July 14, 2021 8 min read

Mental Stimulation for Dogs – Everything You Need to Know

Ever notice your dog yawning throughout the day? Have they seemed abnormally sluggish over the last year of quarantine? Do they seem less interested in daily activities, almost as if they’re a chore to take care of? 

Your dog might be bored. It’s a weird thing to say because how can a dog even become bored? They’re such happy-go-lucky creatures. How could it be possible? 

Your dog is likely to be as bored as you have been this last year, stuck at home. That lack of physical and mental stimulation for dogs can have a significant impact, leading to boredom, anxiety, and depression. 

But how do you ward off boredom in dogs? It’s actually easier than it may sound. Much the same as humans, dogs greatly benefit from mental stimulation. Whether it’s a new game, a new trick, or a new toy to play with, your dog needs to have a new stimulus which will excite them, breathing some life back into their daily routine. Reward their good behavior with collagen chews and you’re talking about a dog completely free of boredom. 

Here are just a few ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated, helping them ward off boredom by spicing up their routine. 

Ways to Keep Your Dog Mentally Active 

Play stimulating games with your dog. 

One of the simplest ways to keep your dog mentally attentive is to play regular games with them. The basics can include games like fetch, tossing a frisbee and seeing if they can catch it mid-air, and more. You can even take the fun indoors, setting up a Rube Goldberg treat-giving mechanism or playing hide and seek throughout the house. They’re bound to find the last game intriguing, as they’ll have to sniff all around the house in search of you.  

Dogs love to sniff

Let your dog sniff around on walks.

Dogs love to sniff — they’re animals who lead with their noses, most of all. They love sniffing because it allows them to get an idea for their surroundings: what other animals have been in the area recently, what food is cooking nearby, and whether or not someone they know happened to be here not too long ago.

Let them sniff as they wish! You should pull them back if they try to sniff something potentially dangerous or gross, such as another dog’s feces or random food sitting on the sidewalk, as they may also decide to have a taste. Otherwise, they should be free to explore to see what the world has to offer them.  

Make your dog work for their food. 

Your dog should have to work for every meal. Not exactly as hard as you have to, but enough to ensure that they know the rules and are able to act accordingly. Make them follow a few commands before they get their breakfast and dinner. This includes having them wait for their food — wherein they must sit and wait for your “okay” command to approach their bowl and eat. Others can include having them perform simple tricks to earn their meal. 

The former is a great way to test their listening and mental toughness. It might be hard to teach them at first, as they likely won’t want to listen, but it’s important to establish a relationship between owner and pet. 

Bully Sticks

Give your dog a chew treat. 

Now, you should already reward your dog with healthy dog chews every time they complete a mentally stimulating task, but even a long-lasting dog chew can work on their mental toughness. Bully sticks take a while to chew and gnaw through. It’s going to require your dog to focus, sitting on the floor and really working through it to enjoy every single chomp. 

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Give them new toys. 

Don’t let them play with the same toys forever and ever. While they’re going to love a few specific toys, it’s good to introduce new toys that challenge them and that make them ask themselves, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Whether it’s a puzzle toy for your dog or a special chew toy, it’s an easy way to get them to think outside the box, all while having fun.  

Teach them their toys.

Your dog isn’t getting much stimulation if their toy doesn’t have a name. If you’re giving your dog a new toy, you should make sure to name it. If you say the word enough, they’ll begin to associate the word with their toy, whether it’s “Monkey,” “Banana,” “Sloth,” etc. 

After enough time, where they have learned the majority of the names of their stuffed animals and toys, you can test their prowess by spreading their toys across the room and asking them to bring each to you by its specific name. Make sure to give your dog a treat whenever they bring the right one to you. It will let them know they got the answer right and it will encourage them to keep working at it. 

dog with toy

You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Don’t be afraid to work on party tricks if your dog never learned them. The old saying goes that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that’s purely symbolic. Teach your dog some basic commands if they don’t currently know them, including: 

  • Sit
  • Roll over
  • Heel
  • High five
  • Shake
  • Paws up
  • Silent bark
  • Pow 

Amaze your dog with a maze. 

Obstacles can be a fun way to test your dog’s mental awareness. Are they stopped by a simple gate? If so, it’s a great way of maintaining your privacy as a dog owner, but you should test to see whether they can get around it or not. 

Start off with a little maze inside of your house to see how they react. This could include placing a set of firm boxes in the middle of a hallway, a series of stacked cups underneath a door’s threshold, or a series of stacked blankets covering the floor, creating a path for them to maneuver inside of. 

Include your dog on errands.

Don’t leave your dog at home when you’re running basic errands. Involve them in the process, seeing if they can handle some of the work. If you received a delivery, this could be having them tag along to pick up your package. It could similarly include going to your mailbox to pick up the daily mail, seeing if they can gently carry some of it back for you. 

You can even test their aptitude to see if they could assist in taking in the groceries. It might take some teaching at home to begin with, such as giving them lightly filled bags to show them how to carry the bags. They’ll love helping out, and it can lighten the load on your arms, leaving you with a little more strength to play after getting the groceries put away. 

working with dog

Employ your dog. 

Don’t be afraid to give your dog a specific task to do, too. Certain dog breeds love to work, especially dogs bred for herding and hunting. But jobs don’t have to be limited to just that. Jobs can involve a number of tasks, including: 

  • Letting them sniff the trail ahead of you
  • Having them sniff your food 
  • Retrieving specific items when called for
  • Providing companionship to family and friends
  • Guarding the house against threats
  • Pulling a cart full of items

And don’t be afraid to include them in the gardening or landscaping process, either. You could ask them to hold onto your safer tools in between using them, or let them dig alongside you. They’re sure to love the latter. 

Make time for interactive play.

If you’ve been working from home for the last year, you know how difficult it is to avoid spending the whole day with your dog. But you’ve got bills to pay, so your dog has to keep themselves company throughout the day. Although you can’t give them your undivided attention, this shouldn’t stop you from still having fun with them throughout the day. 

A quick game

Step away from your computer and occasionally say hey, grabbing their favorite toy and getting them going. A quick game of tug of war can be enough to make them feel appreciated, all while giving them something exciting to do with you. 

Socialize your dog. 

You might not know it, but anxiety in dogs is a very real thing. If your dog has never experienced it, you might not know the warning signs to look for. Common ones are having their ears pulled back, shaking, shirking, hiding, and more. 

After over a year in quarantine, it’s likely that your dog hasn't had much interaction with other dogs. While they’ve probably loved having all that time with you, they might be a bit skittish the next time you have them interact with another dog. 

But they can greatly benefit from interacting with other dogs. It’s a great way for them to play and roughhouse as they see fit, all within their own comfort zone. You should bring them to a local dog park to get them back into the habit. Or reintroduce them to friends’ dogs whom they’ve met before, as this will give them a more comfortable reentry into interacting with their own kind.  

Socialize with other people.

Along with engaging with other dogs, you’ll need to put in some work introducing your dog to other people. They might show clear signs of anxiety, especially for how comfortable they’ve become with you, so you’ll want to take the process slow. Make sure they’re comfortable with every decision, or simply ask other humans to wait for your dog to approach them. That will ensure they remain comfortable in the process, all while allowing them to open themselves up mentally and emotionally to other people. 

Gamify treats.

If you want a fun way to mentally stimulate your dog, look no further than gamifying their treats. The cup game — sometimes referred to as the shell game — is a great way to have fun with your dog while testing their mental acuity.

Your dog might not understand the game the first time you play it, which will lead to hilarious results, but they’ll start to pick up on it in no time. After starting by playing with your hands, you can move onto cups and then increase up to three cups, and so on. It’s a minor way to make fun out of treat giving, allowing them to test their mind to get their treat. 

eating a bully stick

Help Your Dog Stay Mentally Stimulated 

Helping your dog stay mentally stimulated is easy with a little effort. Tasks and jobs can give them something to think about and focus on. Likewise, asking them to look for certain toys or teaching them new tricks can keep them working their mind on a daily basis. 

Whenever they properly perform a mental task, it’s good to reward them, showing them how good they are for completing the behavior. Collagen chews and bully sticks are an easy way to show they’re appreciated, as they’ll love gnawing on them from start to finish.

Rewards like that will encourage them to keep seeking out mentally stimulating behavior, either growing excited when they see it coming or trying to do it on their own, which will be beneficial for their overall health. 

Start taking steps to improve their mental stimulation. And don’t forget to load up on dog chews to give them the perfect reward. 

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