Spaniel wanting to play

Mental Stimulation For Dogs -
The Complete Guide

Is your dog destroying your home? Does your pup seem way too active, and you can’t keep up? Do you want to take your garden back?

No worries, it’s probably because they’re bored. Mental stimulation for dogs is as essential as physical exercise and proper food. Here’s what you should know about it!

Crazy bull terrier

What Does Mental Stimulation For Dogs Involve?

Dog are smart creatures, but pet life isn’t always conducive to using those abilities. So the same instincts and energy they would have spent hunting and being companions to very active households are now spent at home.

Despite your best efforts, raising a mentally stimulated dog isn’t as easy as going on endless walks and playing fetch for hours. In fact, according to the American kennel club:

“Physical exercise is great and necessary for a dog, but it’s only half of the equation. Your dog, intelligent creature that he or she is, also needs mental exercise […] and this starts at home." – American Kennel Club

Just like people, dogs that aren’t using their physical and mental abilities consistently won’t be happy, healthy or mentally stable. As their owner, it’s on you to provide proper stimulation adapted to your dog’s needs and stage of life. Of course, mental stimulation for dogs like kelpies will need to be more challenging than for a French bulldog or other small, less active breeds. In general, working dog breeds like kelpies, shepherds, and pitties need more mental stimulation than others.

Luckily, mental exercise is more physically tiring than any other exercise. Because of it, if you have to choose, pick shorter but mentally challenging games to keep your dog content.

Unfortunately, thousands of dogs end up in shelters because their owners aren’t aware of their mental needs. You can help change that by providing your dog with appropriate stimuli that will keep them busy and happy.

Signs Your Dog Needs More Mental Stimulation

When dogs are bored, they don’t just lie around as a human would do. In fact, boredom and poor mental stimulation in dogs have many signs that might make you think they are overly energetic! Here are some of the things you should look out for:

  • Your dog is full of energy even after walks: This can be an easy-to-miss sign, especially if your pup seems to be otherwise pretty happy. If you go on daily walks, and your dog comes back home ready to keep playing instead of taking a nap, they likely need some mental exercise as well.
  • They are destroying the yard: Some breeds are more prone to be yard-wreckers than others, but this sign still holds true. If your pup is digging holes everywhere and seems restless, you should pay attention.
  • Your pup shows behavioural changes. These include anything from guarding tendencies, aggression, compulsive behaviours like licking themselves, or running around the property lines for hours on end.
  • They can’t be left alone. If your dog shows stress signs when alone, including barking, destructive behaviours or self-harm -like obsessive scratching-, they might fall into this category. This one is tied to separation anxiety, but it’s generally worsened by boredom and poor mental stimulation.
  • Your dog only gets a 30-minute walk a day. If a short lap around the block is the only form of exercise in your dog’s life, they likely need more to keep their minds entertained. Even if they show no other behavioural issues, it’s easier to change your lifestyle before there’s a problem to address. If this is our case, we’ve got some easy recommendations!
  • Chronic hyperactivity. Maybe your dog seems to have endless energy, and channels that into whatever they have on hand. This might show up as destroying toys, eating socks, or trashing the living room.

How To Keep Your Dog Mentally Simulated

In general, you have two options: offer toys so your dog gets entertained by themselves, or be an active participant in your dog’s daily dose of mental stimulation.

For most pups, fun, simple games with their owners will be significantly more efficient than alone time with a puzzle toy. However, having some toy ideas up your sleeve will work in a pinch, or on the odd occasion you really can’t spend 15 minutes with your dog.

Easy Brain Games For Dogs

The following mental stimulation games for dogs all involve minimal equipment, but you need to be a part of it. These will generally take less than half an hour, and your pup will be left craving a nap! The trick with these is showing excitement so your dog gets excited as well.

Learn some tricks

 Dogs are never too old to learn new tricks, and this is one of the easiest ways to keep their minds busy. Go beyond basic commands like sit and come, and get creative!

This doesn’t need to be too long: 5 to 15 minutes a day will be more than enough to get your dog focused and tired. We recommend ending every session with a treat and some snuggling to make it a positive experience.

PRO TIP: Are you losing your patience? Then end your training session immediately. Dogs can sense our state of mind, and if you’re getting impatient, they’ll notice and have a harder time engaging. This means it will be more difficult to teach them anything, and they won’t have fun either. If you feel yourself getting annoyed at your pup, stop the session and give yourself a break.

Go outside

This is a walk, with a purpose. Regular walks usually have a ‘get it done’ feeling to them. This isn’t it. Instead of rushing back the moment your dog does their business, or sprinting around the block to get back to do laundry, take it slow.

This is better if you can go to a woody area, or somewhere where there will be plenty of things to smell. Then, let your dog wander, watch squirrels together, sniff other dogs and take in the nature around you. Avoid tugging on the leash and let them go at it for as long as they want to.

Make tricks harder

This one is useful for dogs that already know many single tricks, or if you just want to have more fun. So, instead of traditional fetch, your dog might have to put their ball into a container.

Change up the placement of the containers, or make it harder by choosing a smaller one. Then celebrate and cheer when they get it right!

Go find it 

This one is easy and entertaining. Just lock your dog in a room or his crate, and hide some smelly treats in another room. Then release your pup and say ‘go find it!’.

At first, they’ll have a harder time grasping the concept, so hide the treats somewhere close and easy to find. As they get better, make it harder. They’ll have a lot of fun and the reward is built into the game!

Hide and seek

This one is so easy that even your kids can participate! The logic is simple: someone will ask your dog to sit in one room, and you go to hide in another room. Once you’re hidden, say ‘find!’ or some other cue. Start hiding somewhere easy and celebrate when they find you. Then make it progressively harder.

Your dog will quickly understand what they should do, and have a lot of fun with it.

DIY Dog Mental Stimulation Toys

If you’re wondering how to keep your dog entertained while at work, brain toys are the way to go. Not all of them are completely hands-off, but you can always prepare them the night before and only give it to them right before you go out the door. We recommend trying these on the weekends, and once you find what your dog really likes, repeat it to keep them busy while you’re out of the house.

Some mental stimulation dog toys are easy to make at home. Of course, you’ll have to figure out what motivates your dog, and you should cheer them on to make the whole experience more fun for them. Here are a few simple ideas:

Muffin tennis balls

Take some mini tennis balls, or small heavy-duty balls of any kind, and put them into an old cupcake pan sprinkled with treats. Jumbo muffin pans work better for this, but see what you can find. Your dog will spend a good 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get them out of there!

PRO TIP: Never use balls too small for your dog’s size. They could be a choking hazard and transform a simple game into a scary ER trip.

Box hide and seek

Take several shoe boxes or empty cartons, and hide one or two treats inside a couple of them. Make sure there are several empty boxes as well. Then, poke holes in the boxes and tell them to find it. They’ll have to follow their nose to find the treats.

If your dog is really good at this, skip the holes altogether and add some more empty containers.

Ball pit

This one is really fun, especially if your dog already loves hide and seek games. Just take a kiddie pool and fill it up with tons of balls. Then, sprinkle some smelly kibble or other treats your dog loves and let them go at it.

They’ll have to use their nose to find the treats, and the balls will make it even more difficult to get to the prize.

Towel snuffle mat

These are readily available in stores, but there are other options you can do at home. Just take some tasty treats your dog loves, and place them in the middle of an old rag or medium-sized tea towel. Fold the towel with the treats inside, and then loosely tie the ends together.

The treats will end up in a ‘pouch’ in the middle, and your dog’s job will be to untie the towel to get to the treats. This one literally takes 10 minutes to make, and it gives your pup at least half an hour of fun.

Dog Toys Designed For Mental Stimulation

Of course, not everyone has the time to make puzzle toys from scratch. This is especially true if your dog tends to get bored easily, or simply destroys their DIY toys much faster than the regular, store bought ones.

Related: Best Interactive Dog Toys.
Related: Best Dog Puzzle Toys.

Final Thoughts

Keeping your dog mentally entertained can seem like a daunting task, but it really isn’t! if you enjoy spending time with your dog, and have some minutes to spare, you can easily figure out ways to stimulate their minds.

You don’t even need to spend money! Follow our simple tips and you’ll have a happy, well-behaved dog in no time.

  1. American kennel club. DIY Cognitive Dog Toys for When You Are Stuck at Home.
  2. American kennel club. Keep Your Puppy Active and Out of Trouble with Stimulation and Exercise.
  3. Cesar’s way. 6 Great Ways to Challenge Your Dog’s Mind.

Eloisa Thomas

Eloisa Thomas is Gentle Dog Trainers Canine Coach & Anthropologist.

With a double master's degree in Anthropology and awarded a Chancellor's International Scholarship to pursue a PhD in History at the University of Warwick (UK), she's well equipped to write well written and factual canine information that will actually help people understand their dogs better.

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