You hear this all the time, “a tired dog is a happy, healthy dog.” However, one thing your friends and other dog parents fail to mention often is that a tired, mentally stimulated dog is the happiest, healthiest dog.
The interesting bit is that I didn’t know this when I first became a dog parent. In fact, I learned this fact the hard way.
While I fed my pooch all the right foods and took it out for walks often, I’d notice that my baby was not as happy. It looked stressed, and with time, the separation anxiety took a toll that it became painful for me to watch my pooch as I left for work in the morning.
And the worst bit is that my beloved pooch became too emotional. Now, I might feel emotions too strongly, but I knew that I needed to act fast.
Of course, I called our vet and explained the situation, throwing her way all manner of suppositions having read all about the possibilities online.
This threw me off the edge, too, and my anxiety symptoms worsened. I still cannot imagine how hard the situation was for my cute dog, but I know better today.
While my online searches and all my questions second-guessing the vet were not sound decisions, they saved a life.
How? It turns out that the distress shown by my dog was a symptom of inadequate mental stimulation.
Over the years, we’re read and watched videos reiterating the importance of mental stimulation for wellness. It turns out that good mental health and mental stimulation is not just needed for human beings, but also dogs.
For your dog to be your best friend, as nature intended, you must take care of its mental wellbeing.
In this article, we’ll explore all the mental exercises ideal for dogs. However, before we do that, how about a look at the importance of mental stimulation for dogs?
Table of Contents,
- 1 Why does your dog need mental stimulation?
- 2 Choosing the right mental stimulation exercises for your dog
- 3 Mental Exercises for Your Dog
- 4 Obedience training
- 5 Allow your dog to work for their food
- 6 Sniffing and explorative walks
- 7 Time for New Tricks
- 8 Doggie Puzzle Toy
- 9 Nose Work Games
- 10 Teach Your Dog to Help With the Chores
- 11 Free Shaping Games
- 12 Teach your dog the names of its toys
- 13 Interactive Play
- 14 The Shell Game
- 15 Obstacle Courses
- 16 Introduce your dog to your people (and any other new faces)
- 17 Switch up your routine
Why does your dog need mental stimulation?
For most dog parents, the best thing they can do for their dogs is to make sure that they get enough physical exercise. The talk on mental stimulation ever comes up in conversations.
However, if you care about your furry friend, you should know that their mental stimulation is just as important as diet and physical activity.
Simply put, mental stimulation refers to the activities that help in keeping the dog’s brain active. Your dog’s brain health is crucial.
A stimulated brain will lower your dog’s stress levels; he or she won’t struggle with separation anxiety.
Think of mental stimulation as channeling your dog’s mind. It works a lot like working out for humans with the activities you engage your dog resulting in lowered stress levels.
The other benefits of mental stimulation include:
- Alleviation of boredom
- Reduction of hyperactivity and aggression
- It’s essential for your dog’s happiness
- It enhances the dog’s mental health and prevents destructive behavior
- Mental stimulation will also boost your dog’s mental stamina.
Choosing the right mental stimulation exercises for your dog
Your dog’s ideal path to mental stimulation depends on the breed. Genetically, the different dog breeds serve different purposes; meaning that pure breeds, designer breeds, mixed breeds, and mutts, will have different needs for mental stimulation.
For example, working or hunting dogs could fall in or act out of their expected behavior if they don’t get adequate physical and mental stimulation.
An ill-behaved dog is often missing the ideal or an insufficient amount of mental stimulation.
To put things into perspective for you: how would you feel if you were designed for one purpose, an activity that forces you to perform the same tasks every day for a few minutes or hours, then being forced to rest until the next time you’d be required to work?
As you can imagine, your boredom and the repetitiveness of your job will end your life as you know it, and the worst bit is that your mind will regress when it remains inactive for too long.
The brain of a canine, much like the human brain undergoes neuroplasticity, which is the process through which the brain changes or adapts.
If challenged or stimulated, the brain never stops growing, which is why your dog can learn old tricks, even as it ages. This happens because new brain exercises result in the growth of new brain cells (neurons), hence the learning process.
Unfortunately, the converse is accurate.
So, what do you need to do when your dog engages in destructive behavior such as chewing furniture/ clothes or digging? Which mental exercises does your dog need to curb disobedience?
Mental Exercises for Your Dog
Given your dog’s natural need for stimulation, the need to get work done (sort of), and the fact that you need to meet these desires daily, you have to look for multiple options for mental exercises. You have to find the best mental stimulus for your dog.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, it’s an undeniable fact that you can teach your old dog new tricks. Despite the basic training (feeding, staying away from furniture, or potty training), you could advance your dog’s obedience levels by teaching it new tricks.
There are different obedience training exercises you could teach your pooch at home or an obedience class, and they promise to leave you with the smartest dog in the room.
All you need to do is to make sure that the exercises you engage in stimulate the dog’s thinking.
So, anytime you detect the slightest sense of boredom creeping in, work on reinforcing the obedience exercises for your dog. The good news is that you only need 15 minutes, as long as you maintain a good variety of exercises.
You could advance your dog’s basic obedience exercises by introducing distractions. As they learn, they can handle more distractions.
Allow your dog to work for their food
How often do you look at your dog and wondered if it knows how easy its life is? I mean, you come back home after a long day at work, set down its bowl and it takes a run for its meal.
Of course, this is how it’s supposed to be, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But, how about a challenge that takes your dog closer to its natural scavenging/ hunting habits?
And no, you don’t need to set your dog to lose for it to scavenge leftovers. God knows you don’t have your best friend to fall ill or bring in a parasite.
Also, you couldn’t own that dog if you wanted it to scavenge for unhealthy food.
So, what do I mean?
When it comes to mental stimulation, you could enhance your dog’s mental health by switching up its feeding routine.
Create a fun game, a sort of food hunt in the house, and make your pooch look for the food.
For example, you could put the dog’s food in a toy, and your dog has to roll the toy around for the food. Though this sounds like a lot of work, it’s extremely satisfying for the dog.
Sniffing and explorative walks
Throw in some interesting aspects into your morning or evening walks. Now, you might not know this yet, but going for walks makes up the most exciting part of your dog’s day.
Add to the fun by allowing your dog to stop and sniff different scents. Naturally, walking is the best exercise for dogs, and for you (you can finally get in your steps).
And although it might seem boring to walk down the same streets daily, your dog loves it. Instead of keeping the walks boring, spice things up for your friend by allowing it several stops and sniff explorations.
The sidewalk might be unchanged for decades, but there are several new and super exciting smells for your dog to explore.
For this exercise’s success, first, teach your dog a simple command such as “Go Sniff.” Once it gets it, sniffing will be their newest favorite pass time. Besides a stimulated brain, you will head back home with a happy, tired, but mentally active dog ready to sleep belly up.
Sniffing is one of the most effective sensory enrichment exercises. On your next walk, analyze your surroundings with your nose, as well as your eyes to give your dog many happy explorations.
Time for New Tricks
Good Stay! Lay Down! Come Here! These are pretty awesome commands/ tricks to be mastered by your dog. They are impressive, but they are not the only tricks your dog could learn.
You could teach your dog many other tricks, beyond the basics. All you need to do is to train your dog.
When you teach your dog a new trick, you not only enhance how you communicate but also boost your dog’s brain function.
Teaching new tricks is particularly helpful for the shy and fearful dogs as it enhances their level of confidence while alleviating their social anxiety. The new tricks will strengthen the bond between you and your dog.
In addition to a boost in confidence levels, new tricks help dogs with manners/ impulse control, and it also increases their focus.
Some of the tricks you could try to include calling your dog by name, sit/ stand, release, heel, leave it, bring it, bell, and you could even teach your dog the names of different things in and out of the house.
Can you dog crawl, smile, twirl, wave, play peek-a-boo, or sing?
Doggie Puzzle Toy
Toys are some of the best forms of entertainment for dogs. The dog toys are easy and nice, in design and function, and they do the job right – keeping dogs busy, happy, and entertained.
The puzzle toys, also called interactive toys, will take things up a notch, keep the dog focused on one task while keeping the brain stimulated and active.
While the puzzle toy means that you will be undisturbed for a few minutes (15 minutes being a big win!), they also serve the other function or reducing and preventing behavioral problems.
The puzzle toys are highly recommended for mental exercises because they give your dog the chance to solve the puzzle by using their natural problem-solving abilities. The engagement from the toy will also boost the dog’s confidence. The puzzle also tires out the dog mentally, which is a very good thing.
The catch and the success of this strategy, however, depends on whether your dog loves that toy or not. Some toy puzzles will keep dogs engaged for more than 30 minutes, and others will keep the dog focused for less than 5 minutes.
Therefore, you should be patient when searching for the right puzzle toy for your dog.
Nose Work Games
If you ever find yourselves bored or if you feel that you’ve done everything you can to exercise your dog’s brain, try this interesting game – the nose work game.
It’s our favorite game, and as the name suggests, it involves your dog’s use of its nose to locate things.
Basically, you’ll be reinforcing your dog’s natural skills. The mental stimulation comes from the search of the items you’ll hide in different parts of the house.
For this game to work, you should consider using smelly objects first. Also, use the easy spots first and encourage your pooch when it finds the hidden item. You can hide different objects in harder to find areas as your dog masters the game.
By encouraging your dog to use more of their sense of smell and less of their eyes, it’s challenged, and their brain develops.
Teach Your Dog to Help With the Chores
How many impressive videos of dogs helping in the house or dogs taking care of babies have you watched? Aren’t they just too cute?
Well, it’s not just fun to watch dogs help around the house, but it’s also healthy. If you want to keep your dog mentally stimulated and you don’t have the time to go to the park for a sniffing contest, you might want to teach your pooch to help around the house.
Since chores require your mind to be fully engaged and because of the sense of accomplishment that comes after, you should teach your dog to help in the house.
For example, you could teach your dog to help to put away the toys or opening the fridge using a towel.
For the most part, chores involve a lot of work figuring out how things work. Once figured out, we promise you will see your dog smiling.
The tail wagging tells it all!
Besides chores, you should also consider running errands with your dog. Errands can be as simple as a quick mailbox run, a spin around/ through a car wash to expose your dog to different stimuli, or stopping over at your friend’s. These activities are of great significance since they introduce your dog to new stimuli and environments.
Don’t forget to take your dog to that hike or even swimming, as long as the activity suits your dog’s breed well.
Free Shaping Games
Have you played 101 things to do in a box? Well, it’s about time you did. This game offers a great deal of entertainment and training opportunities for your dog.
The basic principle of this shaping game is encouraging the dog to engage in something new and unexpected. This game gives the dog the opportunity to make decisions, enhancing the dog’s mental and physical flexibility.
You could start off with the box on the ground, allow your dog to investigate, find cues, then decide what to do.
Teach your dog the names of its toys
Can your dog fetch any of its toys if asked? You really should start training today. From a game such as Go Find It, you could play with the toys and the treats. Just go slow on the treats – you don’t want your dog to be overweight.
Now, you might argue that not every dog is as intelligent as the dogs that know over 1000 words and hundreds of toy names, but you need to teach your dog the names of different things in the house.
Naming toys promises to amp the dog’s mental activity. The best bit is that you can teach your child about the toys easily by calling the names.
Start with one toy then build up the tempo with time. Remember that repetition is key to the success of this exercise; it’s the only way it will associate a name with a toy. Also, don’t forget to touch/ pick the toy named correctly and then praise your dog.
Don’t rush the training process, though. Start with their favorite cuddle buddy.
While our dogs love playing with us, we often overlook all the good that could come from our efforts in engaging in some interactive play. In case you’re wondering, interactive play refers to the play periods that you engage with your dog actively.
Though it sounds awfully simple, the interactive play could be all you need for you to deal with your dog’s behavioral problems.
Some of the best interactive games include Fetch and Tug. Tug, for example, is one of the most effective interactive plays that offer mental stimulation and a great deal of physical exercise.
It also boosts impulse control in dogs, encouraging good behavior.
Fetch, and Frisbee is the other interactive games you should involve your dog in, and if you have a retriever, these games will make your dog the happiest little animal, you know.
The other interactive game is Hide and Seek. It’s not only fun, but it also sharpens your dog’s hearing and smelling senses.
The Shell Game
Have you played the shell game with your dog? Shell game refers to that game that involves hiding a treat under one of three identical jars/ cups/ containers, before shuffling the containers and then allowing your dog to pick the container.
For starters, you can begin playing this game by allowing your dog to watch you as you place the treat under one of the containers. Shuffle the identical containers and then encourage your dog to find the hidden treat.
This game offers dogs the best mental stimulation, and it’s also the best games for problem-solving.
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Did you know that jumping through the hoops is just as important to dogs as it is human health?
For your dog’s brain health and development, you should consider teaching your dog how to jump through the hoops or any other obstacle course.
You could make agility jumps and poles at home using ordinary items like toys, blankets, and even hazard cones.
You could also start by encouraging your dog to jump over the broom or the run to their blanket, or weaving through the hazard cone.
The mental power of obstacle courses comes from the fact that you will be asking your dog to do one challenging thing after the other.
Introduce your dog to your people (and any other new faces)
Every new person you introduce your dog to represents new sights, butts to sniff, and sounds. So, don’t be shy to invite new friends over or taking your dog to new places with new people.
Naturally, they will be shy the first few times, but they will get used to the new stimuli pretty fast. The new exposures allow your dog to build new physical and neural connections.
Speaking of new faces, you should consider taking your dog on playdates frequently. Besides having something new for their brains to work on, the new interactions will boost your dog’s social skills and make it possible for your dog to work with other dogs well.
Switch up your routine
You might like walking in specific neighborhoods, but that will be boring for your dog soon. It will be boring for you too unless that route allows you to meet a friend.
Explore new routes and new neighborhoods, and if possible, walk through the park, along the lake or through the forest.
The new surroundings present new stimuli for your dog to interact with.
You should also get your dog new toys often while rotating the new with the old. Doing this prevents your dog’s brain, and you don’t have to worry about it forgetting the name of some toys.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the trick to raising the healthiest dog lies in researching experiencing and reading as much as you can about your dog.
There is a lot of information out there and you can offer your dog much help if you’re willing to learn. One of the resources I’ve learned much from has got to be this book on Brain Training for Dogs.
It offers quite unique insights that promise to enhance the health of your pooch!
So, there you have it! These are some of the best mental exercises you could engage your dog in. Start with one exercise today; you will never regret your decision when you see the happiness on your pooch’s face!