The “Non-Activity” We Should All Do More Often With Our Dogs - Instinct Dog Behavior & Training

The “Non-Activity” We Should All Do More Often With Our Dogs

Welcome to the blog!

This week, we’re exploring one of the most important, and also most overlooked, natural behaviors in our dogs’ ethograms (catalogs of behavior)—Relaxed Observation.

We discuss what Relaxed Observation is, why it matters, and how you can successfully incorporate more of this impactful activity into your dog’s routine.

Happy Reading,

The Importance of Relaxed Observation in Dogs

Have you ever been hanging out in a park, on a stoop, or on your front porch with your dog, and noticed them just lying there, hip flipped, eyes soft and looking around but not anxiously scanning, ears twitching ever so slightly as they attune to sounds around them—just totally relaxed and taking it all in?

This quiet state is what we call “relaxed observation“. And while it may not seem like anything remarkable, it’s actually an important activity in our dogs’ behavioral repertoire.

In the wild, relaxed observation is a critical survival skill. It allows wild canids to remain aware of potential threats or opportunities, while conserving the precious energy needed for future hunts or scavenging outings. For our pet dogs—and their free-roaming “street dog” counterparts—relaxed observation remains as an important activity that makes up a significant portion of their day:

  • Pet dogs are reported to spend as much as 30% of their day in a state of “quiet wakefulness” or “relaxed observation”.
  • Free-roaming street dogs in India have been shown to spend about 44% of their day being inactive, though this study didn’t differentiate between states of sleep and relaxed observation.

Despite the significant role relaxed observation plays in our dogs’ lives, it’s an activity that is often overlooked by dog owners and trainers alike, as we tend to favor more active pursuits like physical exercise, training, dog sports, and enrichment games with our dogs (all of which are also very important, don’t get me wrong).

Pair this bias toward energy-burning activities with busy modern lifestyles, urban environments, and a (totally understandable and appropriate!) move away from leaving dogs tied out or loose to roam during the day, and we’ve ended up with a population of pet dogs who spend the majority of their quiet wakeful periods “observing” the four walls of their living rooms.

Absolutely no shade intended here; over the past several decades, we’ve all been taught and encouraged to prioritize exercise and action over more quiet, mindful, and meditative pursuits, with both our dogs and ourselves.

So today, we’re exploring why making time for relaxed observation out in the real world (instead of just inside your living room) can be a boon for your dog’s behavioral health. And, we outline steps you can take to encourage peaceful, positive world-watching with your pup.

Benefits of Relaxed Observation

Almost every dog will benefit from engaging in relaxed observation out in the world. This natural, instinctive behavior provides our dogs with low-arousal mental stimulation as they process their environment without the need for direct interaction—instead, they can study and analyze sights, smells, and sounds in a more thoughtful, contemplative way.

While relaxed observation is helpful for nearly all dogs, there are a handful of dog types who stand to gain some extra benefits from engaging in the behavior. Those include:

Livestock Guardian Breeds: These breeds were selected to remain stationary for long periods, calmly observing their flocks and scanning the environment for potential threats. This makes relaxed observation an especially good match for their behavioral needs. In other words, it scratches a pretty strong biological itch.

Reactive & Impulsive Dogs:Most reactive and impulsive dogs tend to default to being an “active participant” with their surroundings. They benefit greatly from slowing down and more fully processing the stimuli around them as a thoughtful, passive observer.

Fearful Dogs: Observing normally “scary” stimuli from a comfortable distance, with zero pressure or expectation to interact with them, gives fearful dogs a chance get out of “fight or flight” mode and instead being to pause and assess whether those things they normally find scary pose an actual threat to their safety and wellbeing.

Puppies: Safe, low-stress observation is a fantastic way for puppies to learn about the world without becoming overwhelmed or overstimulated (and, without assuming it’s their job to interact with every dog, person, or pigeon that crosses their path!).

Senior Dogs: As their stamina for long walks decreases, and their fondness for rowdy dog parks declines, our older dogs can end up spending more time indoors as they age. Relaxed observation is a perfect way for them to enjoy longer periods outside, in a way that suits their current needs and abilities.

How to Encourage Relaxed Observation

1. Choose the Right Spot

Try This:

  • Choose a location where your dog can observe the environment comfortably and safely.
  • Elevated spots, like porches or small hills in parks, work great as they provide a good vantage point for you and your dog, as well as a sense of security.
  • In NYC, for example, we often encourage dog owners to do “Stoop Time” with their young pups.

Avoid This:

  • Skip locations where you’re likely to be approached by off-leash dogs.
  • Avoid trying to scratch this instinctive “itch” by having your dog watch passersby out your front window. While a small portion of dogs can do this in a relaxed way, the combination of the physical barrier and them being inside their home makes it far more likely that the activity will turn into a homeland security detail than any sort of relaxed observation.

2. Bring the Right Gear

Try This:

  • Many dogs benefit from having a blanket or mat available to lie on, if they so choose.
  • For dogs that struggle with relaxation or are new to just hanging out when out of the house, consider providing a long-lasting chew toy or a stuffed Kong to help them settle.
  • Have some treats on hand to offer, calmly and casually, if needed (say, if a particularly exciting or concerning distraction is passing by). But, avoid turning this into an active training session.
  • Have your dog wear their normal walking gear—something they are comfortable wearing, that also provides you with safety and control if you need to make a hasty exit.
  • If your dog is fearful/reactive/impulsive, make sure you’re able to easily abort your currently spot if they to get overwhelmed or uncomfortable. This can be as simple as leaving your front door open so you can quickly duck inside with your if needed.

3. Get In the Right Mindset

Try This:

  • Once you are set up in your spot, take a moment to take a few big, deep breaths and remind yourself of the purpose of this activity: to give you & your dog a chance to enjoy peaceful moments together as you take in your surroundings. The more you feel relaxed and at ease, the more likely you are to pass those good vibes onto your dog!
  • Set basic boundaries about where you’d like your dog to stay (say, within leash length, or, on the landing of the stoop, for example), but don’t ask them maintaining a specific position (e.g., don’t enforce a Sit or Down)—this isn’t a formal training exercise.
  • Model relaxed body language and observe the environment with calm curiosity.

Avoid This:

  • Resist the urge to excitedly praise your dog for watching things calmly, or to mark “yes” and reward with a treat every time they spot a person or dog approaching. While this can be a really helpful exercise for some dogs, this type of active engagement isn’t what we’re looking for when practicing relaxed observation.
  • As mentioned above, don’t accidentally turn this into a “Stay” exercise—it’s easy to fall into the pattern of re-cueing your dog to lay down, in an effort to help them settle, but let them choose the position(s) they find most comfortable as you hang out. Of course, if you need to temporarily cue a certain behavior to help them succeed in the presence of a challenging distraction, go right ahead!

4. Consider Timing & Duration

Try This:

  • Choose a time of day when your dog is not overly energetic or tired.
  • Ensure they’ve had a drink and a bathroom break beforehand (no one can relax when they have to pee!).
  • If hanging out and world-watching is new to your dog, start off doing it for short periods, and build up duration gradually over time.
    • Some dogs may be able to jump right into hanging out for 20-30 minutes at time, while others may need to start with short, 5-7 minutes (common for puppies and reactive, impulsive, or fearful dogs). Some dogs, especially seniors or livestock guardians, may enjoy much longer periods of relaxed observation.

Avoid This:

  • While there are exceptions, many dogs will naturally become a bit more alert and vigilant around dusk and after dark. It’s often best to avoid these times of day and do your relaxed observation during daylight hours.

5. Teach Foundation Skills First, If Needed

Some dogs may need to learn basic settling skills in a quiet, indoor environment before engaging in relaxed observation outside. If you find this to be the case with your dog, you can check out this quick video tutorial on introducing your dog to settling skills.

Relaxed observation is a natural, instinctive behavior for our dogs—one that can really have a positive impact on their behavioral health. It allows them to connect with their environment in a calm, thoughtful, non-reactive manner…and it may just do the same for you, too!

Check out the resources below!

Check out Instinct’s award-winning podcast, Dogs Unknown (fka DogLab), hosted by Instinct Co-Founders Sarah Fraser (me!) and Brian Burton.

Join one of our free, live training & behavior seminars via Zoom!

Hosted by Instinct behavior consultants, these seminars include a 1 hr presentation plus live Q&A session. Open to all!

Sign up for the Nature-Driven Nurture Foundations course in our Online School. Learn our groundbreaking canine behavioral health framework that teaches you how to optimize your dog’s training & care based on their unique, individual Nature. This self-paced course includes:

  • Access to private Alumni Facebook group
  • Twice-monthly Zoom Q&As with Instinct co-founders

Or, contact your local Instinct for fully customized training & behavior support with certified, veterinarian-recommended trainers and behavior consultants.

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