Mental stimulation describes any activity that stimulates, activates or enriches your dog’s mental well-being. There are countless options for activities you can fit into your life that will increase the flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen to your dog’s brain. Dog mental stimulation is an extremely important part of caring for your canine companion.
Studies have shown that with increased mental activity comes greater mental health, learning capacity and attention spans. In fact, did you know that the messages between the neurons in your dog’s brain slow down if they’re not used?
The good news is that activity in neuron pathways increase very shortly after stimulation. So, it’s never too late to wake up your dog's brain – even if he’s a couch potato!
There are plenty of ways to stimulate your dog's brain. Some are simple and can be done in just a few minutes. Other mentally stimulating games may take time. You might even have to train your dog to participate in the activity, but in the end it will be fun for both of you and well worth your time.
Dog Mental Stimulation
20 most effective ways to stimulate your Fido's brain
Dogs – just like humans – have five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. They use all of these senses to explore their world and interact with new environments and experiences.
Let's look deeper into each of the five canine senses:
Dogs are naturally the champions of the sniffer world, able to glean massive amounts of information from only a small scent. It’s no wonder we utilize dogs to sniff out anything from explosives to cancer; I can’t help but be amazed every time I see a sniffer dog in action!
There are some dog breeds which are specifically classed as ‘Scent hounds’ as they were bred to hunt or track by scent and endurance, these include the:
- Basset Hound
- Norwegian Elkhound
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
Whether a dog’s ears are pricked or floppy they still have a far greater sense of hearing than we do. On a good day, we might be able to overhear something 100ft away, whereas your canine companion can hear things as far away as 1350 feet!
Dogs can not only hear sounds that are too quiet or far away for us to hear, but they can also hear higher and lower pitches too. As you can see, hearing plays a large role in dog mental stimulation.
Dogs don’t see the way we see, they don’t see the same variety of color, but they can see better in the dark and detect movement from further away. Some breeds of dog see better than others; we even have a class of dogs called ‘Sighthounds’ that include the:
- Afghan Hound
- Irish Wolfhound
- Scottish Deerhound
Puppies start out life as helpless little blind and deaf balls of fluff, but they have the sense of touch immediately. In fact, their entire body, including the pads on their paws, are covered with touch-sensitive nerve endings. Dogs experience touch first from their mother and littermates, then from other dogs – but most importantly, from you, their pack leader, when you stroke them.
Taste is the least developed sense. Dogs are far more keen to chow down their food than waste valuable time savoring the delicate nuances of their meal. In fact, the smell of the food is the most important thing to a canine. It would seem that the smellier something is, the better.
Why It’s Important
From the start of your pups life to the end of their days, mental activity is one of the most important aspects of life. The more dog mental stimulation that your four-legged-friend engages in, the better he will be at engaging with you, learning new tricks and having a more positive attitude towards life.
We’ve all seen examples of bored dogs, living a lethargic existence. Just think how their life would change if they had more to keep them entertained and engaged.
Types of Dog Mental Stimulation
There are all kinds of ways to stimulate your dog’s mind, but the typical favorite is through play. It’s widely accepted that children learn best through play, well guess what, your dog is not so different. Amp up your playful interactions with your dog, and you might find that your mental capacities increase too!
Mind training games are lots of fun for handlers and dogs, not to mention spectators. It is a good idea to start these slowly and build up as your dog is ready, while they might not seem very taxing, they evoke a lot of dog mental stimulation.
Some good brain games to try with your pooch include:
1. Treasure Hunt
Get your dog using his snout here by hiding a favorite treat or toy where your dog can see you’ve hidden it. Once he finds it, get positively excited at his success, this is supposed to be the most fun ever remember. Gradually build up the difficulty with this one until you can walk into a place, say ‘Treasure Hunt’ and he immediately starts searching.
2. Go to Bed
If he doesn’t get it at first, place him in the position you want while giving the command and then reward. This fun game should be built up so that you can eventually tell your dog from anywhere in the home to go to bed and he will gleefully run to lie down, waiting for the treat and praise that follows.
3. Where Are My Keys?
This is another game for dog mental stimulation that you can undertake with your keys, your phone, your glasses case, basically anything you lose on a regular basis. Put a teeny drop of essential oil on the item and play Treasure Hunt again. The best thing about this game is that you are teaching your dog a valuable skill, next time you lose your keys, ask the dog where they are.
4. Hot and Cold
This is a great game for an intelligent dog, one who doesn’t get frustrated or lose interest too quickly but all dogs can be taught this with patience. Arm yourself with a handful of treats (and maybe a cool one, this might take some time) and imagine where you would like your dog to go.
If you want your dog to touch the front door then every time he makes a move in that direction you reward by shouting ‘HOT’ and throwing a treat, when he goes in the wrong direction you say ‘COLD’ with no treat. Continue until the dog has got it, and don’t expect great success the first time you try this, remember the first time you played Scrabble?
We all get better with practice and the journey is just as important as the destination.
Work with your dog's personality on this. A giver-upper might need an easy challenge to begin with, whereas a smart pooch will relish the opportunity to wrack his brains.
5. Green Light Red Light
A great game for ensuring that you can gain valuable control of your dog at all times and it doesn’t hurt that it’s a whole load of fun too! Hopefully, you can work with a partner who will randomly shout Red Light and Green Light. If not, don’t worry you can almost as easily do it yourself!
On the Green Light command you play with your dog, anything that gets him giddy, happy and engaged, you can use a favorite toy or try tying a stuffed toy to a rope attached to a stick and encourage him to chase it. On the Red Light command, you tell your dog to go down and wait for the Green Light again.
This might be challenging for some dogs as they become ever more excited by the game, but you do have to be insistent on them lying down, no slacking on your part. Soon, believe it or not, they will come to see the down command as part of a fun game. The double bonus from this game is that if your dog is ever off leash and gets distracted, maybe chases something; you can shout Red Light or Down to gain control again swiftly.
6. Fetch and Tug of War
There are countless rope toys available in pet stores, so it's no wonder that many people and their dogs play tug of war. While this is a great energetic game to play with your pooch, make sure you have the respect of your dog before you start this game. This can bring out the dominant side of your Fido, and when you decide the game is finished, he needs to respect your say-so.
7. Interactive toys
Pet stores nowadays are like toy stores used to be. There are some amazing inventions out there that can offer dog mental stimulation as well as entertainment. Have a look to see what you think would inspire your dog, whether it’s a treat dispenser or a puppy proof activity mat, there’s bound to be something to suit your dog’s playing style.
8. Regular toys
On a visit to the pet store, you will see the kind of toys that aren’t the most high-tech but still challenge the old brain cells. KONG dog toys are a perennial favorite yet there are so many different styles that your dog should never get bored. A word to the wise though, don’t have your dog’s toys out all at once, rotate the selection so that he doesn’t get bored!
9. Playdates and Dog Parks
A well-socialized dog is a pleasure to own, and if your dog is not well socialized yet, don’t worry. It’s never too late to get out there and do something about it, and trust me – you’ll be glad you did.
Why not set up some play dates with dog-owning friends? If there’s a dog park near, it can be great fun for your dog to go along and have playtime, but try to get into a routine of going at the same time on the same day, so you get to know the regulars!
You don’t have to aim to be a Westminster champion to train your dog in obedience, but a well-behaved dog is a far more welcome addition to any family. There are lots of websites and videos out there that show you how to obedience train your dog, and plenty of obedience classes. Take your pick and get training, not forgetting to start with the basics and always consult a pro if you are experiencing any problems.
Why not enhance your journey with the company of your dog? You can walk the same block night after night but with your faithful buddy along, try different routes, switch things up a little from time to time, the variety will be good for both of you.
On hikes, your canine companion will revel in getting back into nature, and enjoy the smells and fresh air. Not to mention, your companionship will make his day! But, make sure you don’t forget to pack a snack and a drink for Fido too.
If you have a dog that will accompany you on a bike ride, you can go out and have a blast, not to mention it’s great exercise for both of you. There are various leashes available that tether your dog to you but like everything else, start steady and slow and build up to great adventures.
As a road user (or even bike path user) it is essential that you have your dog under control at all times. If he gets out of control while you’re riding – it could end in injury for one, or both of you.
Some dogs love water, some dogs hate it. However, there’s plenty of fun to be had out there. Whether you prefer lakes or the ocean, make sure you take your time to acclimate your dog to the water. Surfing and paddle boarding are established pet-friendly escapades that promote dog mental stimulation, but did you know there is also a sport called Dock Jumping?
As with all sports, make sure your four-legged-friend is not sore before joining in and doesn’t suffer any injuries or excessive water consumption as this can be deadly. Give him a good brush afterward, and if you have to wash him make sure you use a mild shampoo.
Give Your Dog a Job
Like most people, dogs are happiest being occupied with some gainful employment. Some dogs seem to be happy just keeping the cushions on the couch warm, while others want to be champion athletes by day and loyal guardians by night.
Whichever type your dog is, try to give him a job that gives him a sense of pride and accomplishment. There's no point in asking a St. Bernard to be your lap dog, although who knows, he might love it!
14. Hospital Therapy Dog
Steady dogs can contribute significantly to the health and rehabilitation of people in the hospital. Have a look at the organizations that arrange this and see if you think your dog would fit the bill.
A great place to start is by inquiring at your local hospitals and nursing homes. These dogs can provide a much-needed boost to flagging morale and aid in the physiotherapy of patients. Plus, it's a great way to provide dog mental stimulation.
15. Children's Reading Buddy
Children are often intimidating by reading in front of other people, but reading to a dog can help to boost their confidence and hone their reading skills. Contact your local library or elementary school for advice on beginning this process.
16. Other Jobs
Does your dog have a skill that could be turned into a job? Maybe you could start an Instagram account for his escapades. Or maybe your dog is calm enough to become a model or film extra? You would be surprised by the things your dog can do once you approach the possibility, why not brainstorm your dog's qualities and see what you can think of.
17. Try Agility
For the more active dog, agility is a fast-paced, fun run-around, over and through a set of obstacles that provides a lot of dog mental stimulation. Some dogs might be more naturally inclined to win the competition, but remember it’s the taking part that counts. Even the chubby little guys can have a whale of a time with the right dog agility training.
Meeting a new person or dog is not seen as a threat to a well-socialized dog but just accepted as a regular occurrence in his life. Try to start from puppyhood but if you do have a more difficult older dog, make an effort to persevere slowly, sometimes you may think it will never work, but even the most socially aggressive or timid dogs can be turned around with practice and patience.
19. Take Him to Run Errands
Don’t keep your dog cooped up in the house or the yard. Try to take your buddy with you when you go on errands. Widen his world a little; you’ll both appreciate the company.
20. Coffee With Friends
Nowadays there are plenty of pet-friendly cafes where you can bring your furry pal. He might not be welcome indoors, but a table outside in the sun is way better anyway! Maybe bring him a couple of his favorite treats to keep him busy while you catch up on all the latest gossip or a nice refreshing Puppuccino.
Our dogs are a big part of our families, with such happiness, optimism and a joyful way of being. Life is a little worse when it doesn’t include a dog. With that in mind, we should all work to be the very best owners that we can be.
Keeping our dogs healthy both mentally and physically is one of the best ways we can show how much we care. And to be honest, providing dog mental stimulation will be just as much fun for you as it will be for Fido!
READ NEXT: Mental Health Illness In Dogs