A dog's mental stimulation is any activity that stimulates, activates or enriches a dog’s brain and thus their mental well-being. There are countless activities you can fit into your pet's life that will increase the flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen to your dog’s brain. Dog mental stimulation is an extremely important yet underrated part of dog care (1).
Table of Contents
- 20+ Types of Dog Mental Stimulation
- 1. Treasure Hunt
- 3. Where Are My Keys?
- 4. Hot and Cold
- 5. Green Light, Red Light
- 6. Fetch and Tug of War
- 7. Interactive Toys for Dogs
- 8. Regular Dog Toys
- 9. Playdates and Dog Parks
- 10. Obedience Training
- 11. Outdoor Activities
- 12. Biking
- 13. Water Sports
- 14. Hospital Therapy Dog
- 15. Children's Reading Buddy
- 16. Other Different Useful Tasks
- 17. Try Dog Agility Training
- 18. Socialization
- 19. Take the Dog to Run Errands
- 20. Coffee with Friends
- 21. Give Your Dog Any Other Job
- 22. Anything Else?
Plenty of studies observed how dogs that lived in enriched environments benefit psychologically and behaviorally from anticipating rewards for the tasks they're given, as well as from playing, collecting information and solving problems (2, 3, 4). Thus, it's crucial for pet owners to understand and appreciate the importance of dog mental stimulation and find ways to implement it.
The Importance of Dog Mental Stimulation
More recent research has shown that with increased mental activity in dogs comes greater mental health, cognitive function and enrichment, learning capacity and attention span in dogs (5, 6, 7, 8). Mentally stimulated dogs are also more attentive, they perform better in dog training and are quicker at solving problematic daily tasks (9, 10).
The messages between the neurons in a dog’s brain slow down if they’re not used, and this was observed to be particularly common in aging senior dogs (11, 12, 13). The good news is that activity in neuron pathways increase shortly after stimulation has been provided (14). So it’s never too late to wake up your dog's brain, even if they're 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, while other mentally stimulating dog 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 worth the time.
Utilizing All Senses for Dog Mental Stimulation
The more dog mental stimulation your pooch engages in, the better they will be at engaging with you, learning new tricks, having a positive attitude towards life and the dog-owner bond, and have decreased chances neurological problems.
To provide all-around mental stimulation to a dog, it's best to utilize all five of the dog's senses (not necessarily all at once, but use different activities at different times). Dogs have five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. They use all five to explore their world and interact with new environments and experiences.
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.
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 also hear higher and lower pitches than we do.
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, and we even have a class of dogs called ‘Sighthounds’ that include them.
Puppies have the sense of touch right after birth. 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 litter-mates, then from other dogs and you the owner.
Taste is their 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. The smellier something is, the better.
20+ Types of Dog Mental Stimulation
There are different types of ways to stimulate your dog’s mind. And even though among pet owners, the typical favorite is playtime (fetch or tug of war), unlike you, the dog does not discriminate between most activities. Whether it's dog training, puzzle solving, or a game of fetch, to your pet they all seem the same because they provide the most important part of mental stimulation – positive results from the action a dog takes.
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
A beneficial game where your dog learns that the bed is the designated spot and they are taught to go there and lie down on their bed on your command.
Start very close to the bed and tell your dog to ‘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?
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 for Dogs
While any dog toy is better than no toy, some interactive dog toys are particularly great at providing an additional level of dog mental stimulation with some extra puzzle solving.
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 Dog 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 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 – 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!
10. Obedience Training
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.
11. Outdoor Activities
Walking and hiking are some of the best exercises there are. Not only will they provide dog mental stimulation, they are super chill, scenic and cheap.
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.
13. Water Sports
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 for dogs, make sure your pet 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.
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. Some breeds are better at being therapy animals than others.
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
Does your dog enjoy being around children? Do you have a calm older dog who just likes to lie around and listen? 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 Different Useful Tasks
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 Dog Agility Training
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. So get yourself some dog agility equipment for the backyard and start your training.
Socializing is one of the most important aspects of dog ownership. A well-socialized dog is not nervous of new experiences or events; everything is building on the experience he already has.
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 the Dog 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. Going to pick up mail or drop off something at a friend's place? Grab your pooch with you (just make sure not to leave them alone in the car).
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.
21. Give Your Dog Any Other 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. Even if it's just bringing you a newspaper (nobody does this anymore, do they?) from the porch.
So whichever type your dog is, try to give the dog a job – any kind of job that works as a task to solve – that gives him a sense of pride and accomplishment. This sense of accomplishing something is the key to benefits of dog mental stimulation. There's no point in asking a St. Bernard to be your lap dog, although who knows, he might love it!
22. Anything Else?
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 the animal.
So, do you have any other good ideas on how to mentally stimulate a dog, particularly while we are all cooped out indoors in our homes? Let us know in the comments below.
READ NEXT: 25 Best Puppy Toys for Mental Stimulation