mental stimulation for dogs

Especially as winter creeps in and our days get shorter, making sure that you pup gets enough exercise can be hard enough. But how are you ensuring that your dog is mentally stimulated as well?

I know for the longest time, I didn’t even think about mental stimulation as a separate need for our pets, but it is equally important to have them use their minds. Some dogs will require more brain exercises than others but it will be crucial to work them mentally. I know Chase would rather use brute force through every situation but getting him to use his brain has been so rewarding, and exhausting for him. Here’s some ways that we are working through that!



1. Practice a new trick.

This can be fun for both of you and improve your bond with your dog. Having them focus on a new trick makes their brain work to understand what you are looking for and start to build those connections with a word or hand gesture. It’s really good for their mental stimulation and their overall focus. (Just like we need to learn and relearn how to stay focused and concentrated, so do they!)

Plus, at the end of a training session, you’ll notice your dog is tired from it! Just remember to go into every training session with patience and time. It won’t be effective unless you are both ready to do the work.

Some commands: sit, lay down, stay, come, leave it, drop.

Other fun tricks: shake, bow, speak, roll over, kiss, play dead, sit pretty.

2. Focus on impulse control.

This is really hard for Chase and something that we are continuously working on. He is obsessed with tennis balls and will scream and cry for the toys. We are constantly working on enforcing better manners and making him wait patiently for the toy without making noises. This involves throwing the ball and making him ‘stay’ and leaving the ball on the counter while he must wait for it without jumping or whining. This has been incredibly helpful around other dogs and people as he gets so excited, but now he will wait (sometimes more patiently than others) for appropriate moments.

It’s truly exhausting for him and even when we mix play time in between these periods of training, he can be truly exhausted as if I just took him on a long run. (He even is less destructive with the ball when he does get to it!)

Ways to work on impulse control can be making them wait for food/toys, having them sit around distractions, or having them leave a treat on the floor for a period of time. Increase the time increments as they start to get the hang of it!


3. Play a dog game.

Having your dog work on their problem solving skills with this game that Chase loves! He started off really poorly and again would just try to muscle his way through the game. Place a treat under one of three identical cups and shuffle the cups. Allow your dog to choose which cup the treat is under. If they get it right, reward them with the treat.

We allowed Chase to sniff the cups at first to work on stimulation that way, but have encouraged him more and more to problem solve where the treat would be. This way, he has to pay attention to the cups as we shuffle them and has to remember where we originally placed the treat.

We recorded some of the sessions with him, and I promise, they are quite funny.

4. Work for their food.

Most of us dog owners will place their food on the ground and the dog knows that this is their time to eat. But what if they had to work to earn their food? Not only does this increase your bond, but it increases your status in the pack reminding the dog that food comes from you, and so you must be important. Reinforcing this status fosters a great pack mentality.

How your dog can work for their food can be in various ways. They can sit and wait for their release command, they can perform tricks to earn handfuls of food, or you can put their food in a toy and have them figure out how to get their food. We use a Kong or a puzzle toy that releases their food as they push it around on the floor. It’s a great way to make them think while they eat & helps them slow down if you have a dog who wolfs down their food!


5. Encourage them to sniff around.

You’re outside on a walk or in your yard and your dog starts sniffing around, chances are they are loving the opportunity to explore. Now, we’ve worked really hard on not letting Chase lead us on walks, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want him to have time to explore the area in his own way. With that being said, if he isn’t running around off-leash, we will give him a command to allow him to break from our leashed walk to go and sniff around a certain area. This not only allows him to use his brain but makes walks so much more exciting for him.

If he is off-leash, we will allow him to sniff and explore but still encourage that we are in control of the area. We will continuously practice recall and he listens intently as his rewards are not only the praise at return, but the opportunity to go off and adventure freely again. We’ve noticed that a walk with more time to sniff the surroundings actually makes him more tired than a longer walk in a straight line on a sidewalk.

6. Build an obstacle course.

I’m not sure if I had more fun doing this one than Chase did. He’s so used to walking up, walking to his water bowl, heading to his toy bin and doesn’t have to think about any of it. So we built him a dog fort/maze. He had pillows to avoid, blankets to crawl under and cushions to weave around. As I’m sure you can tell from previous things I’ve mentioned, Chase started out trying to knock everything over to get to what he wanted but with work, we were able to have him attempting his way around the course.

This is a similar alternative to agility that many other dogs do work on- so keep doing that if you are!- but if you don’t have the whole set up, don’t be shy to set up some obstacles at home and get creative. Find some chairs and have an extra cushion, your dog will learn how to weave through the chairs and hop over that pillow in no time.