Living with a smart, energetic dog is a blast! You’ve always got someone to play with, go on adventures with, and teach. But anyone who has ever tried it can tell you it’s not always easy. Mental stimulation for dogs is always super-important! When dogs are bored or understimulated, they will often find a way to keep themselves busy and it’s not always something the humans in the family enjoy. On top of less-than-desirable behaviors like chewing, barking, or running away, boredom can lead to anxiety or aggression. A tired dog is a happy dog and a happy dog is a well-behaved dog.
When it comes to satisfying your dog’s energy needs, there’s no substitute for physical exercise. A good daily walk is priceless: not just a workout, but an opportunity for bonding, training, socialization, and allowing your dog to experience new things outside the four walls of his home. Dog daycares and dog parks are also good options for the social butterflies of the canine world. For some dogs, spending the day wrestling, sniffing, and debating canine foreign policy with their new buddies is a dream come true.
But let’s be honest. In the real world, a miles-and-miles-long walk isn’t workable for everybody every day. Dog daycare can be costly and isn’t appropriate for every dog’s personality. And what are you supposed to do when they’ve just had surgery and have orders to stay quiet or when the heat index is 354 degrees or when you have the flu? And what are you supposed to do when you do get the steps in, but it’s not enough for your genius wild child? That’s where mental stimulation for dogs can help.
So how can you keep your dog’s mind active? Well, start with training. Tricks are more than just fun! Teaching and reinforcing basic commands such as sit, lie down, stay, wait, and leave it can help your dog to be a good citizen at home and in public. But learning doesn’t have to end there. Try some just-for-fun tricks like roll over, sit pretty, and high five to give your pet a challenge. Keep adding to their repertoire- with patience, consistency, and repetition, the sky’s the limit! Studies show that dogs prefer working for their food over freeloading, so ask them for a performance before every meal or treat.
For the canine cryptographers and strategic thinkers, try a puzzle board. These interactive toys allow you to hide treats and require the dog to operate levers, drawers, sliders, and more in order to get them out. Most of these puzzles should be done with human supervision. They’re not meant to keep the dog busy for hours while you’re away from home. Think of them as being like a crossword puzzle you might complete in 15 minutes while waiting for the bus: even if it doesn’t fill your whole day, it does provide some mental stimulation and is still worth doing! Try filling a puzzle board with your dog’s kibble at regular mealtimes to get some mental exercise in without adding too many treats to their diet.
Other mental stimulation for dogs include Kong-style toys and Hol-ee Rollers. You might fill these with peanut butter, cheese, biscuits, or a long-lasting treat. This style of toy tends to keep dogs busy a little longer than the puzzles and requires less focused supervision, so it’s good for battling separation anxiety or keeping your disruptive pup occupied during Zoom meetings or phone calls. To make them last longer and give them an extra sensory element, try freezing them!
If you don’t want to buy new toys, you can still play games with things you might already have at home. Put your dog’s toy under a blanket and let them try to find it. Play the “shell game” with treats and plastic cups and watch them try to work out where the treat is. If you’re crafty, try making a “snuffle mat” out of strips of fleece and hiding some treats in it for your dog to sniff out.
Finally, of course, there’s nothing dogs really want more than interactive play with their favorite humans. Spend some time on fetch, tag, tug-of-war, hide and seek, or just talking to them and telling them how much you love them and how happy you are to have them!
Here are a few resources to get you started:
101 Things to Do with a Box: a series of fun interactive training games
Interactive puzzle toys: My dog’s favorite, and the least expensive, are the TRIXIE Activity Fun Boards.
If you need some help getting that physical and mental stimulation for your dog our team of professionals can step in to provide it for you when you work or you travel! Just check out our DOG WALKING service.
Have fun, give your dog a kiss from us, and never stop learning and exploring together!
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.