October 1, 2011
Though many owners understand a dog’s need for physical stimulation (i.e., exercise), they often fail to recognize that mental stimulation for their canine companion is of equal importance. Dogs who lack proper mental stimulation often become bored, which can result in numerous behavior problems, including some destructive behaviors, such as chewing, digging, escaping, etc. Owners of healthy, well-balanced dogs combine mental and physical stimulation in their dog’s daily activities.
Mental stimulation can come in many forms. It can be something as simple as changing the route of your daily walks so your dog can sniff new smells and get a change of scenery. Or, it can be something more complicated like canine treat-dispensing puzzles. Teaching, practicing, and improving basic commands and tricks is also another form of mental stimulation. A general rule is, the smarter the dog, the more creative and/or complicated the mental stimulation that you provide needs to be.
In this article, I will list various forms of mental stimulation that is suitable and appropriate for most breeds.
Games & One-on-One Stimulation
Dogs that thrive on human companionship and affection are often easy to train, as they just want to please their human companions. With other dogs, you may need to find other motivation such as treats or a favorite toy. Just remember, you don’t choose what motivates your dog. Your dog chooses this.
Teaching your dog basic commands, and then expanding on those commands, is a great way to provide mental stimulation. Take, for example, the Hide & Seek game. Once your dog knows the “Sit / Stay” and “Come” commands, put him in a “Sit/Stay” somewhere in your home. In the beginning, it helps to have another individual to stay with the dog and make sure he stays put. Now, you calmly walk away and hide somewhere in another part of the house. I like to have a tasty treat with me while I’m hiding. Now loudly say the word “Come” or “Find” so your dog can hear you. Once he finds you, ask him to “Sit” and then reward him with praise and a treat or favorite toy, depending on what motivates your dog. In the beginning, your puppy may need some coaxing to help find you, which is another reason why a second person may be helpful. Remember to keep your energy level excited, to make it more fun for your dog!
Another fun game to play with your dog is the Hidden Treasure game. This is a simple game and can be played anywhere your dog is allowed off leash (assuming there are no other dogs around). Take a scoop of your dog’s favorite kibble and toss it out in the grass. Your dog, assuming it has been at least a few hours since his last meal, will spend a good 20 – 30 minutes trying to locate all the kibble. We like to play this game with our dogs when we have a good snow on the ground. The kibble will fall a good 2-3 inches into the snow and our dogs have to use their nose to find it and dig it out!
Follow the Leader is a good way to teach your puppy to remain focused on you and can eventually be used to teach your dog to “Heel”, if you’re sure to keep your dog on the left side. With very tasty treats in your hand, say to your dog, “Let’s Go” and then begin walking. In the beginning, you may need to hold the treat down near your dog’s nose to keep him motivated to follow you. Don’t give him the treat yet, though. When he least expects it, suddenly stop walking, turn around and ask for a sit and then reward with a treat. As soon as he finishes chewing, say “Let’s Go!” and repeat the game again. In the beginning, you may need to reward your dog with a treat after every few steps in order to help him learn this game. If your dog gets bored, you may need to “up the ante” with tastier treats.
These are just some examples of some one-on-one games you can play with your pooch, in order to provide that much-needed mental stimulation. If your dog seems to get bored with the game, try increasing the reward value (i.e., use a tastier treat). And remember not to play the games so long that your puppy becomes bored with them. You want to give your puppy plenty of mental stimulation, but you also want to leave your puppy wanting more so he will look forward to the next time the two of you play the game together. The best thing about these games is it also helps to solidify a life-long bond!
Treat Dispensing Toys
Twenty minutes of a dog playing with an interactive/treat dispensing/puzzle toy is equivalent to a one hour run, according to The Association of Pet Dog Trainers. This is due to the amount of energy expended when your dog works his/her brain. This, of course, is not a substitute for good physical exercise, but when used in connection with exercise, you are much more likely to have a well-behaved dog. A favorite line among us trainers is, “A tired dog is a good dog.” This is SO true. Just remember, when puppies are young, their stomachs are more sensitive. Accordingly, some of the things discussed below may be inappropriate for very young dogs. IMPORTANT NOTE: Always supervise your dog while he is playing with toys.
The Kong is an old faithful for dog trainers and is a perfect example of a treat-dispensing toy, which is a great way to provide mental stimulation. This toy is top-shelf dishwasher safe, so be sure to clean and sterilize it after each use.
INDOOR USES: Make sure you purchase a Kong that is appropriate for your dog’s age and level of aggressive chewing. For young puppies, purchase a small puppy Kong. For large-breed adult dogs who are aggressive chewers, you may want to try a large black Kong. Other dogs fall somewhere in the middle – so a medium, red Kong will more-than-likely be suitable. Start with an easy treat, such as peanut butter – stuff the peanut butter into the Kong. If your puppy is still young, only fill the bottom ½ of the Kong with peanut butter. As your dog gets use to this, you may want to increase the difficultly level by freezing the peanut butter inside the Kong for 4 hours. Your dog will then have to work harder to get out his tasty reward! Just like people, dogs get tired of the same old thing. To prevent your dog from getting tired of the Kong, you may want to eventually rotate in some other treats – or even use multiple treats in the Kong at the same time. Just make sure that whatever you put in the Kong, the pieces are small enough for your dog to get out of the Kong. (For some more Kong recipes, visit our previous blog entry: http://www.pattywhackdogs.com/2011/06/magnificent-wonderous-kong.html)
OUTDOOR USES: For Hot days, try the Kong Frozen Jerky Pops! Smear a small amount of peanut butter over the small hole at the top of the Kong. Fill the toy with cool water & add a pinch of bouillon. Place jerky strips inside the Kong. Cover the top hole with peanut butter. Freeze. Some dogs love the water. If yours is one of those, you can place the frozen Kong in a children’s size swimming pool for a fun day of “fishing” for your dog.
If you have some strong rope, thread your Kong and tie a knot at the top, so that the Kong will hang upside down by the rope. Then, tie the Kong in a way that it hangs, upside down, just above your dog’s nose when all four feet are on the ground. Fill the Kong with your dog’s favorite kibble, and watch him jump and work to get the kibble out of the Kong (not suitable for very young puppies). A Kong is just one example of the many treat-dispensing toys available on the market today. Visit your local pet store for some more ideas!
Since some treat-dispensing toys can be costly, here is an example of a treat-dispensing toy you can make yourself – The Peanut Butter Jar. Simply finish off a nice jar of peanut butter. (I’m sure your dog would love to assist you with that!) Then, cut 3 or 4 holes in random places around the sides of the jar. Also, cut a hole in the top. Make sure the holes are big enough for pieces of kibble to fall through. Fill the jar up with your dog’s favorite kibble and then watch your dog roll the jar around on the floor, trying to get the kibble to fall out of the holes. If you find that your dog easily gets the kibble out, you can increase the difficulty level by adding up to three pieces of the cardboard roll that is left after you use up a roll of aluminum foil. However, you’ll want to slowly increase the difficulty level, so just add one piece at a time. And, make sure the pieces are of varying lengths.
Interactive Dog Puzzles
I am a huge fan of Interactive Dog Puzzles. In addition to providing mental stimulation and tiring your dog out, puzzles (1) help to build confidence in an insecure dog; (2) help develop problem-solving skills; (3) decrease stress levels; (4) relieve boredom; and (5) help to increase attention spans. Additionally, it is much easier to increase the difficultly level of puzzles for your dog. As long as you don’t use the same puzzle over and over again, your dog should never tire of them!
COMMERCIAL PUZZLES: There are many interactive dog puzzles on the market today. Unfortunately, the majority of these puzzles can cost as much as $85.00. For some more affordable options, including puzzles as low as $14.99, visit our website (http://www.pattywhackdogs.com/p/training-aids-shop.html) to see some of the puzzles currently available.
HOMEMADE PUZZLE: In the mean time, here are some examples of some homemade puzzles you can make yourself. Since most dogs have to start of when easier puzzles and then work their way up to the more complicated puzzles, the Muffin Pan Puzzle is great for beginners. Simply put a tasty treat in each cup of the muffin plan. Then place a tennis ball on top of each treat. Your dog will have to figure out how to get to the treats under the tennis balls. Some dogs will use their mouths. Others prefer to paw at the balls.
Just remember, if your dog’s mind is working, you’re providing mental stimulation!