Mental Stimulation for Dogs


There is plenty of scientific evidence to support the fact that dogs that lived a balanced and enriched life physically and mentally benefit from not only physical exercise but also multiple forms of mental and sensory stimulation. Sensory stimulation implies the enrichment of the 5 primary senses of the dog – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Any activity that provides stimulation to the mind and one or more of the senses can be called a mentally stimulating activity.

Why 2 walks a day aren’t enough for all dogs?

While 2 walks a day may be enough for certain low-energy, chilled-out breeds, they just don’t cut it for medium to high-energy dogs. 2 walks are usually spanned over a 16-hour day. This means, there are several hours in between for your dog to rest, sleep, play, get bored, destroy things and get into undesirable behaviors.

Just like us, they need to keep themselves engaged in order to avoid boredom and destructive chewing. This is where mental stimulation comes to the rescue and helps you ensure your dog is occupied for a longer time, well-exercised, calm, and staying out of trouble.

The many advantages of mental stimulation:

Enrichment

Engaging your dog in puzzles and other brain exercises helps improve the quality of their life. It keeps boredom at bay as it requires them to utilize their senses thereby stimulating their body and mind.

  • Enables better crate training

Several dogs and even humans find the crate extremely restrictive. This is only true if your dog is left thoroughly bored in there. Keeping him engaged in mental stimulation activities and brain games can help improve their association with the crate and actually make them look forward to being in it.


  • Self engagement

One of the reasons why mental stimulation is becoming increasingly popular among dog owners is that it is very little for human to do in it. For eg –, A properly stuffed, frozen Kong can keep your dog engaged for over 15 minutes. All you have to do is put in 2 minutes to stuff it.

  • Calmness training

Calmness is a healthy balance of physical and mental stimulation. Studies have shown brain games have the same effect on a dog’s mind as yoga has on the human mind. It calms them down.

Helps build food drive

So many of our dogs live to eat! Why waste this drive by feeding them through food bowls? Moreover, most dogs get bored of kibbles primarily because of how easily and abundantly it is available to them. Interactive feeders and food dispensing toys can help build this drive as they make dogs work a little before eating.

  • Independence training

The pandemic has left most dogs incapable of functioning without their hooman around. The first step towards making your dog independent and capable of being on their own is to ensure they are self-engaged.

Sensory stimulation

Activities like brain games, puzzle toys, sniffing etc not only stimulates the mind, but also ensures that the dog is making use of their 5 primary senses in the process – smell, sight, sound, touch and taste.

  • Improved Cognitive skills

Mental stimulation activities mostly require dogs to figure something out. For example, how to get treats out of the toy or follow a particular track through smell. This improves their ability to problem solve and choose better during conflicts.

Some ideas to mentally stimulate your dog at low to no cost

  • Muffin tin

Put some kibbles with some toppers in each cup of the tin. Add water in a couple of them and freeze them. To get to the kibbles, your dog would have to start licking and melting the ice off.

In the rest of the cups, cover the kibbles with tennis balls and let your dog figure out how to get to them.

  • Find it

This game can be played indoors and outdoors. All you have to do it ask your dog to ‘Stay’ and hide some treats in the room and let your dog ‘find it.’

While playing outside, hide the treats in the grass for added stimulation.

  • Sniffari

Sniffari is a walk led by your dog. He gets to decide where he wants to go and the track he wants to follow. All you have to do is follow! Have your dog on a long lead to give him more liberty and avoid leash pulling.

  • Interactive toys and feeders

Kong toys, West Paw Toppl, lick mats, treat dispensing balls etc are examples of interactive toys. They keep your dog engaged, stimulated, busy for a long time and also well-fed. You can find them on Amazon or in pet stores. These toys come with various difficulty levels. Start with an easy one if your dog has never played with one of these before.

  • Frozen meals

An example of a good frozen meal would be a Kong stuffed with kibbles, chicken broth, cottage cheese, banana topped with peanut butter, and chicken jerky and frozen for a couple of hours. It would take several minutes for your dog to get to the bottom of the Kong and finish the whole thing! Batch make frozen snacks for your dog and keep giving them bit by bit throughout the week.

  • Scatter feeding

Scatter feeding, as it sounds, is just scattering your dog’s food all over the place and letting him eat off the floor.

  • DIY snuffle mat

A snuffle mat is a mat that can be used to hide treats. If you don’t want to invest in one from the store, you can create your own! Just take a large bath towel and scatter some treats all over it. Roll it and tie it in a loose knot and let your dog figure out how to get the food out. To make it a little more challenging, add some toys and paper towels in there before rolling it.

  • Brain games

Brain games include activities like obstacle course, sniffing work, trick training, hide n seek etc that require your dog to make use of his cognitive skills to figure a way out. They not only keep your dog busy, but also greatly improve your relationship with your dog through better communication and active participation.

Did you know, keeping a dog well engaged in mental stimulation activities are also known to improve their leash walking skills. Your dog may be pulling on the leash because he probably gets only 2 chances a day to relieve all of that pent-up energy and nothing during the day.

To put things in perspective, how would you react if you were put in a room for 24 hours with no laptop, no phone, no TV, no books or any other source of entertainment and were given EVERYTHING for 30 minutes 2 times a day?

You would go crazy those two times! It’s the same with your dog.

A good mix of physical and mental stimulation throughout the day is the key to raising a well balanced and calm dog.

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO PUPPY SOCIALIZATION

Puppy Socialization Explained

“Socialization” essentially means exposing your puppy to a variety of objects, entities, activities and environments in a positive way, thereby ensuring they have a comfortable and enjoyable interaction with each stimulus. It is a crucial experience every puppy must have at the right age in order to grow up into a confident, calm and a well-balanced dog.

Perils of Under Socialized Dogs

Did you know, out of the thousands of dogs abandoned and subjected to behavioral euthanasia every year, a vast majority of it is due to lack of socialization. When your puppy misses out on being positively exposed to a plethora of stimuli, you run the risk of the following possible behavioral issues in future –

  • Fear issues

  • Fear-based aggression

  • Sound sensitivity

  • Leash reactivity

  • Territorial aggression

  • Protective aggression

  • Dog to dog aggression

Thinking Beyond Dog-to-dog Play

On hearing the words “Dog socialization,” if the only picture that comes to your mind is your dog playing with other dogs, you’re in dire need of a fresh perspective.

Dog socialization entails a whole universe in itself. It’s an extremely fun and rewarding journey that starts at puppyhood, navigates through a surfeit of different kinds of people, animals, environments, objects, surfaces, sights, sounds, smells and activities and ends with a confident and a level-headed dog.

The Critical Socialization Period

A puppy’s critical socialization period starts at 3 weeks of age and ends at about 16 weeks. During this time a puppy is more open to novelty than any other time. At 16 weeks, the puppy has formed their perspective of the world and it can be challenging for you to work around that.

Socializing An Unvaccinated Puppy

“When should a puppy be taken outdoors” has been an age-old debate between vets and trainers. While it is important to keep your unvaxxed pup safe from potential diseases, you can smartly

socialize them by –

  • Taking them to places that are not frequented by other dogs

  • Calling friends over at home

  • Taking your pup to dog-friendly retail stores and keeping them in the shopping cart

  • Car rides

  • Sightseeing from a distance (Eg – Sitting on a park bench and just watching people and dogs walk by)

A BRIEF CHECKLIST

Here’s a brief socialization checklist for your reference. Expose your puppy to each one of them in a controlled setting and focus on building comfort and curiosity.


OBJECTS

  • Vacuum, Skateboard, utensils, umbrellas, shopping carts, etc

PEOPLE

  • People of all genders, ethnicities, ages, differently-abled people, people carrying small and big items, etc

PLACES

  • Shops, markets, hills, trails, busy roads, rush hour etc

SOUNDS

  • Horns, Sirens, Vehicles, Vacuum, Home appliances etc


HANDLING

  • Vet, Groomers, daily grooming and handling, mild roughhousing

ANIMALS

  • Dogs, cats, birds, cattle, smaller pets, rodents

SURFACES

  • Pavements, rocky, grass, watery surfaces, etc

BUILDING A DESIRABLE RESPONSE

Here are some key points to note and ensure while socializing your puppy –

Take things at your pup’s pace

  • Let them be the first ones to approach

  • Keep your puppy under the threshold

  • Do not force an interaction

  • Keep rewarding frequently

  • Deal with scary experiences calmly, do not coddle your pup