Left to their own devices, dogs are great at stimulating their brains, but when owners get involved it can be a different story. We spoke to top trainer Sheila Harper about how to get it right.
All dogs need mental stimulation to lead happy and balanced lives. However, it's a myth to think you can just throw various types of stimuli at your dog and that he will cope with and enjoy them. If not offered in the correct way, mental stimulation can become detrimental to his well-being.
"Dogs are very good at creating their own mental stimulation," said Sheila. "It's something that comes naturally to them. That's the key when trying to provide mental stimulation for your dog - keep it natural.
"People like to do things with their dogs and are very keen to be constantly interacting with them. The problem is that the activities can become more owner focused than dog focused. The dog is doing something to please his owner, not because he wants to, or because he's enjoying it. This is when the activity is in danger of becoming a stressor in the dog's life, rather than something that is keeping him in good mental health. Successful mental stimulation is a combination of getting the dog/owner relationship right and the owner not pushing the dog to perform for them.
"It needs to be a gradual process. Mental stimulation starts at puppyhood and helps with brain development, coordination, and muscle development. As a newborn, the pup's senses are beginning to develop straight away as he is finding out about the world around him. As puppies get older, they explore more - exploration is the best form of mental stimulation. Left to their own devices puppies have the opportunity to gradually extend their experiences of surroundings, always being able to return to the security of a known environment, and will have support from their mother and littermates."
Mental stimulation is incredibly important for dogs and has positive effects on all aspects of their lives. It:
- Promotes natural, balanced behaviour.
- Enables and allows good mental and physical development.
- Helps dogs to stay mentally alert, rather than going into autopilot.
- Allows them to improve their survival skills - which are important for the dogs to develop normally. When providing mental stimulation for your dog, your aims are to:
- Help him to safely satisfy his curiosity.
- Help him to gain or build confidence.
- Build on your dog/owner relationship.
- Encourage him to learn to problem solve on his own - without interference from you.
- Encourage him to learn how to explore, to find out about different aspects of life, and to satisfy his interests.
"Providing mental stimulation for your dog is also great for you," said Sheila. "It allows you to observe and develop a real awareness of your dog, to enjoy him, and to learn from him.
"Dogs' senses are fantastic - they could teach us thousands of things. But we're always trying to channel their senses in order to get what we want them to achieve, or what we think they want. It's often very hard for us to let go of our expectations, and instead to allow dogs to take charge and do what they are naturally good at. In many situations allowing them to make their own choices is great for their self-esteem."
When providing mental stimulation for your dog, it needs to be suitable for his skill level and the right type for him as an individual. "It should provide a learning opportunity," said Sheila. "If well thought through, in time it can challenge your dog, but it should never test him.
"The right kind of mental stimulation is essential for normal balance in everyday life, but it can also help dogs, especially those with confidence issues or dogs who are in ill-health, and if done correctly it can be a great stress-buster.
"It is essential that a dog has a positive learning experience. With any activity you set up for your dog, his first impression must be guaranteed to be a positive one - as the saying goes: ‘You never have a second chance to make a good first impression'."
There are many interesting activities you can do to stimulate your dog's mind, but remember to always pick one suitable to his skill level, and set up the environment for success.
- Walks - let your dog sniff and explore. Don't hurry him, but give him time to do what comes naturally. Changing environments and going on different walks can stimulate your dog and encourage him to explore. However, if he is insecure or very nervous, changing an environment too much and too many times may be more than he can mentally cope with - it needs to be built up gradually.
- Enriched environment - bring items into your garden or home that will stimulate all his senses, and which he can explore safely. Be inventive, such as:
- Smells - old socks, shoes, and other dogs' bedding or collars (never use essential oils or anything that could be in any way compromising for the dog).
- Touch - ribbons hanging, material draped over something your dog can walk through, dangling tin cans, and little dens for him to explore.
- Sound (this is best saved for confident dogs) - plastic packets that rustle.
- Taste - smelly treats that can be eaten quickly.
- Find - this can be done indoors or outdoors. Use low-value treats, or a familiar toy, and hide them in a room, the garden, under pots, and bushes for your dog to find. Don't restrain him while hiding the items or get him too excited, as this will frustrate him.
- Work together - put a treat in a small tub, then when out on a walk drop it ensuring your dog sees you do so. Turn and allow him to find the tub, open it together, and give him the treat.
Remember: The whole experience should be designed to help your dog explore, not to test him or see if he can cope. If you think your dog may be worried or spooked by something, then it's not the right time to introduce it.
The golden rules
...for successful mental stimulation.
- Keep it natural - it's about your dog expressing his natural abilities.
- Let your dog explore - don't set time limits. Take cues from your dog as to whether he's had enough.
- Ensure the task you set is appropriate to your dog's skill level and that you take into consideration any health issues.
- Don't make it a training exercise.
- Aim for short periods of calm activity - too much will increase his stress levels.
- Don't point out where treats are - this can be damaging to his self-confidence.
- Give over a degree of control to your dog and enjoy it - allow him to set the pace.
- If working on the lead, keep it slack (but not so that it can become tangled and restricted).
- Don't hype or overexcite your dog before an activity - he should be in a position to think and solve problems using his logic.
- When offering mental stimulation as a task, ensure it is built so that your dog has success.
- Never force, pressure, or use aversive methods in order to achieve (what you perceive to be) a good goal.
- Use food sparingly and only for certain tasks, otherwise your dog will become reliant on it and perform for it.