Most of us adopt dogs for reasons of companionship. However, the fact is that most of the breeds were developed to do a job of some sort. Without the ability to keep busy, it is no wonder that so many dogs get into all sorts of trouble- and who can blame them! Bored humans get into trouble, too, especially when they don’t have a sense of purpose. The “dog shaming” phenomenon features photos of dogs next to signs describing their misdeeds, misdeeds such as destroying couches, eating passports, eating dirty laundry, and chewing shoes. While these behaviors are sometimes based in anxiety, many times, the dogs are simply bored out of their minds. Dogs need mental stimulation.
Even those dogs who were developed purely to provide companionship require mental stimulation.
Dogs are descended from wolves, and we often forget to address those behaviors that are so natural to them. How many opportunities does your dog have to forage, hunt, dig, run, play, chew, sniff, or engage in other mentally stimulating behaviors? A mentally stimulated dog is a happy dog. There are a variety of things you can do to enrich your dog’s life and stave off boredom.
Dogs crave enrichment on their walks, and sniffing provides them with crucial mental stimulation.
This activity, which is so natural for dogs, is also very important in tiring them out. However, we humans often forget the importance of this activity, since humans experience the world so much through sight and so little through smell. How often does your dog get to indulge in the excitement of amazing new smells? Sniffing is one of the great benefits dogs enjoy as part of Outdoor Dog Adventures’ Hiking Adventures. When we take them outside of the tame, developed neighborhoods they are used to, they stop and sniff so much more often. Presumably, there is a lot more animal traffic through the woods and tall grasses we traverse on our trail adventures than down a neighborhood street.
Looking for an additional way to provide mental stimulation for your dog on walks?
Try varying your walking route or trying out different roads. This is one thing we try to do on our Hiking Adventures- as much as possible, we try to vary which trails we use each time. Even if you don’t live in an area with trails, a little outside-of-the-box thinking can yield a much more stimulating walk for your dog. How about that city street corner near all those restaurants? What about that undeveloped grassy area at the edge of the apartment complex? Dogs don’t care if it doesn’t look pretty- they’re after the smells.
Training is another great way for dogs to get some mental stimulation.
It is also a fantastic way for dogs to bond with their owners. In fact, the motto of Louisville dog trainer John Imler of Top Dog Training is “Build the Bond.” Although dogs need time to “just be dogs,” when training is done correctly, it is great for your dog’s brain. It gives your pup an opportunity to flex his or her brain muscles and figure out what you are trying to communicate. Training can also be a great confidence builder for dogs, who so often are scolded for things we don’t like, yet don’t understand how to please us.
Mental stimulation can also take the form of puzzle toys.
One of these is the Kong Wobbler, which makes your dog work for his or her food. This behavior is natural for wild canines, and domestic dogs enjoy it as well. Regular Kongs are also great, but what about freezing them with something delicious inside? This makes them last much longer, giving your dog that much more mental stimulation during the day. Some people use peanut butter, but you can also use wet food.
We like to mix up a batch of Honest Kitchen. Using this type of powdered dog food, which is actually human grade, we stuff the Kongs and freeze them. Because this food expands when you mix it with water and let it sit, a little of this stuff goes a long way. For a dog who doesn’t need the calories, mix the powder with extra water when filling the kongs. You could even feed your dogs all their meals using toys such as these.
To provide mental stimulation for her dog, one of my clients had the wonderful idea of buying a ball pit.
It’s similar to the kind you’d use for children and not very deep, so her small dog can easily wade through it. Sprinkle a few bits of dried treat or kibble in there, and viola- you have an amazing foraging pit for your dog! This is a great way for a dog to engage in a natural behavior for which dogs don’t often have an outlet. It can also slow down a fast eater. Of course, you’ll want to make sure to supervise a dog in this situation, as some dogs might try to eat the plastic balls. A ball pit is also a good way to make a game of fetch more interesting, as the dog will have to sniff amongst the various balls in order to find the proper one to retrieve.
How will you keep your dog’s brain busy?
There are a great number of toys and activities that can help enrich your dog’s life and keep his or her brain in shape- far more than I’ve listed here. Simply google “mental stimulation for dogs,” and you’ll be amazed at what comes up! Take the time to attend to your dog’s physical exercise and mental stimulation needs. You’ll be amazed at how much happier you both are, and at how your bond grows. Good luck!