If you’ve read How to Stop a Dog From Barking the term “mental stimulation” might ring a bell for you, and if not then tune in! We will be discussing why mental stimulation is so important for our dogs, how it can help keep them from developing troublesome behaviors, and what activities are mentally stimulating for your pet.
As a dog trainer I focus heavily on educating my clients on proper mental stimulation for their dogs because I have found it to be immensely helpful at reducing many of the irritating behaviors that plague new dog owners. Many pet owners attempt to keep their pets happy and healthy by giving them plenty of opportunities for physical exercise, and while exercise is great for your pet it is only half the battle. Dogs are undeniably intelligent, and unfortunately for us the smart dogs are typically the most annoying!
To fully understand a dog’s needs it is important to have a little background on our pet’s evolutionary history. Contrary to what dog food commercials of wolves leaping after prey would have you believe, your pet’s history does not involve majestically hunting in elk packs.
Our canine companions, before they were domesticated, were actually scavenging predators. This means that instead of working as a group to take down large game, dogs hunted alone or in very small groups to catch small prey and find bits and pieces of anything edible. These food sources are not nearly as large and nutritious as the food one would be able to acquire as a pack, and because of this dogs had to search for food and eat more frequently.
Because humans at the time happened to be converting from hunting and gathering to farming and creating civilizations, we inadvertently created a new food source for dogs to utilize. That food source happens to be something dogs relish to this day, garbage! Our garbage also attracts rats, mice, and other small (and edible!) vermin, and thus we created a “partnership” with dogs.
Anyone who has given a dog a treat knows that food creates a very strong positive association with a stimulus, i.e. when Grandpa gives Champ a cookie, champ follows him around for the next hour with puppy dog eyes. Incidentally, years of association with a food source led to our dog ancestors becoming highly interested in people. The dogs who were bold enough to create bonds with people received more food scraps, this made them more likely to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation of puppies. Thankfully for us this boldness was hereditary, and was passed on from litter to litter until we took over and selectively bred certain traits.
So what does this mean for you? This means that the great, great, great, (throw a few more greats in there) grandfather of your dog had to have two important traits for him to survive long enough to have puppies, he had to love being around people, and he had to be constantly searching for food. Those traits were passed down generation by generation to your dog, and are still there to this day.
The reason this is important is because our dogs don’t have to search for food anymore, but their brains still tell them that they should be doing those hunting behaviors, this is why our dogs want to chase, dig, bite, chew, tear things apart, and eat things they shouldn’t. The best way to prevent your dog from taking out his evolutionary drives on your couch cushions? Keep it pre-occupied with other things!
What is Mentally Stimulating for My Dog?
Anything that keeps your dog interested for more than a few seconds is mentally stimulating! All dogs are unique, so some things will be more interesting to your dog, and some things will be less. Whether you are scratching his belly, playing fetch, teaching him how to shake paws, giving him a bone, letting him sniff the neighborhood fire hydrant, or playing hide and seek, if he is interacting he is burning mental energy. The most mentally stimulating activities for dogs are those that require them to think (i.e. training) and those that require them to use their natural predatory sequence.
The predatory sequence is all of the steps a dog needs to take if he wants to catch and eat a prey item. To catch a meal, a dog has to sniff and find a trail, stalk, chase, bite, tear apart, and eat/chew their food. Many dog breeds retain this full predatory sequence; for example golden and Labrador retrievers were bred to, you guessed it, retrieve! Because their “purpose” was to retrieve food that we hunted, when selectively breeding we focused on dogs that liked to chase and grab things but not rip them up and eat them on the way back. Because of selective breeding, to this day even non-sporting retrievers are typically quite satisfied with a game of fetch!
Our Favorite Types of Mental Stimulation
• Tug and/or Fetch – The best way to play tug and fetch with your pup is to add structure and rules to the game. By teaching your dog to drop the toy, requiring them to wait before getting it back, and asking them for behaviors that they know, we can create a game that requires your dog to use their brain!
• Treat Balls – Dog toys that require your pet to manipulate an object in order to get food out of it are extremely mentally stimulating, mainly because they require more thought than mindlessly vacuuming up treats. Make sure you pick them up when the treats are gone, so it stays interesting and doesn’t get lost under the couch.
• The Original KONG – This toy is similar to a treat ball, but the most effective use is not putting treats or chews in it! The best recipe for success? A mixture of canned pumpkin puree (no pumpkin pie mix!) and peanut butter. Fill a couple KONGs to the very top, and freeze. This will take your pet much longer to eat, and require time and effort to get all of the mixture out of it, a perfect combination for burning mental energy.
• Bully Sticks – These chews, unlike rawhides, are 100% digestible. They are impressively high value as a reinforcer, and can be used when you really need your pup out of your hair. Depending on your pup’s age and size, a 6-inch bully stick could last anywhere from 15 minutes to a day or two. If your dog is very young or has any healthy issues make sure to check with your veterinarian before trying. They are also relatively high in calories, so as with any chew or treat you should feed sparingly.
• Deer Antlers – This is another type of chew that seems to be popular among my four-legged clients. While the species (deer, moose, elk, etc.) does not seem to make a difference, the type of cut does. Choose antlers that are cut down the middle, or “filet” style cuts.
• Training – What could work your pet’s brain more than learning new behaviors and problem solving? By teaching any animal new behaviors you are creating a bond with the animal, as well as increasing their daily mental stimulation. Even if the behavior is a “fluff” behavior or a “trick”, your pet still has to make the connection between the action they are doing and the word or signal you are using to ask them for said behavior.
• Dog-on-Dog Interaction – Our dogs love us, but like our husbands they occasionally need time to just hang with their buds! If appropriate, play with other dogs is a wonderful way to burn both mental and physical energy. Even though dogs love to play with humans, they are able to more naturally interact with other dogs. One of the best reasons to get your pup playing with other dogs is that he is taking out lots of his energy on someone other than you! Your pup, especially if he is still young, may want to chomp down on some ears and barrel around at full speed, and as pet owners we typically prefer if that doesn’t happen to/on us.
Always remember that your dog should only be interacting with appropriate playmates. Ensure all dogs are fully vaccinated, have been properly socialized and introduced to one another, are a similar size (no dachshunds and Great Danes!), and have compatible personalities. Two puppies around the same age are a much better match than a year old ball of energy and a crotchety senior dog.
We have covered quite a bit of information over the course of this article, and that is because it is important for your pet! Not just because it will make your dog less likely to destroy your belongings in his boredom, but also because a dog that has been properly mentally stimulated is a healthier dog overall.
The vast majority of dogs were not bred to sit around a house alone while their owner is at work, and though we love our dogs and show them affection while we are with them, it is nearly impossible to spend all of our time with them. By providing our pets with mentally stimulating activities, both while we are home and while we are away, we are ensuring the best welfare for our pets.