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6 Ways to Mentally Stimulate Your Dog

Published: May 2022 | Updated: August 2023

To remain happy and healthy, dogs need sufficient exercise and a purpose. They need to feel like they have something to do each day. That’s why mental stimulation for dogs is equally as important as physical exercise in terms of enriching their lives. Adding a few cognitive activities to your dog's regimen instead of just additional physical training can really tire them out. 

Mentally stimulating dog toys and activities also reduce the probability of your dog developing behavioral problems like excessive chewing or barking, especially for those who experience separation anxiety. Here are six DIY dog mental stimulation “games” you can try at home. 

1) Don’t give away food for free.

It's a common practice to set our dog's food bowl down, and if they aren't already there waiting, call them in for a quick bite. Our dogs have it pretty easy, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, it doesn't allow them to bring out their instinctive behaviors. 

Turn mealtime into a somewhat challenging mental stimulation game for dogs. Don’t make it overly challenging because we still want them to eat their food, but working a bit harder for it can provide them with something to relieve boredom, or even just to bring out their natural behaviors. The most common toy to grab is a Kong, but there are quite a few puzzles available for doggy mealtime that can make it fun, challenging and still delicious. 

2) Allow your dog to smell his surroundings.

When we think of taking our dogs for a walk, we're often only thinking about the physical component. Our dog is getting exercise, and while the physical aspect is critical, the mental aspect of this adventure is also important. Allowing your dog to sniff his surroundings adds a bit of extra mental stimulation instead of being in a hurry to get from point A to point B. 

3) Remember that old dogs can learn new tricks.

Does your dog have basic obedience under control? What about more advanced commands like "stay" or "sit and stay" while you walk away? How many tricks does she know? 

Even if she knows all the basic and advanced commands, they can still be reinforced, and teaching her new tricks can be extremely mentally stimulating. Plus, it builds a stronger bond between you and your dog.

Teaching new tricks and showing off old ones, and reinforcing basic training, provides your dog with an unbelievable sense of confidence. Learning new tricks and commands can also come in handy by increasing your dog's focus and impulse control (particularly helpful for dogs with high prey drive). 

4) Play hide-and-seek.

Your dog's nose is sensational and allowing her to use it in interactive games of hide-and-seek provides a great deal of mental stimulation. Allowing your dog's nose to find hidden objects can also hone their natural abilities and bring them back to their instincts. 

An easy diy dog mental stimulation trick is to grab your dog's favorite snack or treat and then bury or hide them throughout your home. If it's large, you can break it up or cut it up into smaller pieces, but using something particularly smelly in the beginning can help your dog understand the name of the game. 

Ask your dog to "stay," and then hide the snacks to start with. Place the treats in some easy-to-find areas when first learning the game. You can make it harder as you go along. Then, when your dog finds the treat, praise her accordingly so she knows what you're wanting her to do.

5) Make an obstacle course.

This is one some dogs love and other dogs aren’t a fan of, so don’t be offended if your dog is one who would rather play another game than complete the course. Obstacle courses are a great way to get a good mental workout. Don't worry about having all of the expensive equipment. You can find enough in your home to be able to create one or, if you find your dog enjoys it, you can make one yourself. 

Begin by showing your dog what you want her to do. Perhaps place a delicious treat or her food at one side of the room and create obstacles in between. Guide her through the first time so she knows it's okay to go through the obstacles. Be sure to use commands she already knows. You don't want to be teaching her new commands as she's going through the course. If there are certain commands you want her to know prior to the obstacle course, work on those first, and go back to this.

6) Don’t forget to play, too.

Our dogs enjoy playing with us, and interactive play is one of the most effective ways to mentally stimulate your dog. And, while play may appear to be a no-brainer, it's easy to overlook how critical it is for our dogs. The more play a dog engages in, the less likely they are to have behavioral disorders.

When you play interactively with your dog, you are actively engaging with him. Interactive play, such as tug or fetch, is quite beneficial when it comes to providing your dog with additional brain stimulation. And additional time spent playing games will aid in the strengthening of your bond. 

How to Mentally Stimulate Your Dog

Physical activity is important for a dog's health, but it's only half of the picture. Your dog, being the clever creature that he or she is, requires mental stimulation as well. You know your dog best, so you’ll be able to sense what games and activities she likes the most and those she isn’t fond of. 

Choose the ones she enjoys and make a habit of ensuring they’re available to her. On days where you don’t feel up to playing as much, grabbing a puzzle toy or other interactive dog toy from the store can also be helpful. Remember, accounting for both mental and physical health will help improve your dog's problem solving skills and long-term health.

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