mental stimulation for dogs
Pet Care Advice

Mind games! How much mental stimulation does a dog need?

One of the best things about having a dog is being able to play with it and build a strong bond. The mental stimulation is vital to their emotional and physical wellbeing too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re taking your dog to formal agility classes or playing fetch indoors on a miserable rainy day, the time you spend with your dog will bring you both so many rewards

All dogs need mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. The amount and type of stimulation varies by age, breed and individual dog. Puppies should get no more than around 5 minutes of exercise for each month of life, adult dogs can take more.

What you play matters less than the quality of the attention you give your dog, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Some of the ideas in this post use everyday things you’ll have at home. The most important thing is to make sure it’s fun for both of you by being patient and choosing games that suit your dog’s character and physical abilities.

Why bother with mental stimulation?

We all have days where we get busy and we wonder whether we really need to spend time playing with our dogs, giving them mental stimulation. We’ve walked them – do they really need more?

Spending time providing your dog with mental stimulation brings a number of benefits:

  • It’s a critical part of your dog’s overall mental health. A dog that gets enough mental stimulation settles more quickly, destroys fewer things, and barks, digs and whines less.
  • Spending time in play and training with your dog strengthens the bond between you, and a stronger bond means a happier, healthier dog, It also means a less frazzled dog parent.
  • Games and training tire a dog out in a way that just walking can’t. They engage parts of your dog’s brain that otherwise find more destructive outlets.
  • It builds your dog’s social skills. This is especially important in the early years. Playing with your puppy helps them learn to cope with new sounds, sights and smells in a safe environment.
  • It’s fun. The busier your day, the more important it is to take some time out to stop and do something that will bring you pleasure.

fun games for dogs

How to mentally stimulate your dog

There are a number of ways to engage your dog’s brain. We’ll go into each one in more detail, but in summary:

  • Walking your dog and letting it sniff as much as it wants. When I have a full day ahead of me, I’m tempted to hurry the dogs along. I try not to do that because the sniffing is almost more engaging for them than the physical act of walking.

According to Marc Bekoff, author of Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, “dogs live in, and are consumed by, a world of smells…when we walk dogs on a leash it’s almost like they are stopping to read a very interesting news headline or hear some important neighborhood gossip”.

  • Playing games like catch, fetch, tug-of-war with them
  • Taking them to things like agility, flyball or obedience training where your dog is learning useful skills while having fun
  • Giving them puzzles and tests that they have to figure out for themselves
  • Using feeding as an opportunity to exercise their brains rather than just putting their food in their bowls
  • Allowing them to socialize with other dogs

How much attention does a dog need per day?

There is no single answer to this question. The amount of attention your dog needs depends on their breed and within that, on the individual dog. It also depends on their age; younger dogs tend to need more than older dogs.

I have two Salukis who are destructive at home when they’re bored. They need at least an hour a day playing and training with me, and entertaining themselves. That’s on top of the two one-hour runs they get each day.

Greyhounds, which are in the same sighthound family, are known to need much less physical and mental stimulation. It makes them great pets for many different kinds of people. A good wander around the block with plenty of sniffing twice a day, and they’re happy to spend the rest of their time on your couch. Even within greyhounds, though, some are higher energy.

Collies, on the other hand, need a lot of mental stimulation. They were selectively bred for their obedience and intelligence. They’re high-energy dogs and that intelligence means they need a lot of exercise and play to prevent them from developing obsessive behaviors, biting, barking, and possessiveness.

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A note about small dogs. I often hear owners of smaller dog breeds like Yorkshire Terriers and Shi Tzu’s say that their dogs don’t need walks outside of their gardens. That may be true physically, but they miss out on an awful lot of the mental stimulation they need to keep their nervous behaviors and aggression at bay.

The best answer is to get to know what your dog needs through experience. If they’re destructive, listless, whining, barking incessantly, or generally not well settled, try playing with them more to see if that helps. Mix up the games and exercises to keep them from getting bored.

how much attention do dogs need daily

A note about playing with dogs

Remember that this is supposed to be fun for you and your dog. It’s easy to get frustrated because they’re not “getting it” fast enough but please don’t. If a game isn’t working, try a different one.

One of my boys has a very low frustration threshold and when he couldn’t work out how to get a shoebox lid off within 10 seconds, he just chewed the box until he got to the treats. He does better with things like agility or obedience training, which work his body as well as his mind, so that’s what we focus on.

Choose games that are right for your dog’s age, skill set and personality. There’s no point playing ball with a dog that doesn’t like to chase, and it’s more than it’s worth trying to do a complicated “dance” sequence with a dog who has a low boredom threshold.

Some games can be dangerous for puppies. Avoid games that require a lot of running for young puppies whose joints, ligaments, tendons and bones are easily damaged (the rule of thumb is 5 minutes of exercise for each month of the dog’s life). Early joint damage leads to early arthritis.

When your dog does solve the puzzle/find the treat/give a paw be lavish with your praise and rewards. Please don’t punish your dog for not learning, and don’t force them to do anything they’re not comfortable with. The more fun it is, the more they’ll want to play with you.

Problem-solving games for dogs

Problem-solving games are great for all dogs and there is such a variety:

  • Any games where their food is hidden and has to be found. That can be as simple as hiding their favourite treats or part of their meals under upturned some plastic cups (no glasses please) – leave some with nothing underneath so the dog has to use its nose.
  • Another cost-free option is to use a muffin tin. I put food in some of the holes, and cover all of the holes with old tennis balls. The dogs not only have to work out which holes have food, but also how to get to it.
  • There are fancier and more expensive toys that do the same thing, which you can find online or in pet shops. Avoid the plastic ones and you’ll be doing the planet good too.
  • Lickimats or snuffle mats, where the dog has to work to get to food. My dogs have spent as much as 45 minutes entertaining themselves with these.
  • I play “find it” – a basic form of scentwork – with the boys. I scatter food throughout the garden, or indoors if it’s raining, and they have to find it on their own. Initially I put it in obvious places, but now I also hide it under rugs and cushions, on chairs, in baskets.
  • I invested a little money getting some agility equipment for our garden: jumps, weaving poles and a tunnel. I set up different courses each time, and they work their brains by finding their way around the course. I have almost as much fun as they do. It’s not as good as taking them to a full agility course, but I don’t always have the time or money for that.

how to mentally stimulate your dog

Five fun games to play with your dog inside

There are a lot of games you can play indoors as well as outside; most of the ones above can be done either way. Here are five great additional games to play when it’s pouring outside:

  • ‘Dancing”. I teach my dogs to follow a string of commands like “touch”, “look at me”, “sit”, “paw”, “other paw”, etc. Once they’ve nailed a sequence I add another step to it. At some point, I’ll start a whole new “dance” so they don’t get bored.

If you search for “heelwork to music” or “dog dance”, you’ll find some ideas on what to do. Just remember that not all dogs have the same ability, so start small and build on what they can (and want to) do. My dogs and I will never reach this level (starts at 2’24”), but we do some of the elements and have fun, which is the whole point.

  • Play tug-of-war with them. Just make sure that you let them take the rope frequently, otherwise they’ll get bored and frustrated.
  • A nice way to mix mental stimulation with physical work is to teach your dog balance exercises, for example on a wobble cushion. Please check with your vet first, and make sure you buy a cushion that’s suitable for your dog.
  • Build them an indoor obstacle course using cushions they can jump over, chairs that they can go under or around, cardboard box tunnels (but be aware than not all dogs like small spaces)l. It’ll get you moving too, as you guide them around your course.
  • Throw a ball which rattles or a squeaky toy for them.
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Dog stimulation while you’re at work

As much as we don’t want to leave our dogs alone at home, most of us have to whether that’s to go to work or to run errands. There are things you can do to help your dog stay entertained.

  • Fill a kong with peanut butter (xylitol-free please) or any other spreadable food your dog likes, and freeze it. Your pup will enjoy licking the frozen food out and it can entertain them for hours.
  • Leave the radio or TV on. This is especially helpful for dogs who suffer from separation anxiety. If you’re leaving the TV on, choose a wildlife channel.
  • Make sure they can get to their toy box. I have them in multiple rooms and it’s fun to see them going around the rooms choosing the toy they want to play with at that moment.
  • Organize a play date with someone who’s free while you’re at work.
  • Arrange for a dog walker to take them out during the day.
  • Sign your dog up for doggy day-care if you can afford to, and if your dog is sociable. Just be sure to do a lot of research to find a good one. All the staff involved in the group should be first-aid certified and have appropriate dog-training qualifications.

Unless it’s very secure and not visible from sidewalks or roadsides, please don’t leave your dog alone in the garden. The number of dog thefts increases each year, and many of the stolen dogs are never recovered.

playing with dogs

Puppy mental stimulation exercises

“Puppies are eager to learn and soak up information if it is presented with patience and in ways appropriate to their age and skill set”, says Mark Berkoff. With some adaptation, you can play a lot of the games above.

Puppies, like young children, have shorter attention spans so you might need to mix things up a little. They’re also likely to play for a shorter time than adult dogs, depending on their age.

Here are some games that are particularly well-suited for puppies:

  • Use a flirt pole, which is a long pole with a bit of rope or ribbon, or a small, long squeaky toy on the end. You can make one yourself or buy one.
  • Buy a bubble maker and let your puppy chase the bubbles
  • Give your puppy a designated box where it’s allowed to dig
  • Play hide and seek or peekaboo
  • Teach them the names of items and people around the house
  • Play fetch (but see note above about exercise times for puppies)

Conclusion

Playing with your dog and offering it mental stimulation can be great fun for both of you, if you remember a few simple guidelines. Stick with things your dog enjoys for as long as they enjoy it. Keep it light and fun, and be patient with your dog.

Like people, they learn at different paces and have different boredom thresholds. Treat and praise often; make them feel like the champions that they are. You’ll be rewarded with a strong bond between you and a happier, healthier dog.