Picture courtesy of The Kind Canine
Canine Enrichment: Mental Stimulation for your Dog
By Will BanguraWill Bangura, M.S., CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, (Dog Behaviorist), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant
We have all heard, “A tired dog is a good dog!” But what does that really mean? Should you take your dog running or hiking for several miles a day? Should you play tug or fetch with your dog until he is exhausted? While it is true that many dogs would benefit from more physical exercise, it is essential to note that mental exercise and stimulation are just as crucial for helping your dog relax and become a well-behaved member of your family!
Mental Stimulation as Canine Enrichment.
What is mental stimulation, and what does that mean, exactly? Remember back in school when you sat at a desk for approximately seven hours and came home completely exhausted? You didn’t run for several miles, but you were certainly ready for a nap! That’s because your brain was tired; your brain worked all day processing what you were learning. You may have been doing mathematical calculations, discussing literature, drawing conclusions, and engaging in meaningful conversation.
Your brain requires fuel to function (in the form of food, vitamins, and minerals), just like your body’s muscles. When your brain uses fuel, it leaves you mentally tired, and we must help our dogs use their brains, so they feel mentally tired and provide them with plenty of physical exercises.
What does that mean in terms of our dogs? Have you ever taken your dog for a 6-mile walk only to return home and have your dog bouncing off the walls, ready to play after a 20-minute nap? If so, then it’s time to explore more ways of providing your dog with mental stimulation so we can get their brain working harder than their body.
It’s important to note the importance of combining mental exercise/stimulation and physical exercise. Although additional physical exercise can be beneficial for many of our canine companions, mixing things up and adding mental stimulation to your dog’s routine helps to ensure that your dog becomes physically and mentally tired. If you only increase physical exercise, you could increase your dog’s stamina, so they are primed for more physical exercise rather than tiring your dog out!
There are several ways to provide more mental stimulation and enrichment for your dog.
This list and these descriptions are just some of the possible options available to you; talk to your friends and family who have pets, search the internet, and get creative to come up with other ways of giving your dog mental stimulation.
- Basic Obedience or Advanced Training Classes: It’s no surprise that this is first on the list. If you haven’t taken your dog to a basic training class, then get going! Training your dog is a lot of fun. It builds the bond between you and your dog and helps to teach your dog to respond reliably to your requests like, sit, come, down, and place training for dogs. This means you have a dog who is mentally more tired and a dog who wants to respond to you – that’s a win-win! Don’t forget to practice what you learn at home, on walks, and in every environment you go to with your dog!
- “Puzzle Toys,” “Treat-Dispensing Toys,” or “Work-to-Eat” toys: Rather than providing your dog with a bowl full of kibble that’s inhaled in less than a minute, provide your dog’s food in a toy that requires him to think and maneuver to get the kibble out. There are a variety of toys out there now that are specifically made to help your dog use his brain while eating. Some options are a Kong stuffed with a mixture of kibble and canned food, or these items meant for dry kibble only: Kong Wobbler, Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball, Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug, Buster Food Cube, Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble, Busy Buddy Magic Mushroom, and the IQ Treat Ball. Outward Hound and Ethical Pet are two additional companies that make a variety of slow-feeding dog bowls and puzzle toys that will keep your dog’s food lasting longer. When your dog must work for his food, it takes him longer to eat, and he has to think to accomplish his goal, resulting in a more mentally tired dog!
- There are also do-it-yourself canine enrichment ideas. Here is an excellent video on DIY Canine Enrichment Ideas from The Kind Canine Youtube Channel.
Nose work Games for Canine Enrichment.
Use your dog’s natural sniffing ability to keep his brain active! Teach your dog the words “Find it!” by saying the words and then tossing the food on the floor. Once you say, “Find it!” and your dog starts searching for the food on the floor BEFORE you’ve tossed it, you know your dog understands what the words mean. Once your dog understands the game, try putting a treat or a couple of pieces of kibble in a cardboard box or other similar container and tell your dog to “Find it!” First, make it easy for your dog to search, so your dog enjoys the game. Then branch out and get creative. Put treats underneath boxes, hide old cereal or pasta boxes under chairs, the dining room table, or behind furniture, and get your dog to search for the items!
Teach Tricks for Dog Enrichment.
Many books describe how you can teach your dog to shake paws, spin, jump through hula hoops, clean up his toys, etc. Be careful here – look specifically for a book that uses reward-based training so you are rewarding your dog with nice things when he learns something new! Reinforcement-based training is the best way to build and maintain your relationship with your dog, and teaching your dog tricks is a fun way to tire out your dog mentally.
Mix Play and Training as Canine Enrichment Remember all those basic obedience cues your dog learned in classes. Remember to use them occasionally and reinforce them with things your dog loves! For instance, does your dog love to play fetch? Ask him to sit and stay before throwing his favorite ball! Or does your dog like to play tug? Have him sit and wait before you tell him to “take it!” It doesn’t matter what you ask your dog to do before you throw the ball if you ask for something, and they comply! This can also help teach your dog to calm himself down and think during playing, so he doesn’t get too rowdy!
Remember, your goal here is to mix both mental and physical exercise, so you have a tired dog, so get creative! Not only will your dog become more tired and relaxed, but “training” will become a fun activity that you and your dog do together! You can seek the help of a professional dog trainer, dog behaviorist, or veterinary behaviorist for advice about canine enrichment and how it can help with dog behavior problems.
- “The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour, and Interactions with People” by James Serpell
- “Enriching Your Dog’s Life” by Dr. Kay Laurence
- “Canine Enrichment: A Complete Guide to Improving Quality of Life for Pets” by Dr. Rachel Boyle
- “Canine Enrichment: Fun Ways to Stimulate Your Dog Mentally and Physically” by Hannah Branigan
- “Canine Enrichment: Simple, Effective and Fun Ways to Enhance Your Dog’s Life” by Sarah Whitehead