10 Ways to Give Your Dog More Mental Stimulation
Looking for some easy ways to help tire out your dog and keep them busy? If so try adding in a few mentally stimulating activities into their routine. Contrary to popular belief dogs need more than just physical exercise, and a few quick brain games can do wonders when it comes to them burning off excess energy.
Instead of just adding more physical exercise to your dog’s routine add in a few brain games to really tire them out. Mental stimulation enriches our dogs lives by giving them something meaningful to do. And because these activities alleviate boredom they decrease the likelihood of our dogs developing behavioral issues such as excessive chewing or barking.
If you’re looking for some easy ways to exercise your dog’s brain here’s 10 ways to give your dog more mental stimulation.
1. Have Your Dog Work For Their Food
Our dogs have it pretty easy when it comes to meal time. Most of us just set their bowl down & let them go at it. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is a far cry from their natural scavenging habits. So if you want to add some more mental stimulation to your dogs routine you can start with changing up their feeding routine. Instead of just handing over their food a few times a day you can make a fun game out of it for your dog.
My favorite method is using a food dispensing toy such as the Kong Wobbler or Bob-A-Lot. You place your dogs meals in the toy and they have to roll it around in order to get the food to come out of the hole. And yes – it can be a bit noisy, but it’s well worth it when you see how satisfying it is for your dog.
Another really easy way to have your dog “work” for their food is by using a snuffle mat. My favorite is this one from Lamtwek because it’s easy to wash and very durable. I’ve been using it for just over a year and it’s still in great condition.
2. Let Your Dog Sniff & Explore on Walks
Getting to go for a walk is one of the most exciting parts of your dogs day. You can give them some more mental stimulation by letting them stop & sniff around some more. It’s true that walking is great physical exercise, but for dogs it’s also about exploration. Sure you may have walked down your road a million times now, but that certainly doesn’t mean there’s not new & exciting smells for your dog to check out everyday.
And if you’re not comfortable with letting your dog lead you around on walks you can designate certain areas or times for free sniffing. Just teach your dog a cue such as “go sniff” and let them explore for awhile. You’d be surprised at how much more tired dogs are after a walk that includes exploration & sensory enrichment (sniffing) compared to just walking a straight line.
3. Get Your Dog a Puzzle Toy
Puzzle toys are a nice and easy way to keep your dog busy & entertained. Interactive toys like puzzles help keep your dog focused on a task, and that added extra mental stimulation goes a long way. One extra 15 minute game a day can such a huge difference to your dog. It gives them something to focus on, and that extra meaning in their day helps when it comes to alleviating problem behaviors.
Puzzle toys are great because they give your dog a chance to use some of their natural problem solving abilities. And by keeping your dog engaged with interactive toys you can help boost their confidence & tire them out mentally.
Now keep in mind not all puzzle toys are loved equally by all dogs. My dog prefers a frozen Kong stuffed with treats over puzzle toys that lay flat on the ground. A frozen Kong will keep her busy for 30+ minutes, while a puzzle toy usually lasts 2. So if you’re not sure if your dog is into puzzles I suggest making one out of a muffin tin & tennis balls to gauge their interest.
4. Teach Your Dog Some New Tricks
How many tricks does your dog know? Do they have a good stay, come here & lay down? Well the good news is there’s a lot more you can teach them that goes beyond the basics. With trick training there’s always more to add.
Teaching your dog a new trick or command is great for mental stimulation, and it can be especially helpful with shy or fearful dogs. All that training will help boost your dogs confidence, and it strengthens the bond between dog & owner. Learning new commands can also help increase your dogs focus and impulse control (manners).
Not sure what to teach your dog next? Here’s a great list of 52 tricks to get you started. One of my favorite tricks is weaving between legs. It looks really cool & impressive, but it was surprisingly one of the easiest tricks to teach.
5. Play Some Nose Work Games
One of my dogs favorite activities is some basic nose work games. Having your dog use their nose to find things is a really simple way to help them hone in one their natural skills. And all that searching will provide your dog with a lot more mental stimulation in their daily routine.
Our favorite game is ‘go find it.’ I’ll chop up a carrot or two into small bits and hide them throughout the house. You can use any treat you like, but when you’re first starting out I recommend sticking to something smelly since it might take them a few tries to really get the hang of it.
As you have your dog in a stay position go hide some of those treats around the house. If you’ve never done any nose work games before start with some easy spots & be sure to encourage your dog when he finds them. Keep it fun & exciting for them by praising them every time they find a treat. After they get the hang of it you can start hiding them in harder to find spots, encouraging them to use their nose more and rely less on visuals.
6. Teach Your Dog the Names of Their Toys
Does your dog know the names of their toys? My dog loves the ‘go find it’ game, and we play it toys as well as treats. I mean don’t get me wrong – I love using treats, but if we used them all the time my dog would probably end up overweight. So we started using toys as well. I started using this game after I saw those amazing videos of Chaser the Border Collie who knows the names of over 1000 toys. To say she’s an inspiration is a bit of an understatement.
The first step is making sure your dog knows the name of the item you’re going to be hiding. If you’re starting with a certain toy I recommend sitting down with them & that toy (and in this case let’s say you’re using ‘pink bear’). With pink bear on the ground in front of you tell your dog ‘pink bear.’ As soon as they touch it or grab it praise them like crazy.
Now once you’ve done this a few times you can add in a different toy in addition to pink bear. Just be sure to go slowly to ensure that your dog knows exactly what ‘pink bear’ is before you move on to another. So once your dog knows the name of a few items you have them ‘go find pink bear’ or ‘go find yellow bird.’
7. Play Some Free Shaping Games
If you haven’t heard of 101 things to do with a box you’ve been missing out on some fun training opportunities. The basic principle of shaping games is to encourage our dogs to try something new. By giving our dogs the chance to make their own decisions we can increase their mental and physical flexibility.
You start out with a box on the ground and without any cues let your dog investigate and decide what to do. Shaping can be used with any item, not just a box. Here’s a great video of shape training a dog to crawl under an object.
8. Make an Obstacle Course For Your Dog
Teaching your dog how to go through an obstacle course is a nice mental workout for them. And if you don’t have any agility jumps or poles at home don’t worry; you can make your own, or just use some stuff in your house as alternatives.
I’m not quite crafty enough to make my own agility course, so I opted for using alternatives at home. We use a blanket, some toys and a few orange hazard cones I picked up at the local thrift store. Now my little course doesn’t look anything like a professional one, but it’s really useful in teaching my dog new tricks.
You can teach your dog to ‘go to your blanket,’ ‘jump over this broomstick’ or ‘weave’ through cones. Whatever commands work with what you’ve got set up. And the benefit of putting these obstacles together like this is that it’s a really big mental workout for your dog. You’re not just asking them to do one thing, you’re asking them to do one thing after another.
9. Engage in More Interactive Play With Your Dog
Our dogs love playing with us, and engaging in interactive play is one of the easiest ways to keep them mentally stimulated. And I know play seems awfully basic, but it’s easy to underestimate just how important play is for our dogs. Recent studies have found that the more play a dog engages in the less likely they are to suffer from behavioral issues.
Interactive play is when you actively engage with your dog. Playing a game of tug or fetch is interactive play, and those sorts of games help tremendously when it comes to giving your dog more mental stimulation. And any of those fun games will help strengthen your bond. Tug is my favorite game to play because it’s great physical exercise, it’s a lot of fun, and it helps our dogs work on their impulse control.
10. Play the Shell Game With Your Dog
Do you know what the shell game is? It’s a game where you hide a treat under one of 3 identical containers, and then you shuffle them around letting the participant choose the correct container.
To play the shell game with your dog you let them watch as you place a treat under one of the cups. Shuffle them around and then encourage them to ‘find the treat.’ The shell game will give your dog more mental stimulation, and it’s an easy way to help them work on their problem solving skills.
How Do You Give Your Dog More Mental Stimulation?
How do you give your dog mental exercise? Do you let your dog sniff & explore on walks? Do you play a lot of tug? Does your dog eat their meals out of a puzzle toy? Did I miss any of your favorite brain games for dogs?
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