When Doing Nothing is Doing Something

We learn from an early age that we should be actively doing “something” much of the time but this blog post is all about challenging that notion, at least some of the time. There are many instances when doing nothing rather than doing something may be warranted and I want to take the opportunity to share my perspective on what that looks like and what it means to me. 


First Example

I would argue that for some (maybe all?) pets and people, learning the skill of doing “nothing” could be an absolute game changer in how they experience the world. 

Take for example, a newly adopted dog. Your excitement at bringing home a new family member is understandable. Your desire to immediately improve the dog’s quality of life is laudable. You might be tempted to immediately begin showing your new family member all that they have been missing. You might want to “socialize” your new pet because you heard how important socialization is for dogs (learn more about socialization here). You might immediately begin taking them on walks. Or invite family and friends over to meet them. You might even think about signing them up for a group training class right away. Again, all of this is commendable. Your desire to provide joy and provide your new dog with lots of experiences is done out of love and wanting to help them. 

Here’s the thing though. For many, many newly adopted dogs these experiences will not be beneficial at all. Your new pet might feel extraordinarily overwhelmed by any or all of these well intentioned activities as they are acclimating to a brand new home, people, and environment. They may need some time to feel comfortable and safe enough for these other activities to feel enjoyable. Providing safety does not necessarily feel like doing much, right? Because while providing safety might mean dog proofing your house (especially if you bring home a puppy) it mostly means allowing your dog to feel like your house is now home. It might look like providing nutritious food, plenty of fresh water, a comfy bed to lie on, and a predictable routine. That doesn’t sound all that exciting or glamorous. But the gift of doing nothing (or at least, less) is that it provides your new dog with the opportunity to have limited, safe exposure to an environment they don’t feel comfortable in yet. 

A good amount of the time all that is really required is time and patience as they become accustomed to their new surroundings which can translate into a whole lot of looking like nothing is happening. But if you pay close attention, you will see that something big has been happening in tiny increments. Your dog might start to surprise you with their bravery and their willingness to explore the neighborhood or approach people or play tug. Allowing your new dog to do nothing and experience the world where they have a measure of control over their outcomes can vastly improve their relationship with doing something, when they are ready. For new pets I would rather see people doing nothing now so that doing something later feels enjoyable for everyone. If you would like to read more about how to help build security for your new dog, here is a blog post all about it. 


Second Example

For my second example, let’s look at a fairly common behavior our Pet Harmony team of consultants work with regularly: leash reactivity. Leash reactivity, in oversimplified terms, can be described as the suite of behaviors a dog exhibits when they perceive a stressor while confined by a leash (learn more about leash reactivity here and here and here – told you we work on this behavior a lot!) 

So much of the time, well intentioned pet parents feel like they have to walk their dog in the name of exercise, socialization, and enrichment. Walks are great for so many reasons and for so many dogs. However, if every time you are walking your dog and your dog reactively barks, lunges, snarls, growls or snaps at other dogs or people on walks, the likelihood of the walk exacerbating the behavior is exponentially higher than if you find another avenue for providing exercise and enrichment. I am definitely not suggesting that you do nothing in this case, because the behavior is not likely to go away without interventions, but I am suggesting that reducing the leash walking to “nothing” or close to nothing while you work with a behavior professional can help both you and your dog a lot. Doing nothing in this case might look like not walking your dog while you are onboarding skills to help them deal with their big feelings–and instead using alternative activities to meet their physical and mental exercise needs in the meantime. 


Third Example

My third example is focused on those dogs who need to be active always and they demand to be active right now, thankyouverymuch. These are the kiddos who are always moving, always wanting to chase the ball, or can’t settle, or think that the time you spend at your computer working or in front of your TV relaxing is time that would be better served chasing squirrels, patrolling the backyard, or pestering you for attention. Of course, some of these are normal activities for dogs, but if your dog is truly having a hard time settling during the day there could be an underlying problem that needs to be addressed. Dogs should rest quite a lot during the day and their inability to settle can be a red flag for other things like pain, hyperactivity, or anxiety (which need to be diagnosed by a veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist). Or, it could just mean that your dog has never learned how to rest as a skill set!  

An all too often recommended course of action is to provide the dog with even more activity. You start taking a morning run with your dog for the sake of “tiring them out.” Pretty soon the morning run is no longer working, so you add in an afternoon or evening run. Exercise, is of course, not a bad thing, but the danger here is that there is a good chance that you are not addressing the underlying reason for your dog’s excessive activity and you may be building endurance which creates a vicious cycle of your dog needing more and more exercise. If your dog is pacing and can’t settle because they have anxiety, going for a run or multiple runs will do nothing to address their anxiety and may actually make it worse. This is one of those situations when teaching your dog to do “nothing” will have far more favorable benefits than doing something like taking them for a run. For dogs who do not know how to settle or who don’t seem to have an off switch, learning how to do nothing can be a game changer. And, yes, doing “nothing” is absolutely a skill that can be taught and learned if you work with a skilled behavior professional. 


Do something even if it’s wrong?

My family laughs about one of the idiosyncratic things my dad used to say all the time. If he saw that you were being idle, he would tell you to “do something, even if it’s wrong.” I never really thought about what it was that my dad meant when he said it. It was just one of those things he would say that would make us kids roll our eyes and move on with our day. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it quite literally. I think it was his way of saying get off your behind and go do something. 

But just doing something for the sake of doing it or saying you did it isn’t always a good thing. There are plenty of times when doing something could even have the potential to cause more harm than doing any good. Choosing your somethings with thought, care, and the guidance of a skilled behavior professional – instead of doing them for reasons you are not clear on or because your neighbor or colleague at work recommended them – is more likely to give you the outcomes you are hoping for. 

I hope I’ve given you food for thought and I hope that during this season of hustle and bustle, you give yourself and your pets the permission to do nothing. You might just find that doing nothing is really doing something after all. 


What Now?

  • Be mindful about choosing your somethings with care and really spend some time thinking about whether you are doing something because it is truly beneficial or if you are doing it because it’s something you think you’re supposed to do. Spend a bit of time thinking about the impact your somethings might be having on your pet’s stress level and make adjustments as needed.  
  • Learning more about how dogs communicate and how to meet their needs as a species can help you figure out if doing less is actually doing more. 
  • If your dog is exhibiting signs of stress, anxiety, fear, or aggression, please work with a qualified, experienced behavior consultant so they can help you come up with an actionable plan to help improve not only your dog’s quality of life but as a result, yours as well. 


Happy Training,