Mental stimulation for dogs is more than just a catchy way to sell cute new dog toys – it’s a legitimate aspect of pet health backed by veterinarians, behaviorists, and canine researchers.
For pet parents worried that their dog is bored, we’ve put together this article to help you:
- Identify some signs that your pooch could benefit from enrichment
- Learn what exactly mental stimulation for dogs involves
- Understand the adverse effects that a lack of mental stimulation for dogs can have
- Learn ways to keep your dog’s brain busy, as well as his body
As a society, we long ago recognized that animals in captivity of any kind begin to behave differently than those in the wild. Whether it’s an elephant in a zoo, a sheep in a field, a hamster in a cage, or a dog in your home, domestic animals don’t always have access to the same routine or environment that their body was designed for, generally speaking.
This is true even if they were born into that environment and have never known anything else.
It even applies if their species came into existence paralleled with domestication, like the modern dog.
Much of being a good pet parent and trainer to your dog has to do with recognizing whether or not your home environment and daily routine are meeting the biological needs that your dog has.
Signs Your Dog Isn’t Getting Enough Mental Stimulation
- He digs excessively in the backyard.
- Your neighbors complain that he barks all day while you’re gone.
- He chews on anything and everything in the house.
- He gets into the trash constantly.
- He’s gaining weight.
- He follows you around constantly when you are home.
Behaviors like these often crop up with a bored dog.
You might think he just needs more space, but even zoo animals in huge outdoor enclosures develop problematic behaviors from boredom – called stereotypic behaviors.
So how do zookeepers and pet owners combat our furry friends’ boredom?
Enrichment and mental stimulation!
What is Dog Enrichment?
Enrichment is a term that refers to anything that adds value, significance or “anything desirable” to life.
Enrichment includes a change in scenery, toys, new scents, social interactions, and any kind of mental stimulation.
Dog enrichment can include training sessions, going for a walk, playtime with you or another dog, toys, food treats, or even having the radio or TV on for auditory stimulation.
(Have you seen that there’s an entire television channel devoted to providing content for stay-home dogs?!)
In the zoo community, enrichment is a huge component to working with exotic animals in captivity.
And, thanks to the zoo community and their push for enrichment research, dog trainers and behaviorists have a deeper understanding of the consequences of bored animals and the benefits that enrichment can provide.
What Mental Stimulation Can Do
Here are a few generalizations we can now make about the benefits of enrichment, or mental stimulation, for your dog at home:
Bored dogs are destructive dogs. When enrichment is present, undesirable behaviors fade in most animals – as many as 90% in one study. These include behaviors like pacing, chewing on non-food items, obsessive licking, and over-grooming themselves or housemates.
Bored dogs are hyperactive. Studies with shelter dogs revealed that dogs who were enriched with short training sessions twice a day and a treat-dispensing toy jumped less, barked less, and more frequently initiated “polite” social behaviors, like sitting and lying down.
Enriched dogs adapt more easily to stress. This is particularly useful information to any who have dogs that deal with anxiety during their daily life: for example, aggression toward the mailman or other dogs walking by, anxiety during thunderstorms or fireworks, or separation anxiety.
Under-stimulated dogs can become overweight and suffer more joint problems. Veterinarians agree that providing mental stimulation increases the overall amount of movement in dogs and can raise their heart rate – both of which contribute to the healthy amount of physical activity dogs need to stay fit.
So, what are some fun ways to add mental stimulation for dogs?
Brain Toys for Dogs
The absolute easiest thing a pet owner can do to reduce boredom for her pooch is to leave him with some challenging dog toys.
There are tons of new, safe, dog mental stimulation toys on the market!
A few of my favorites include these puzzle toys that dispense treats to your dog once he unlocks the mechanism for dispersion:
The Outward Hound Tornado Treat Dispenser is a great option.
This cool toy promises to vanquish boredom, and exercise your dog’s mind.
The Dog Twister is another similar solution.
This puzzle has a unique and fun design!
The Our Pets IQ Ball is another product along the same lines.
The reviews for this one are great. Well worth a try!
With any of these products can start putting your dog’s regular portion of daily breakfast kibble inside, rather than feeding him in a bowl.
Ideally, it should take 10-15 minutes for Fido to retrieve all of his breakfast.
After a few supervised playtimes with one of these dispensers, you can leave it for the day in your dog’s restricted day area when you go to school or work.
This will give him something to work on while you’re away.
Not all dog enrichment toys have to include food rewards.
After all, one of the side benefits of enrichment is preventing your dog from gaining weight in the first place, right?
The Outward Hound Hide-a-Squirrel toy is great for dogs who love to dig and root around.
The reviews are great for this one!
This Dog Snuffle Mat is a fun one (for dogs that won’t tear it apart instantly). You can drop a few scents in between the layers for Fido to sniff around and discover.
Even though it’s designed with the intent of hiding treats between the layers, I think picking up a few scents from the hunting department of your local Sporting Goods store would be super fun enrichment: such as squirrel, deer, racoon, and bear, to name a few!
Brain Games for Dogs
If you’re interested in some ideas for interactive fun with mental stimulation for dogs, we’ve got some great suggestions!
Training games, or mind games for dogs, include anything that makes your pooch use his noggin for something other than sleeping or eating.
Teach your dog how to learn with the use of a clicker.
If you don’t already do training with your dog, it’s a great way to enrich both of your lives.
You’ll learn how to communicate better with your dog, and your dog will learn how to learn. Start by “charging the clicker” with these instructions.
“Four Paws in a Box” is a fun training game that even beginner clicker trainers can play.
This game involves you teaching your dog to climb inside a cardboard box, and full instructions on this game can be found here.
Nose games are great mental games for dogs to put their sniffer to work.
In addition to using various scents with the Snuffle Mat, you can add unique scents inside dog-proof containers around your yard or house.
Use safe scents, like lavender oil or scents specifically prepared for dog nose work.
These are available online.
You can use PVC tubes with holes drilled inside, a tennis ball that you’ve added a drop of scent to, or drop some of the animal scents on the trees in your backyard.
You can also play the classic “which hand?” game with a treat in one hand. Present both closed fists to your dog, and only give him the treat when he sniffs the correct hand!
How to Entertain Your Dog : Additional Simple Tricks
Here are some other dog enrichment ideas that have worked for us in the past.
Before releasing your dog to the backyard for some afternoon exercise and potty breaks, toss a handful of kibble into the yard.
He’ll get a sudden surprise when his nose lets him know there’s food somewhere there usually isn’t!
Whenever I do this one with my dogs, they will spend 20 minutes or more investigating the whole yard every day for the next three days!
When you need to get Fido out from underfoot at home, take a handful of mini milkbones and place them in random locations around the house.
Be sure nothing around the hiding spot is able to be chewed on or damaged by your dog rummaging around.
Great places include on the seat of a dining room chair, in the far corner of the room, or on a low windowsill for tall dogs.
This is great for older dogs who are accustomed to your home and aren’t likely to suddenly start chewing windowsills or couch cushions.
My German Shepherd loved this game – anytime she would get bored, she would wander the house, sniffing high and low to see if there was anything hiding for her.
Mental Stimulation for Dogs
A ride in the car is a great way to entertain your pup for a while. If you’re out running errands, bring him with you!
More and more cafes are welcoming pets to sit at your feet while you enjoy a coffee, and there are lots of stores that allow dogs on leashes for a stroll (Home Depot, Lowes, and Bass Pro Shops are all pup-friendly and very stimulating for dogs).
When you’ve run out of ideas, Pinterest is a great place to browse mental stimulation games for dogs, too!
A quick search for “dog intelligence games” will produce lots of ideas to shape Fido’s mental capacity.
We hope that this information has inspired you with a newfound appreciation of the positive benefits of brain training for dogs!
Whether you pick up some puzzle toys, create a change in your routine, or develop some dog brain teasers of your own, any form of enrichment or mental stimulation is great for your dog.
Liz London is a certified dog trainer through the Certifying Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) & the Karen Pryor Academy (Dog Trainer Foundations Certification) with regular continuing education courses from the top animal trainers from all over the world, including Michele Pouliot, director of training for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. She has trained zoo animals, search & rescue canines, gundogs, and helped people raise happy, healthy, and well-behaved canine companions for over ten years.
Meta‐analytic review of the effects of enrichment on stereotypic behavior in zoo mammals. Amanda Shyne. Zoo Biology, 2006.
Effects of environmental enrichment on the behavior of shelter dogs. Herron ME, Kirby-Madden TM, Lord LK. Journal of the American Veterinary Association, 2014.
Environmental Enrichment Confers Stress Resiliency to Social Defeat through an Infralimbic Cortex-Dependent Neuroanatomical Pathway. Michael L. Lehmann and Miles Herkenham. Journal of Neuroscience, 2011.