Dogs are very intelligent animals who, like us, need to stay busy to meet their physical and psychological needs. Since they generally have lots of energy, dogs need physical and mental active every day to stay calm and balanced.
Humans tend do more physical activity with their dogs than mental stimulation. However, more and more are realizing that it’s really beneficial to add some mental challenges to their dog’s daily life. And, in fact, it’s much more demanding for a dog to work mentally than physically. For example, 15 minutes of mental training is equivalent to about an hour of walking!
In some cases, these exercises can even alleviate behavioural problems caused by excess energy, since they redirect the dog’s attention to socially acceptable activities.
What is mental stimulation?
There are many ways to mentally stimulate your dog, but the best are certainly training and food-finding activities.
For example, you can do obedience sessions (sitting, lying down, staying, etc.) with your canine friend or you can teach them some sillier tricks, like putting their toys away on command or bringing you their leash for a walk. You can also think up odour detection and agility games. The Internet is full of videos of simple training ideas you and your dog can try out at home.
Even if your dog already knows several basic commands, it’s still a good idea to practice them in a variety of settings and learn new, more complex ones. To make sure your four-legged companion enjoys the game, always use positive reinforcement when working with them. You can also mentally stimulate your dog with various specialized toys and accessories. You don’t always have to use treats!
How to mentaly stimulate your dog
Here are a few things that will enrich your dog’s life:
- A slow feeder bowl (those made by the Aïkiou or Nina Ottosson brand, for example)
- Interactive toys (such as the Kong brand toys)
- Dispensing balls (like those made by Orbee-Tuff, Tricky Treat Ball or Kong Wobbler)
- A carpet to hide treats in
- Hole balls (e.g., JW brand) to be filled with fabrics and treats
If you’re on a tight budget, you can also give new life to old objects and make toys with materials you have on hand at home. One rule of thumb: always use non-hazardous materials and supervise your dog when playing. Here are a few ideas:
1- Use empty food containers to create surprises for your dog. Or, put scrap paper, toilet paper rolls and dog toys in a box and hide some dog treats or kibbles in with them. Your dog will be thrilled to tear the box apart to get the contents out. This kind of game meets their need to destroy stuff (very pronounced in some dogs) and demands a lot of mental effort to find the hidden treats.
2- Scatter your dog’s food in a muffin tin and cover each hole with a ball. Your dog will have to get the balls out of the muffin holes to get their food.
3- Find an old beach towel and a laundry basket with holes in the sides. Cut the towel into several long strips. Lace the strips through the holes so that the bottom of the basket is hidden. Then, place some kibbles in the basket and let your dog sniff through the pieces of towel to find the food.
4- In summer, freeze kibbles and treats in two cups of water. Unmould the frozen meal and hide it in the yard. Let your dog find and enjoy the frozen food as a reward. You can add pieces of dog-safe fruit, like apple, watermelon (without the rind) or banana.
Turn eating into a game to get your dog thinking and working hard to get their food, rather than devouring it in just a few seconds from a boring, old bowl! At first, they may not understand and need your help to catch on, or they may get discouraged if the task is too demanding. Gradually increase its level of difficulty to turn your furry friend into a doggy Einstein!
Interactive games will help your dog stay home alone, eat more slowly and in many other situations, too. Since the game you propose will quickly become easy-peasy, the key to keeping your pooch interested is varying the approach and activities.
You can divvy your animal’s daily kibble into portions, and give one after morning walking training, a second for a midday hidden-treat game in the living room, and the last bit for an interactive toy in the evening.
Recipe for Kong-type toys
Place half of your dog’s daily kibble in a mixing bowl and add 1 to 4 tablespoons of canned food. Add a little hot water and stir until the mixture is thick. Place it in a Kong-type toy.
To up the challenge, freeze the toy for an hour and a half before giving it to your dog.
You can also replace the canned food with peanut butter or melted cheese. Be sure to give only small amounts, to adjust your dog’s meals accordingly and, of course, not to give any foods to which your animal is allergic or intolerant.
Be creative. Many everyday objects are great ways to mentally stimulate your dog! Mental stimulation is easy and quick and will make your dog so very happy!