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Do you have a dog with some behavioral issues like destructive behavior or hyperactivity? Then you should definitely be wondering: how to mentally stimulate your dog?
Most dog owners take their dog for regular walks. However, there are quite a few dogs who still seem to have so much energy. And if they don’t have an outlet for their excessive energy, they’ll use it to bark, jump or chew on your furniture.
Related article: Do dogs get tired of barking? (How to stop excessive barking)
Do you have one like that? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!
Mental stimulation is the absolute best thing you can get your hyperactive, high energy dog.
But let’s start from the beginning. In this post I’ll first go over what mental stimulation for dogs even is and why it’s important. And then I’ll show you how to mentally stimulate your dog with some ideas to keep you and your dog busy.
What is mental stimulation for dogs?
Let’s start with a very important question: what is mental stimulation for dogs actually?
There are 3 kinds of stimulation for dogs: physical, mental and emotional.
Mental stimulation means that your dog needs to use his brain to solve a problem or digest information. It’s pretty much anything that is new for your dog. This can be solving a problem to get food, but also sniffing or meeting new people, dogs or other animals.
Mental and emotional stimulation are very close to each other. During social activities both areas are stimulated because he has to think about the appropriate behavior but will also feel a lot of different emotions.
All these activities and encounters are mentally challenging—which is why they are stimulating.
Most dogs only get physical stimulation when they’re going on walks or you play fetch with them.
However, every dog should get a combination of both.
What is canine enrichment
Mental stimulation is sometimes also referred to as canine enrichment or dog enrichment. This means that mental stimulation enriches a dog’s life.
It means the same but it’s more descriptive because it really shows how mental stimulation enriches a dog’s life.
Why is it important to mentally stimulate your dog
If a dog doesn’t ever have to think to get what he wants or needs then he’ll soon get bored. And dog boredom usually results in some kind of unwanted behavior. Click here to read more about dog boredom and how to distinguish it from a dog simply being tired.
The other important thing to remember is that by providing more and more physical exercise but nothing mental, your high energy dog will only build up his stamina. This means he’ll keep wanting more without getting tired!
Now let’s look at some other reasons for mental stimulation and some questions around it.
Do dogs need mental stimulation?
Mental stimulation isn’t required to survive for dogs. However, a lack of it can not only lead to behavioral issues, but also to dog depression and anxiety.
So, if you want a happy and well-behaved dog, then yes, your dog needs mental stimulation!
However, mental stimulation can come in different forms, as you’ll learn in a minute. So, you should always first evaluate if your dog might already get enough stimulation.
Keep in mind that all sorts of interaction with other people or animals are both emotionally and mentally stimulating. So, if your pup is an office dog, e.g., he probably won’t need much more mental exercise in the evening, there was enough going on during the day.
If you have a well-behaved, calm pup, then he’s getting enough of what he needs. If he’s hyper and shows other annoying behavior—like if your puppy doesn’t want to sleep at night—but gets a lot of action, then it’s more likely that he’s overtired and overstimulated. You might need to test things for a little while. So, mental stimulation is particularly important for high energy dogs.
Is mental stimulation only for smart dogs?
No, not at all.
You can actually train your dog to become smarter by using mental stimulation. Isn’t that amazing?
Dog trainer Adrienne Farricelli explains it very well.
So, even if you feel like your pup isn’t the smartest, he’ll still have a heckin’ lot of fun with brainwork. It might take him a bit longer but he’ll be amazingly relaxed after it!
Benefits of mental stimulation
The number 1 benefit you’ll get from mental stimulation is a calm dog!
Mental exercise is more challenging than physical exercise for dogs. So, you’ll need less time and your pup will be more relaxed after it. Doesn’t that sound perfect?
This will most likely also result in a significant drop of behavioral issues such us destructive behavior, constant barking, pawing, whining or chewing. If your dog is relaxed and tired then he doesn’t have any reason to do any of these annoying behaviors.
Another benefit is that your dog will become more confident. It’s an amazing feeling if you could solve a problem, right? Well, your dog will feel the same and he’ll approach future problems with more confidence.
How much mental exercise do dogs need?
If you want a very even-tempered, relaxed dog, then I’d do a couple of minutes every day. Mental exercise is more tiring than physical exercise. So, you don’t need to make super long sessions. It’s better to make them short but frequent.
As I’ve mentioned before, it also depends on your dog’s everyday life. If there’s a lot going on during the day, he’ll be tired in the evening! So, if he’s hyper it’s because he’s overtired. Providing mental stimulation after an active day is definitely not a good idea and will lead to overstimulation (next point).
So, always look at your dog’s energy with some caution and first think about its cause before mentally stimulating your dog.
Can a dog get overstimulated?
As I’ve just mentioned, a dog can get overstimulated.
It’s very important not to overdo it with mental exercises for your dog. Depending on your lifestyle, your dog might already get enough mental and emotional stimuli.
Our domesticated, urban life has tons of stimuli!
But dog overstimulation can also happen through our actions. Some dog owners try to provide constant action for their pup. While the intention is certainly good, dogs don’t need action 24/7. In fact, normal dogs sleep and relax for an average of 18 hours per day, 12-14 hours of those in deep sleep!
If they get less than that, then they become overtired, which is pretty much the same as overstimulated. There’s just too much going on, they can’t process everything, and that stresses them!
How to mentally stimulate your dog
So, if you’re sure that your dog’s hyper behavior doesn’t stem from him being overtired or overstimulated, then it’s time to look at how you can mentally stimulate your dog.
How do you stimulate a dog indoors
Being stuck indoors because it’s too hot or rainy is the perfect occasion to mentally stimulate your dog. You can actually also replace one of your walks with mental stimulation if you still walk your pup twice a day.
There are a couple of ways to entertain your pup indoors. The most common ones are:
- Interactive puzzles
- Scent games
- Teach him a new trick
- Play hide and seek
- Let him work for his food.
For more inspiration, check out these 21 fun things to do with your dog at home.
How do I stimulate my dog when I’m not at home
In my opinion, dogs don’t need to be entertained when you’re not home. Dogs sleep an average of 18 hours a day! So, I think it’s much more important to set up a routine so that your dog knows it’s sleeping time when you’re leaving.
So, if you’re gone for 8 hours a day, this is the perfect nap time for your pup.
Keep in mind that this requires a good chunk or mental or physical stimulation in the morning and the evening when you’re home.
If you can set up a routine like this, your pup will be more than happy to sleep while you’re gone. This way he can save his energy for when you’re back.
If you feel like he should still have something in case he gets bored after all, then I’d recommend to give him a chewy or a frozen kong toy. This is some low-key activity that will still make him tired.
Here are some funny ingredients for a frozen kong toy:
How do you mentally stimulate a dog outdoors
Now, indoors isn’t the only place to stimulate your dog mentally. It’s actually really easy to also incorporate some mental stimulation into your walks.
The easiest way to do this is to change your route regularly and let your dog sniff. Easy, right? Yep, and very entertaining for your dog!
You can actually even combine this with some dog training. The way I do it with my dog Baloo is that he’s always allowed to sniff when he’s behind me. If he wants to walk in front of me, I just put my foot in front of him and stop. This means he has a double incentive to stay behind me. 1. We’re not moving if he wants to go in front of me and 2. He gets to sniff.
Sniffing on walks or hikes is like reading the papers for dogs. It’s super interesting and takes time to take it all in. And after it, they’re ready for a good, long rest.
Other ideas for outdoors stimulation are:
- Spread your dog’s food in the yard: great to serve his natural hunting instinct.
- Toss treats in the grass and let him sniff them out
- Play hide and seek in the forest
- Make a dog parkour: use whatever obstacles you can find and let your dog jump over them
- Join some kind of dog sport, like Agility, Flyball or Rally Obedience
- Practice some obedience with high distraction, such as other dogs or people passing by.
Tools for mental stimulation in dogs
Some of the mental stimulation ideas you can just do without any special requisites, like playing hide and seek or letting him sniff on a walk.
For indoor mental stimulation, some tools make it much easier to create diverse problems that your dog has to solve. This makes sure he never gets bored. If you’re looking for more tools and ideas, Shay Kelly’s book on canine enrichment has a ton more.
Mental stimulation toys for dogs
If you’re looking for some easy mental stimulation for your dog at home, then I highly recommend getting one or a few of these toys for your pup.
- puzzle toys: super fun problem solving for your pup
- snuffle mat: great way to let your dog sniff for food
- licky mat: you can spread peanut butter or something else on it and let your dog lick for a very long time
- kong toy: great to stuff and freeze but also fun for a game of fetch
Homemade mental stimulation toys for dogs
If your pup has figured all the toys out by now, you can also make some homemade toys for him. Here are a few ideas!
- Muffin game: super easy: you only need a muffin tin, tennis balls and treats
- Make your own puzzle: with some cardboard, cloth and other things you have at home you can easily make your own dog puzzles. Here are a few ideas
- Spin the bottle game: another great way to let your dog work for his food
If you’re looking for more ideas, I highly recommend joining a Facebook group on canine enrichment. Do owners post their dog enrichment games daily so you’ll never run out of ideas!