As a dog owner, finding your favorite shoes torn to pieces is inevitable. This may not be a sign that your dog has bad behavior, however, but rather that your dog was bored. Mental stimulation is just as important for dogs as it is for humans, and this guide can help keep your canine best friend interested and occupied.
As I write this I’m thinking of my own dog Chachi, 5 months old, looking up at me with those puppy dog eyes as if to say “What did you expect?” I left him for quite a while with nothing to do so he got into trouble. Chewing my favorite sneakers, completely irreverently. When I’ve taken him out for a round of fetch and tug of war with that little sandal shaped chew toy he loves… these things don’t happen.
We’ll cover the following in this guide:
- What is mental stimulation?
- Benefits to your dog
- Benefits to you!
- Activities and games that promote mental stimulation
- 5 Puzzles and problem-solving toys
What is mental stimulation and why is it important?
Mental stimulation involves the practice of introducing your dog to certain games or toys that allow their mind to be active. It’s more than just playing fetch with them. Mental stimulation requires the dog to think. This staves off boredom and bad behavior.
For your dog to be completely happy, they require not just regular physical exercise but mental stimulation activities as well. Knowing just what kind of activities are effective in keeping your dog’s mind sharp isn’t always easy. If you want to keep your dog happy and possibly prevent your next pair of shoes from being destroyed, then read on to find out more about mental stimulation and how you can introduce it to your beloved pet.
The Benefits of Mental Stimulation (for your dog)
If your pet seems to be misbehaving a lot, then it might be because they’re understimulated. When you get bored, perhaps you experience a period of antsiness. You can’t quite sit still. There’s an overwhelming urge to do something. Your dog is subject to the same kind of boredom. Except they don’t typically have as many resources as you do to keep themselves interested and engaged.
Physical activity alone may not be enough to wear them down. Just like you may be physically exhausted after work, your mind may still be quite active. The same can occur in your dog. This is not to say that physical activity should be excluded. Your dog benefits the most when mental stimulation is paired with physical activity.
There are actually quite a few different methods for keeping your dog mentally stimulated. The idea behind each activity and toy is to present a challenge to your dog. They have to solve the puzzle or overcome the challenge in order to receive a treat. This requires their mind to puzzle something out which engages them mentally. Their focus is increased while their boredom is decreased, and your shoes are kept safe.
Increase in happiness
Perhaps the biggest benefit that a pet owner will notice in their dog when they’re mentally stimulated is their immediate increase in happiness. Dogs are just as social as humans and because of that need for socialization, their minds require puzzles and challenges. By receiving that, their minds remain sharp and attentive. This can also make them more receptive to training. A smarter dog tends to learn faster and more effectively.
You can generally speak of mental stimulation techniques as a way to distract your dog. For example, if your dog suffers from anxiety, then having something to keep them stimulated and engaged can reduce that anxiety. They’re no longer focused on the trigger that is causing them distress.
Anxiety is something that a lot of pet owners struggle with when it comes to their pets. In dogs, anxiety can cause them to have increased accidents on the floor and to chew up personal items. By remaining engaged mentally, their anxiety is decreased, and your floors and personal items catch a break.
Reduce bad behavior
Finally, your dog’s bad behavior will typically be reduced if not eliminated entirely when they’re mentally stimulated with an activity or toy. Rambunctious dogs are usually that way because they’re bored. Think of it as a way for them to tell you that they require something in their daily lifestyle. By working on a puzzle, for example, they are socially and mentally–and sometimes even physically–engaged with that puzzle and not running around the house causing havoc instead.
How Mental Stimulation Benefits You
Perhaps the best part of mentally stimulating your dog is that you benefit, too! Referring back to the distressing shoe destruction example, if your dog is happily engaged with something that occupies their mind, your shoes are essentially kept safe. The other items of your house that your dog has shown an affinity for can also be kept safe from their rampaging.
Besides just the safety of your personal items, you can also form a close and happy bond with your dog. Playing with your pet is perhaps the easiest and most effective way of nurturing a bond between you. The dog has a lot of fun and feeds off of that social interaction. When you introduce mentally stimulating activities as well, then your dog is also actively engaged with you. It recognizes that you are the one alleviating their boredom. They’ll be grateful and love you all the more.
A lot of the activities and games that can stimulate a dog are also just a lot of fun. Both your dog and you will enjoy playing with each other in the house or outside.
Finally, you can benefit from mentally stimulating your dog when it comes to training. The bond, alone, will help your dog heed your commands. By nurturing it through mental stimulation practices, that bond will only become all the easier to utilize during training. Their minds are also made sharper because of actively engaging their mind on a regular basis. When it comes to training, they’ll be able to grasp your meaning a lot more effectively.
With a trained dog, you can take them to more places and feel more comfortable about having them around other dogs and people.
Games And Activities For Mental Stimulation
Hide And Seek
One of the best games that you can introduce to your dog to promote mental stimulation is to play hide and seek. Both older and younger dogs can play this game. In younger dogs, particularly, it can also be used to train them for certain commands like, “come,” “find,” and “stay.” In regards to “come” especially, it’s important that your dog learns the recall command. Otherwise, your dog may run off after another dog or an animal and get itself into trouble. Hide and seek allows you to hone this skill while actively engaging their mind.
All you need to do is have someone hold the dog back while you hide. This is a game that can be played outside or inside on a rainy day. Once you’re hiding, the person with your dog gives the command, “find,” or “search,” and your dog sets off trying to find you. This game is most effective when the person hiding is the pack leader. This is because dogs naturally gravitate close to the pack leader and desire to be close to them.
The reason that hide and seek is an effective and mentally stimulating game is because it requires your dog to think about where you are. If you introduce physical challenges along the way–perhaps they need to jump over some obstacles or squeeze through something–then it can also challenge them physically. Once they find you, they should be rewarded with a treat and lots of affection.
Yes, even the old game of fetch can offer mental stimulation for your dog. This is, perhaps, the easiest way for pet owners to keep their dog stimulated and happy. It also places physical activity hand-in-hand with mental activity. When you throw the ball, the dog has to quickly plan its trajectory. By doing so, they’re more likely to catch it. When it comes to catching, they may have to run faster, suddenly divert their direction, or even jump to catch the ball. This physical demand is met only by the mental demand to ensure that they’re able to receive the ball.
Another great way to mix physical activity with mental stimulation is by building your own obstacle course in the back yard. Perhaps you’ve seen that extremely cool dog show where dogs dive in and out of tunnels and run upstairs. They typically seem pretty happy running through those obstacles and completing them.
Your dog can benefit just as much from an obstacle course of their own. You can also typically make one quite easily in your backyard. All you need is a few stakes, a ramp, and a tunnel. Luckily, there are some actual dog show obstacles that you can purchase as well if you want the real deal.
The next part is practice. Your dog may not understand immediately what it is that you want them to do. They may even be wary about running through a tunnel. You can encourage them with treats. Guide your dog via the treat through each obstacle until they’re formed the habit. You can reward them at the end of each obstacle. Once they’re able to make it through each part without much difficulty, you can have them run the entire course and give them a treat at the end.
Each obstacle will present a physical challenge for the dog as well as a mental one. They’ll have to figure out how to complete it and then actually complete it. Don’t be too surprised if your dog ends up loving to play on the obstacle course.
The Shell Game
Have you ever played the Shell Game? It involves placing a ball or small object beneath a cup. Typically, it’s played with three cups. Two other cups are placed beside the cup with the object beneath it. The game’s host moves the cups around each other and you have to guess which cup has the item beneath it. This is a game that is great for dogs, too.
All you need to do is place a treat beneath one of the cups. Then shuffle the cups around and wait for your dog to figure out which cup has their treat inside of it. This game makes them rely on their sense of smell. It also engages their attention and brain since they have to follow the cups around and figure out how to access their treat once the cups have stopped moving.
This game is great to play on days when you can’t actively engage them outside. You can also increase the difficulty–and thus the challenge–by adding in more cups as your dog learns the game better and better.
Learn New Tricks
One final game that you can utilize to keep your dog stimulated it to teach them new tricks. This can be as seemingly easy as teaching them the names of their toys. By speaking the name over and over in a clear voice and showing it to them, they can form a connection between that word and that object. When you tell them to get that certain toy, they’ll know which one to fetch. This engages their memory and also their ability to learn.
Other tricks that are handy for them to learn are the staples like shake, sit, and stay. The last two, especially, are great for obedience training. You can do this in your own home without the aid of a professional trainer so long as you have a great deal of patience and treats.
It’s through learning these tricks, however, that dogs are kept mentally stimulated. Physical tricks like learning how to roll over, run in circles, chase their tails, or dance also engages their physical energy level along with taxing and stimulating their mind.
Here are 10 great tricks any dog can learn!
5 Puzzles and Problem-Solving Toys for Dogs
Besides just games, there are also puzzles and toys that are effective in keeping your dog mentally stimulated. Here are a few of those toys and puzzles.
- Kong Classic Dog Toy: Perhaps one of the staples that you need to have in your home is the Kong Classic Dog Toy. This toy allows you to hide a few treats inside of it. Your dog will have to figure out how to access the treat without being able to chew on it. This is a great toy that can keep your dog occupied for hours.
- Nina Ottosson Outward Hound Puzzle Toy: This interesting toy involves the careful manipulation of levers in order to access the treats below. It’s perhaps one of the most challenging dog toys out there on the market. Your dog is sure to love solving it and being rewarded with the tasty treats inside.
- Trixie Pet Products Flip Board: Another puzzle to consider getting for your dog is the puzzle toy from Trixie Pet. This puzzle is made specifically for smaller dogs. It requires them to use different parts of their body–paws, tongue, nose–in order to access the treats below it. Because each part requires them to use a different part of themselves, it keeps the challenge exciting and fresh.
- Wooly Snuffle Mat: Stimulate your pup’s mind, encourage their natural foraging skills, and excite their sense of smell with this fun food-finding toy. Just drop a few small treats or kibbles into the mat, bring them to the mat, and let them find their way through the ruffles to the treats.
- Our Pets IQ Treat Ball: I have a love-hate relationship with this toy. My dog (Oliver) loooooves it! But…it can get pretty wild when he plays with it. I have to make sure to pick up his water bowl to avoid spills. Just drop some treats (here are his current favorites on Amazon) into the ball and close it up. As he rolls the ball, it dispenses treats. It’s awesome!
Basic Obedience Commands All Dogs Should Know
There are a few staple commands that all dogs should be taught during their obedience training. These commands, and the training of them, are also a great way to stimulate your dog. They are the essential commands that your dog needs to know in order to behave properly both inside and outside of the home.
Sit Stay and Fetch
Sit: You can typically teach a dog how to sit by pushing down on their bottom and stating the command. Once they hold the position, you give them a treat. Be patient here, try holding the treat above them. This naturally causes their head to look up and a sit is usually close behind.
The key here is to get the reward associated with the action. Say “Sit” clearly, and wait a bit for them to figure it out. As soon as they sit, or start to sit, reward them with the treat and a “Good boy! Good girl!” I found that holding the treat up got my dog to sit after a short while. They typically can learn this quickly. Now when he’s in doubt, he’ll sit if he wants something 🙂
Stay: Teaching your dog how to stay is a bit more advanced. I typically coupled this with “Sit”. When they have sit covered, I would hold the treat out and say “Stay”. The goal here is for them to be patient and wait in position. If he moved towards me I would say “No” and pull the treat away. Put him back into the Sit position, and start again.
Always remember: Your dog does not understand you at first. She’s learning so be patient. Help her understand and reward her when she succeeds!
Another method to train it is to give the command and then walk away. Each time they try to move, you can simply say “no” and return them to the starting point. You should begin by walking small distances from your dog and rewarding them when they don’t move. As they become more used to the command, you can extend that distance.
Fetch: Fetch is one last skill that can be important for the dog to learn. Not only does this allow them to play the game fetch but it also allows you to give other commands to your dog. They can be taught to fetch certain toys or even to put their toys away. Place a treat inside of a ball to start.
Again the key here is repetition and allowing them to associate the term “Fetch” with the action! Most dogs love to fetch, but remember the goal is associating the word with what you are asking. This can then be combined with sit and stay.
What are some signs your dog is not getting enough mental stimulation?
You may be wondering if your dog is receiving enough mental stimulation. They can typically tell you if they are. Some of the signs that your dog may be unstimulated are an increased level of stress or anxiety, excessive shedding, shaking, barking, or a lot of pacing. Bad behavior may also increase.
How long does a dog need to be mentally stimulated for?
Mental stimulation can go hand-in-hand with physical exercise. As such, hunter breeds typically need at least 30 minutes to two hours of active stimulation. Breeds with short snouts only need about a half-hour of stimulation as they get older. However, mental stimulation should exceed physical stimulation.