A POST I ENCOUNTERED A WHILE AGO ON social media from a woman who was taking her dog to a training class got me to thinking.
In it, she said, “It’s amazing how the mental workout exhausts her.”
This is something many dog owners don’t realize. Mental stimulation provides a more lasting calm than physical exercise, especially for physical dogs. Does that seem odd?
Physical exercise is, of course, necessary on a daily basis for dogs. But there is a huge difference between allowing the dog to run pell-mell for an hour at the dog park, and stimulating it mentally for as little as 20 minutes. The former often serves to ramp the dog up, while the latter helps him calm down.
Exercise is important, but it should be the right kind of exercise*, and include a mental component. This can be obedience work, nosework, exploring new places on a walk (with structure), or games like “find it” inside the house.
More exercise just creates a more physically fit dog, and one that requires even more exercise to tire. Ever started an exercise regimen? If you are out of shape, it doesn’t take much to tire you. But keep at it, day after day, and soon you can walk or run or workout longer and farther without tiring. You hit a fat-burning plateau, and now you have to really bust your butt to keep losing weight or build muscle.
Over-exercise a dog, and you get a very fit dog who now requires 2 hours of running to tire instead of one. (This is especially true of the muscular breeds like pits, boxers, and other “bully”-type dogs.) The nice thing about mental stimulation is that is has no fitness plateau.
Think about the last time you spent an hour or more studying for an exam, or muddling over a thorny mental conundrum. I’ll bet it made your brain tired.
So, what are some examples of things that dogs find mentally stimulating?
Obedience/Commands with a twist
Having your dog complete already-learned obedience tasks every single day, and changing those up a bit, is one way to provide mental stimulation that benefits your dog in ways beyond your relationship. Tasks that the dog has already learned can be cued in different situations. For example:
Sit, lie down, and stay on unfamiliar objects or strange (but safe!) surfaces. Typically, this would mean surfaces where you do not regularly ask your dog to sit, lie down, or stay. Indoors, this could be stairs, concrete floor (such as in the garage), a stepstool, a low stack of magazines that slide a bit, or the roof of his crate if it is made of molded plastic (every dog wants to secretly be Snoopy). Outdoors, it could be low stone walls, a mound of pine straw, metal grates, metal stairs (especially open ones), fallen logs, or the big red concrete balls that some Target stores have. Children’s playground equipment can work, too.
Help him get on the objects, and stay close to keep him from trying to jump off. Keep it simple and short, and gradually build up his confidence over time. Once he happily perches on the item, you can go with longer stays, or stays with distance or distraction. Reward him while he is still on the object or surface!
Safety first! Don’t allow him to leap off onto hard surfaces. Don’t force him onto objects or surfaces if he is anxious. Build his confidence to approach and interact with them first.
Teaching the dog a specific Heel command and enforcing it during at least part of your walks will provide mental stimulation. I teach Heel for lots of reasons, and the mental aspect is one. Does he have to be in Heel the whole walk? Not at all. Walks can still be quite mentally stimulating with Heel only being used some of the time.
Do you walk your dog every day? You should—even if he has a yard to play in. Walks are mental stimulation, even if you take the same route every day.
Philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” The smells and sights and sounds of a walk are always different for your dog, and that’s what counts (though mixing the route up and exploring new walking places is even more fun, so try it!). Throw in some sits, stays, downs, heeling, and recalls on a walk, and you are giving your dog some nice challenges.
Chances are, your dog knows some commands already that you can use and make solid in other areas. But even so, there are more commands, exercises, and tricks you can teach beyond the basic ones. Be creative!
Nosework encourages your dog to use his most developed sense—his incredible sense of smell. You can simply expose him to lots of different smells (as on walks), or you can really up the stimulation by teaching him to identify different smells to earn rewards. Nosework can be either, or both of these.
Teach it as a fun game, and it makes a great addition to your mental stimulation box. It can be done indoors or out, so it can be a great rainy day boredom buster and exerciser.
Here are some links to help you get started:
Puzzles and Games
Food puzzles are just about everywhere these days. From Buster Cubes to Kongs to Snuffle Mats to slow feeders, there are ways to use the dog’s daily ration to provide mental stimulation. Using one of these to feed your dog his food will also help to slow down his eating—which can be great if he Hoovers his food.
This link lists several different types of puzzle feeders for dogs and cats:
Go on! Get stimulating!
*Generally, the type of exercise we are told to get more of: activity that raises the heart rate significantly, and utilizes multiple muscle groups. Examples are running/jogging with the dog (if he is old enough and it is safe); playing with other dogs (if it is safe and enjoyable for all parties), and playing games like fetch and tug with you. Walks alone will not meet most dogs’ exercise needs.