole.) I soon realized that the girls could tell George was at the park, even when we were just starting our run a mile away from his usual location, because they would pull consistently on the leash, in a hurry to get to him and his treats. When we got close enough they could actually see him, they’d pull so hard while running with increasing speed that I usually just let them go – to the astonishment of other park users who only saw two large Malamutes, coupled together at their collars, leash trailing and no human in tow. When the girls didn’t pull on the leash at the start of our run, I knew George wasn’t there. How did they know? Scent? I’ll never know. But seeing George or the other friends they made at that park kept those runs/walks interesting for all of us; we were never bored.
Eventually the girls and I started running mountain trails more than urban parks and streets. That’s when I started noticing Maia getting bored. Getting to our favorite state parks with miles of trails was a chore as they were several miles away, with typically horrible Seattle-area traffic. Other, better trails were even farther away, or buried under winter snow, so mostly we ran at Cougar Mountain or Tiger Mountain to the east of Seattle. There were fewer people and dogs to greet, and no babies in strollers. Maia quickly learned the trail systems and always knew the shortest route back to the car. I often joked that she had a GPS implanted in her brain. (Meadow never developed this keen sense of location, but I suspect that’s because she simply let Maia handle the chore of keeping us from getting lost.) I began thinking that Maia didn’t enjoy our runs as much as Meadow and I did, because when given a choice, rather than choosing a route that would keep us out longer, she’d indicate the shorter route to the car and home. Often her level of enthusiasm was medium. Until we explored a new trail. Then, her enthusiasm was sky high, taking in all the scents and sounds, eager to see the new terrain, trotting out front with a reinvigorated spring in her step. She was, I’m sure, mapping the new route in her head, the antithesis to boredom. And she didn’t seem to care how far we went or how long we were out; no telling me to turn back toward the car (unless she sensed a bear, but that’s another story).
Taking this into account, yet having only a limited repertoire of nearby trails at our disposal, I learned to mix things up in a way that kept Maia from becoming too bored – varying the routes in small or big ways by adding or subtracting sections of trail, going opposite directions, and rotating among all the different parks available. It was hard work, averting or at least delaying Maia’s boredom. Meadow and I were both just happy to be out in the forest moving freely, unconcerned how regularly we ran a particular route. It finally occurred to me that just as I could run the same route frequently without getting bored because I was either focused on the girls’ reactions and interactions, or conversing with a running companion, so too Maia needed to have fresh “conversations” and interactions with the natural elements found along the trails. That was more likely to happen if she hadn’t been on a particular trail in a while. After time away, new scents and tracks left by forest creatures, people and other dogs awaited her, making that same old trail much more interesting.
Eventually I added Finn MacCool, a young Aussie rescue to our family. Finn became an excellent running companion – roads and trails – although because the girls were getting older by the time Finn arrived, I didn’t take all three dogs for runs in the forest very often. Just taking Finn on my longer trail runs, I noticed that he wasn’t bored with the same old trails and routes. Never. He focused on movement: looking for squirrels in trees, and sometimes bears scurrying away. As long as there was the prospect of seeing squirrels, he didn’t care if we ran the same trail every time.
The girls are gone now, both having passed the summer of 2013. Finn is ten. His ability to be entertained by the same thing, to enjoy routines day after day, year after year, remains undiminished. He does the same things (with slight variation) at the same times most days: eat breakfast right after getting up; run, hike, walk or xc ski first thing in the morning; hang out/nap during the day; eat dinner at 3:00 pm (and he lets me know if I’m late); retrieve the same squeaky toy in the yard after dinner and keep it away from Conall; gnaw on a bone or other chew treat a couple hours later; hang out and go to bed. He still gets excited about eating the same kibble with a small rotating variety of extra “people food” on top every meal. In fact, he seems to thrive on routine.
Not so Conall, my current Malamute, age three. He reminds me of Maia in being easily bored. Like her, he thrives on new experiences – meeting new people and dogs, and babies – oh, he loves babies. He’s showing the same sense of boredom, especially in winter when our options for outdoor exercise are limited to a few xc ski trails and groomed roads. His solution is to be goofy, trying to entice Finn into a game of chase, finding a big stick or a deer/elk bone to carry, dashing up snow-covered hillsides and leaping back down, jumping atop boulders and stumps so I’ll laugh and take his photo. He’d much rather be exploring new routes, using all his senses, but failing that, behaving like a bored teenager disrupting class to make his peers laugh is Conall’s strategy. He turns routine trails into treasure hunts and agility games.
Living with the dog who doesn’t get bored is certainly easier. No complaints about routine, no acting out. But…I rather like having the easily bored dog because they keep me challenged. I have to up my game to keep them engaged and entertained, and that gets me outside my comfort zone, exploring new trails and places to play or ways to stave off boredom. That’s how I discovered out new fall back activity: ditch diving, especially when the ground is covered in a foot or two of soft snow. If we can’t run or xc ski but I want Finn and Conall to have some fun exercise in the morning or evening, I drive a mile from the house to a country road with almost no traffic. Both sides of the road have shallow, mostly dry ditches and barbed wire fence about ten feet from the road edge enclosing pastures that are empty in winter and sport grazing cattle in summer. I walk down the middle of a one mile stretch of the road at a leisurely pace while the boys search for voles under the snow (winter) or in the tall grass (rest of the year), leaping in the air and coming down with front paws digging when they hear one, or think they hear one, Conall occasionally catching one, but mostly giving up and moving down the road a bit and trying again. We spend an hour this way; they’re both thirsty and breathing hard after steady leaping and digging, and I’m entertained.
This winter I got permission to wander into one of the adjacent fields so I don’t have to worry about oncoming cars. That’s added a bit of new interest. I keep waiting to see signs of boredom from Conall. After all, we’ve been doing this pretty regularly this winter, and maybe once a week the rest of the year for the past two years. So far, though, hunting voles doesn’t bore either dog. They egg each other on, digging together. I’m grateful, because I never get bored watching them leaping, digging, and putting their noses through the snow or dirt in search of their prey.