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Mental stimulation for dogs

The essentials

  • Bad behavior can be a sign your dog is bored — Chewing, digging, getting into things, and begging for attention can all be signs of boredom.
  • Mental stimulation can tire them out — Including mental exercises in your dog’s daily routine can tire them out more than physical exercise.
  • It can improve their behavior and mood — Giving your dog a job to do with brain games forces them to concentrate and use problem-solving skills.

As pet owners, we may only think about the physical exercise our pet is getting. While physical exercise is a pillar of pet ownership, mental stimulation for dogs is just as important. 

Games and puzzles exercise dogs’ brains and require them to work through complex problems to find their reward — usually a treat. Dogs need enrichment for their overall health and well-being to prevent boredom, frustration, anxiety, and unhappiness.

Why mental stimulation is important for dogs

Dogs need mental stimulation and are smarter than most people give them credit for. They learn verbal cues, social cues, and hand gestures, and they can feel emotions. Certain breeds — like German shepherds — are working breeds that are typically high-energy and need a lot of physical and mental exercise to keep them stimulated. 

Mental stimulation has numerous advantages for dogs and their owners. Here are some of the key benefits:

  • Releases energy. Mental games and puzzles require a lot of focus and mental stamina, allowing them to release pent-up energy and keep their minds busy. 
  • Improves mental health. Mental stimulation can help prevent depression and boredom and improve cognitive function by giving them new challenges and tasks. This decreases the speed of cognitive dysfunction and slows aging. 
  • Tires them out. Just like humans, mental stimulation can tire dogs out as much, if not more, than physical exertion. Mental exercises involving sniffing, searching, or other types of games engage them, leaving them feeling happy.
  • Strengthens bonds. Engaging in mental stimulation activities with your dog provides valuable one-on-one time. This quality time allows them to exercise their minds, strengthens bonds, and helps build trust with each other.
  • Helps with behavior. Many people may think their dogs are purposefully misbehaving and not listening, but it’s usually due to boredom and frustration. If you notice behaviors like chewing and getting into the garbage, or tail chasing and overexcitement when you get home, they often just need more stimulation.

Signs that your dog needs mental stimulation

If your dog displays signs of anxiety or demonstrates undesirable, bad behavior, it’s likely due to boredom and a lack of mental stimulation. 

Insufficient physical and mental stimulation can foster behaviors such as restlessness, excessive barking, destructive chewing, and begging for attention. This is especially common in high-drive working breeds who need a job to do, purposeful tasks, or mental challenges.

If your dog is often alone or even gets long walks, providing them with cognitive activities is essential to meet their instincts for performing a job. Here are some signs your dog is bored:

  • Chewing, digging, getting into trash. These are common signs your dog is bored. Destructive behaviors are their way of trying to keep themselves occupied and alleviate boredom.
  • Begging for attention. Dogs begging for attention may be craving some sort of interaction with their owners. It may present as being needy, but really, they are seeking attention so owners can alleviate their boredom and anxiety.
  • Excessive licking or barking. Excessive licking and barking may be frustrating for pet owners, but it’s likely your dog is feeling just as frustrated. They may resort to attention-seeking behaviors like this just to feel less bored or anxious.
  • Restlessness and pacing. Your dog may have no idea how to get rid of their pent-up boredom and anxiety. This results in pacing, restlessness, and being unable to settle down. It’s common among dogs who need more mental and physical engagement.
  • Overexcitement. If your dog spends long hours by themselves while you’re at work, they’re likely feeling bored and lonely. They may look for stimulation and engagement from their owners and become overly excited. This may also be an indicator of separation anxiety, so make sure to differentiate between the two and speak with your vet about what you can do.
  • Fighting with other animals. Aggressive behavior can often be the result of boredom, and your dog is just trying to seek stimulation and attention.
  • Getting out or running away. Dogs may escape or run away in an attempt to entertain themselves. If they’re alone often and for extended periods, they’re probably feeling lonely, bored, anxious, and looking for engagement.
  • Chasing their tail. This repetitive behavior is a likely sign your dog needs more mental stimulation. They may be looking for attention or have excess energy they need to get out. Other non-destructive attention-seeking behaviors include rolling around, nudging you, or whining to get your attention.

Your dog may be experiencing a combination of boredom and separation anxiety, which can also cause some of these behaviors. Speak with your vet about whether or not their behavior is induced by separation anxiety. They can help you determine the best way to approach the situation.

6 ways to provide mental stimulation for dogs

Providing mental stimulation for your dog doesn’t have to break the bank or be fancy. Activities like playing ‘Find It’ or ‘Hide and Seek’, or taking them on scent walks cost nothing and can be enjoyed anywhere. 

Alternatively, there’s a range of budget-friendly enrichment, puzzle, and chew toys to choose from. Whether you’re on a tighter budget or can be more flexible, your dog can still get the mental engagement they need without hurting your wallet. 

Here are some ways you can provide mental stimulation for your dog.

1. Hide and seek

Hide and seek is an easy and free way to keep your dog mentally engaged and excited. Just like the human hide and seek, dogs have to use their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to find you. 

If you’re playing this by yourself with your dog, they’ll need to know “stay” so you can hide in another room. It may be easier if you have another person to help keep your dog in one spot while you hide. Call your dog and see if they can find you. 

2. Find it

Find it is a great game to play with your dog. It’s similar to hide-and-seek. Put your dog in their crate or a different room while you hide treats. 

Hide your treats (or toys) in places around your house and let your dog out, telling them to “find it.” Let your dog sniff your hand or give them a treat so they know what to look for. Start by hiding the treats in easy places. As you play it more, you can up the difficulty.

3. Scent walks and new routes

If you walk your dog on the same route every day, you’ll know when they get bored. Doing a scent walk or trying a new route is a great way to give them an exciting new routine. Scent walks allow your dog to sniff and explore wherever they want. 

Sniffing walks can decrease stress, release dopamine, and keep them mentally stimulated. Try pairing a new route with a sniffing walk and change it up each day. This keeps things interesting for you and your dog.

4. Enrichment toys for dogs

Enrichment toys are a great way to keep your dog stimulated emotionally and keep their brains engaged. They help them stay calm, distract them from stress, provide them with a limited amount of treats, and keep them occupied. 

Enrichment toys can include dog puzzle toys, snuffle mats, and interactive plush toys. Here are a few options:

  • Hide N Slide Dog Toy. This puzzle toy is for dogs new to puzzles or at the intermediate level. Hide treats and let your dog try to slide blocks and find the treat. 
  • Tornado Puzzle Game Dog Toy. This is another inexpensive option that still gives your dog lots of stimulation and challenge. Your dog has to rotate discs between layers to find the hidden treats. It’s also a great multi-difficulty toy. You can make finding treats harder by adding white blocks in certain areas. 
  • Slow Feeder Snuffle Mat & Feeding Mat. You can use this snuffle mat to provide mental stimulation. Snuffle mats, similar to slow feeder bowls, work by forcing your dog to slow down during mealtime. You can also use them outside of mealtime. It gives them a fun task to do while they problem-solve and search for treats among the thick rug pile.
  • Hide & Seek Puzzle Plush Squeaky Dog Toy. This plush toy is great for small dogs or medium breeds. It’s a play on hide-and-seek, as your dog has to search for the squeaky dinosaur toys within the cake volcano. 

5. Chew toys

Chewing is another excellent cognitively stimulating activity for your dog. Chewing gives them something to focus and concentrate on. It’s also a natural way to help alleviate stress, release dopamine, and create a calming feeling. Go for natural chews or bones that have some “give” to them to avoid any future dental problems, like chipped teeth.

6. Obstacle course

Create your own obstacle course for your dog using objects you already have at home. Outside, you can use garbage pals, chairs, laundry baskets, towels, or other dog-safe objects to make it fun and challenging. 

Setting up an obstacle course can help stimulate your dog’s mind and improve their agility. It’s also a great way to practice training and strengthen the bond between you and your dog while having fun.

How often should you provide mental stimulation for your dog?

Your dog needs 20 to 30 minutes of mental stimulation each day. Depending on your dog, you can split these into two sessions of 10 to 15 minutes each. Each dog is unique, so some will require more or less. Watch and see how your dog does and adjust from there. 

Other factors affecting how much mental stimulation your dog needs include their breed and age.

Working and sporting breeds will need more mental stimulation than other groups of breeds, and the type of stimulation they need will vary. They may need more difficult and scent-driven brain games. This also applies to younger dogs.

On the other hand, dogs that are more relaxed or older may need less stimulation to be satisfied.

Dogs need mental stimulation to live happy and healthy lives. Without it, you risk having a dog that acts out, engages in poor behaviors, is destructive, aggressive, and even depressed. While mental engagement is just one aspect, it’s not a magic fix-all. 

Your dog will still need physical exercise, interaction, and socialization and may need training. Depending on your dog’s age, breed, and personality, they’ll need varying levels of mental stimulation. What may work for one dog may not work for another.

Frequently asked questions

How do you mentally tire out a dog?

Mentally tiring a dog out will vary depending on your dog and their personality, but a few ways include playing find it, hide and seek, going on scent walks, or trying new routes. You can also try enrichment and interactive dog puzzle toys, chew toys, or creating an obstacle course.

How do I mentally stimulate my dog at home?

You can try a variety of things to stimulate your dog mentally. Try hiding pieces of food, a treat, or a toy and telling them to “find it.” Go on a scent walk and let them sniff the entire time. Or try new brain games like enrichment toys, snuffle mats, or Kongs.

Is playing mental stimulation for dogs?

Yes! Playing gives your dog the attention and interaction they need while giving them mental stimulation.

What are some simple mental stimulation games you can play with dogs?

Find it, scatter feeding — hiding their meal in a snuffle mat or throughout the house — slow feeder bowls, an obstacle course, or dog puzzle toys are all easy and simple mental stimulation games you can play with your dog.

How do you keep your dog mentally stimulated while at work?

Try tiring your dog out mentally before going to work. Hide their food around the house before leaving for work, so they have to search and find it.