8 ways to mentally stimulate your dog

Does your dog have boundless energy? Is he still raring to go even after a long walk? Then maybe it’s time to rethink his regime, suggests Julie Hill.

If the answers to the above questions are yes, then you may need to get your dog’s brain working, and harness all that wonderful energy into enjoyable, positive activities.

Here are a few ideas from the experts on how to do this; ideas which cost nothing and simply require items you have around the house.

1. Follow my signals

This activity requires no equipment at all! Dog trainer Graeme Sims has worked as a shepherd, put on stunning displays with up to nine dogs working simultaneously, and written several books. Border Collies are at the forefront of his thinking, but any dog will benefit from Graeme’s game.

He recommends teaching your dog to run to the left, to the right, to run and lie down, to stay down, to come back when he’s called, and to do it in slow motion, or fast. He advises bearing in mind that dogs are visual creatures, so the use of body language is vital. “Research shows body language signals are 96 per cent effective,” Graeme explains, “so if you use hand signals for all the things I’ve just described your dog will learn.” By getting back to basics, and building your bond with your dog, you can exercise that clever brain. And, as Graeme says: “All you need is a bit of green space!”

2. Let your dog sniff!

Dog trainer Sarah Pennington writes a blog featuring many ideas on keeping dogs occupied. This is perhaps her simplest suggestion and can be implemented during any walk.

“If you’re taking your dog on a walk to give him exercise, sniffing is mentally stimulating, and will help burn energy better than him just walking like a robot next to you,” Sarah says. “The command ‘Go sniff!’ can be taught and used to reward nice, loose-lead walking. When you’re ready to walk again, tell your dog: ‘OK, let’s go!’ and set off again.” This approach is very versatile. Sarah says: “If you’ve got an older dog who doesn’t walk very far, then letting him sniff is fantastic because he’s getting enrichment just by being outside.”

3. Sniff and solve

Louise Wilson, who is head dog trainer at Conservation K9 Consultancy, also recommends scent work. However, as a detection dog handler of over 15 years, she recommends working to the dog’s natural abilities and including problem solving. “Considering 40 per cent of the dog’s brain is taken up for scent olfactory analysing then we need to utilise this more!” Louise advises, and this may particularly help not just very active dogs, but reactive ones as well.

To try this method, start by hiding a favourite toy, or treat toy, and verbally encourage the dog to locate it independently. Louise suggests hiding items higher up for air-scenting dogs and lower for ground-scenting dogs — then mixing things up, and hiding high, low, and even highly concealed.

4. The plant pot game

Debbie Connolly is an experienced behaviourist and expert witness who runs SafePets. To play her enrichment game, you show your dog both an empty plant pot, and a treat. Put a treat on the ground, and let the dog eat it; then put another treat on the ground, but almost cover it with the plant pot so the dog can easily access the treat.

Next, put the treat on the ground, and put the plant pot over it so the dog has to knock the pot over to gain the treat. To extend the game, you can add in extra plant pots requiring the dog to first locate which pot the treat is under, but Debbie warns: “Don’t make it too difficult for a dog who is learning, or just not clever enough to get it.

“For a really clever dog, you can hide the plant pot around the garden or house and ask the dog to ‘Find it’.”

5. Find it!

Scent work is an extremely effective way of harnessing the power of your dog’s brain. “Scent work can be enjoyed by every dog — no matter what their breed or age,” enthuses Susan McKeon, head behaviourist and instructor at Happy Hounds Dog Behaviour. This game is an ideal way to introduce scent work, and all you need is cheese. Initially, give your dog a piece of cheese; next, throw a piece near your feet, and say: ‘Find it!’ Once your dog has eaten the cheese and looks back up at you, throw the next piece, saying ‘Find it!’ as you do.

Susan explains: “Keep initial training sessions short. Once your dog is happy with the ‘Find it’ game, you can start to vary it by hiding the cheese in places where your dog will need to sniff it out.” An extra bonus is that because the next piece of cheese won’t be thrown until your dog returns to you, his recall is reinforced.

Why work your dog’s brain?

Experts agree that dogs need both physical and mental stimulation.

  • For clever dogs, particularly herding breeds, Graeme Sims compares a stroll around the block to: “Saying to Einstein: ‘Did you know one and one is two?’ And then wondering why the dog’s frustrated.”
  • Getting your dog’s brain working increases his well-being. Louise Wilson says: “This type of play releases chemicals that make a happy dog; seeking for the item releases dopamine; finding the item and then play releases the opioids!”
  • Like us, dogs crave mental stimulation. Debbie Connolly points out: “What do human beings do? We read newspapers, go on the internet, read a book; we have hobbies. Dogs don’t have the ability to do that.”
  • Entertaining your dog can save your sanity! Susan McKeon says: “It’s often said that the Devil finds work for idle hands, and the same could be said for idle paws. If you’d rather your dog formed habits you like, boredom-busters will help him channel some of his mental and physical energy into habits that you can both enjoy.”
  • Allow your dog to fulfil the hunting and scavenging instincts he was born with. Sarah Pennington says: “If you can add a few enrichment activities to the dog’s day it’s hugely beneficial.”

Over time, you can build up to a meal taking 20 minutes to work out. “If you feed your dog twice a day that’s 40 minutes of intense mental stimulation that’s ‘free’ — it doesn’t take any of your time.”

6. Work to eat games

Sarah Pennington has many of these ideas. She suggests putting a treat in each of the four holes of a cardboard take-away coffee carrier, then placing a tennis ball over the top, so the dog has to move them to get to the food. To extend the game, Sarah says: “You could use a muffin tin, and put wet food in a couple of the muffin holes — cream cheese, peanut butter, a few treats — and cover them with tennis balls. Then there are lots of holes and things that they get to smell and work for.”

If your dog gets overexcited with visitors, Sarah says: “Stuff a Kong with goodies — and even freeze it — so when your guests come over, your dog will have something to do that he’ll be really focused on; it’s a bit like a dummy for a baby.”

7. Lucky dip box

If your dog likes to destroy items, Susan McKeon says: “Providing him with a number of items that he can safely destroy and have fun destroying — such as cardboard boxes (with any staples removed), the cardboard inside of kitchen roll/toilet rolls, old newspapers, and so on — will help preserve your belongings.”

To make a lucky dip box, simply put items like a stuffed Kong, chews, a toy, food, raw carrot — whatever your dog likes to eat — into a suitable box. Susan suggests adding extra challenge by: “Putting a chew inside an old kitchen roll tube, or wrapping a toy in several sheets of newspaper — the contents are only limited by your imagination and what is safe to destroy.”

8. The toy name game

This one’s for those whose dogs are toy motivated. Start off with three toys, for example a tennis ball, rubber bone, and rope. Place the three toys in front of you, pick up the tennis ball, throw it a short way, and say: ‘Fetch ball’. Debbie Connolly advises repeating this several times a day, for a few days. “Once you think that the dog’s got that, pick up the tennis ball, and a second toy, say the rope. Gesture as if you’re going to throw both of them, but only throw the ball, and say: ‘Fetch ball’ to teach the dog to focus on the words you’re using.” Using the same technique, teach the dog the name of the other two toys.

Debbie says: “For a harder version of this game, hide several toys around the garden and ask the dog to fetch a specific one. You can also ask the dog to fetch a specific toy while you’re sitting watching TV at night — buy yourself some peace!”

Adapt the toys you already have

Dogs get bored with the same old toys, but you can easily adapt them. Experienced trainer Delia Graham gives an example: “Roll dry food into fleece strips and push them into a holey ball. Dogs love it!”

Safety advice
  • Don’t give anything — even a commercial toy — to a dog who tends to chew them all up and then swallow all the bits.
  • Remove staples, Sellotape, and parcel tape from cardboard boxes.
  • Remove lids from milk/juice bottles — they’re a choking hazard.
  • When using plastic, ensure it won’t hurt your dog by making a small hole in it and checking you can put your finger through the hole without getting cut.
  • Don’t give your dog tin items.
  • If your dog ingests cardboard or paper, don’t give it to him.
  • Some dogs can’t tolerate dairy food, so start off with small amounts.