Along with feeding them a healthy diet and facilitating enough exercise, providing your dog with mental stimulation is a key part of dog ownership. There are plenty of ways to do this, the best of which depends on your dog and what they respond to. Some dogs may thrive learning tricks, while others feel more stimulated by going on enriching sniff walks. This article covers six great ways to provide your dog with mental stimulation.
Why is mental stimulation important for dogs?
Just like us humans, dogs need mental stimulation to feel happy and avoid boredom. Additionally, mental stimulation can help reduce or prevent behavioural issues in dogs. When dogs are young, it can positively impact their mental development, and as they age, it can help keep their minds sharp and reduce the mental impacts of the ageing process. Mental stimulation may also help increase confidence in shy dogs. When you involve yourself in their activities, this also helps deepen the bond between you and your pooch, as they associate you with happiness, fun, and enrichment.
Mentally stimulating activities for dogs
There are lots of different types of activities that can provide enriching mental stimulation for your dog. Many of these activities also provide you with an opportunity to spend fun quality time with your pooch, and we all know there’s nothing better than that!
1. Offer puzzle toys
Some dog toys are specifically designed to provide dogs with mental stimulation and solo entertainment. For example, there are lots of different types of puzzle toys that dispense food or treats to reward your dog’s effort. Some require their paws, while others come in the form of chewable dispensers. These options encourage your dog to use their brain and engage their problem-solving skills to get a reward. When they get their food or treat, they feel satisfaction and will likely be motivated to keep going with the activity.
Other options, like snuffle mats, encourage your dog’s natural foraging instincts. These mats are perfect for hiding food and treats, and like the puzzle options, require your dogs to use their brains to get what they want. Engaging their natural hunting and snuffling instincts in this way helps stimulate their brain and keep them sharp.
2. Play interactive games
There are lots of different types of interactive games you can play with your dog to keep them entertained and provide you both with some quality time. For example, if your dog is a quick learner or enjoys working for a treat, you could try a guessing game. This involves getting three identical cups and placing a treat under one of them, then moving the cups around into a different formation. Then, encourage your dog to find the treat. Another option is teaching your dog the names of their toys, such as ‘ball’ and ‘bear’ so they can retrieve them. Learning games like this help strengthen their mind and memory. Take it slowly, one toy at a time, so they don’t get overwhelmed. Make sure to reward and praise them when they’re able to identify and eventually even retrieve the correct items.
More common games are also great options, such as classics like tug of war and fetch. Tug of war in particular allows them to work on their impulse control. Just make sure not to overdo this game in a way that could damage their teeth or jaw. Fetch can also sharpen their mind by requiring them to focus and utilise their reflexes. If it includes catching the toy, their coordination can improve as well.
3. Teach them new tricks
Learning new tricks and skills engages your dog’s brain, and providing positive reinforcement makes them feel happy and satisfied. This is another activity that requires you to spend focused one-on-one time with your dog, further strengthening your bond. The tricks you can teach them are endless, but some fun options include teaching them to open or close a door, wait with a treat on their nose until they’re given a release word to eat it, and weaving between your legs.
Other more classic options include shake a paw, roll over, and speak. Regardless of the trick, your dog will enjoy this enriching quality time with you (and the training treats used for positive reinforcement will be much appreciated too). You can then practice these tricks regularly as this also serves as a great form of mental stimulation and keeps their memory sharp.
4. Go on sniff walks
Scents are incredibly mentally stimulating for dogs. Allowing your dog to sniff as much as they want on dedicated sniff walks helps them learn about their surroundings. It may seem off-putting to us, but sniffing other dogs’ urine can help them learn a lot of information about other dogs in their area. Sniffing in general fulfils some of their sensory needs and gives them a chance to partake in a key part of their natural behaviour.
Plus, as it engages their respiratory system as well as their brain, sniff walks can be a tiring activity that leaves them feeling satisfied, even if the route is shorter than other walks that aren’t sniff-focused. Allowing your dog to lead the way based on scents they find interesting can also help build their confidence and reduce any stress they may be feeling.
5. Try different walking routes and destinations
Offering your dog new places to explore can be very stimulating and exciting, which is great for mental stimulation. For example, a new park or hiking trail they haven’t been to before may engage their brain more than going to the same spot they’re used to. Even a different walking route in the same area helps engage their brain more than sticking to the same route for every walk. They won’t know exactly what to expect or where they’re going next, keeping them fully engaged and interested in the adventure. This, paired with the new smells and scenery, keeps them sharp and stimulated.
6. Set up a scavenger hunt or an obstacle course
If your dog is a bundle of energy, something like an obstacle course could be a great option for them. It doesn’t need to be Crufts-level fancy, it just needs to be dog-safe and provide them with a challenge. This option is great for both mental and physical stimulation, and should come with plenty of positive reinforcement when they complete different parts of the course.
You could also choose to set up a scavenger hunt in your house, with treats, food, or some of their favourite items like toys and blankets. This encourages them to use and improve their nose work, one of their natural skills, to achieve a goal. It’s important to give them clear commands to find whatever you have hidden, and plenty of praise when they complete the task successfully.
You know your dog better than anyone, so it’s up to you to decide which mentally stimulating activities will be most enjoyable for them. There’s also no harm in trial and error to help you figure this out. It will become clear to you upon trying out some of these activities which ones your dog responds most positively to both during the activity and afterwards. The most important thing is that your dog is happy and having fun, and if their favourite human (you) and some treats, food, or toys are involved, those serve as added bonuses.