As we mentioned before, mental exercise is every bit as important for dogs as physical exercise. Sadly, this basic need is oftentimes overlooked by well-intentioned pet owners. Relying solely on physical exercise is not enough. Many well-cared-for dogs nonetheless lead impoverished lives because their cognitive needs are ignored. We would never dream of starving a dog by withholding food, but by not giving our dogs the chance to use their brains, we are also withholding a vital ingredient to happiness. Research into canine cognition has shown time and time again the remarkable capacity that dogs have for problem solving, and by providing opportunities for our dogs to think and puzzle things out we enrich their lives and make them so much happier.
So, what are the best ways to provide mental exercise for your dog? Every dog is different, and it’s important to play to your dog’s strengths. This is such a complex topic that an entire book is in the works, but here’s a brief overview of some great ways to engage your dog’s brain.
It’s All About the Food: One of the easiest ways to fulfill your dog’s need for daily mental exercise is to simply throw out his food bowl. Whether you use his dog food as training rewards, feed him from a puzzle toy such as a Kong or Tug-a-Jug, feed him by hand, or scatter his kibble on the floor or in the backyard for a scavenger hunt, mixing up mealtimes will add an element of fun to his day.
The Nose Knows: Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, which we largely ignore. Engage your dog’s olfactory abilities by having him follow treat trails, playing hide ‘n seek with yourself or a favorite toy, introducing novel scents into his environment (ask a farm friend for some used straw to put in your back yard, let a pal’s pet hamster crawl all over one of your dog’s toys, or dab a drop of essential oil on a tree or rock), or learning the fun sport of K9 Nose Work.
A Classy Dog: Training class is a great source of mental exercise! In addition to the weekly stimulation of class itself, enrolling in a class gives you motivation to work with your dog on new skills regularly. Whether you’re trying rally obedience, canine freestyle, agility, or fun tricks, think of class as date night with your dog. Can’t make it to a class? Try teaching new tricks or even helpful service dog tasks at home.
Change it Up: Dogs enjoy routine, and it’s important to stick to one. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enrich your dog’s life by making little changes. Try a different walking route with new sights and smells, introduce your dog to new people or animals, play different instrumental music during the day (Mexican guitar? Celtic harp? Classical piano?), create an obstacle course in your backyard, or try a new dog treat recipe that you bake yourself (and don’t forget to let your dog lick out the mixing bowl). Think of new sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures you can introduce into your dog’s environment to engage his curiousity.
In future posts we’ll talk about some of the potential problems with exercise, as well as some of our favorite puzzle toys. In the meantime, please share your comments with us below! Do you provide regular mental enrichment for your dog? What are your pup’s favorite activities?