Giving our dog’s problem-solving challenges is a great way to productively wear them out and build relevant skills for navigating the world around us. Win-win, right?
These activities are commonly called mental stimulation or mental exercise. They're part of canine enrichment, a term you might have heard from dog trainers or fellow pet parents.
Unlike repetitive physical tasks (like chasing a ball or going on a run) your pup can play cognitive games even if they’re entering their senior years or recovering from an injury. In fact, mental exercise is possible in just about any situation: during inclement weather, at your own home or a friend’s house, out in a public park, if you’re ever stuck in a small space, with a young puppy, if you don't have much time for longer walks, and more. The opportunities are endless.
We’ve put together some of our favorite activities to get your dog’s brain going. Read on to test your pup’s intelligence while having a blast together!
The below article focuses on cognitive or mental exercise specifically. You can read more about canine enrichment overall — including physical and social enrichment activities — in our comprehensive guide.
Have you ever heard that a “tired dog is a good dog?” While physical exercise absolutely is important to keep our pets healthy, too much activity without appropriate mental stimulation can actually cause problems. We might create companions whose bodies never feel tired — and who have no idea how to slow down their brains! (Canines tend to develop cardio and muscle strength during physical workouts in less time than us pet parents do, so it’s easy to create a dog who can outlast us on the trails.)
Mental activity can be the perfect solution here. Paired with appropriate physical fulfillment, things like food puzzles, snuffle mats, and thoughtful training sessions can keep your dog entertained without running either of your muscles or joints to the ground. That makes for a balanced life together.
While improving your dog’s:
There are endless ways to prevent your pup from feeling bored. Here are some of our favorite games and activities! See what looks interesting, and don’t be afraid to change up your routine. Adjust to the dog in front of you.
Dogs are capable of learning an incredible range of behaviors, verbal cues, and hand signals. Set a few minutes aside each day to practice a new trick! This won’t only prevent boredom — it will also improve your relationship and give you something to feel proud of. (After all, party guests love a dog who can shake or roll over on cue.)
You can exercise your dog’s mental muscles by having them do a range of impulse control activities, like:
Remember to go at your pup’s pace and stop the session if they start to seem overwhelmed or frustrated. Impulse control takes a lot of effort, especially when it involves your dog’s favorite things like treats and toys! It’s a good way to work their brain and tire them out, but you shouldn’t overdo it.
Your dog’s sense of smell is more than 10,000 times stronger than your own. Nose work activities are one of the best ways to fulfill their canine instincts and work their brain all in one!
There are a huge variety of sniffing-based games you can play, including:
Many enrichment toys are specifically designed to feed your dogs’ meals in new and engaging ways! Get their brain going by providing them with mental challenges during meal times like:
You can also consider enrolling your dog in a dedicated training class. These can be the perfect way to provide your pup with both physical and mental exercise — dog sports like agility and rally are specifically known for building athleticism and intelligence at once.
Don’t have a training facility accessible nearby? Don’t worry! A huge network of professional trainers are happy to give you virtual lessons or even host digital group classes over platforms like Zoom and Google Meets. There really is something for everyone.
Have you thought of something that isn’t on this list? Go ahead and try it out! There are countless ways to engage our dog’s brains. Consider changing up some of the activities listed in this article — maybe having your dog hunt for hidden toys instead of food, for example — or coming up with your very own interactive games based on your pup’s preferences.
When in doubt, call in a local in-person trainer or connect with a professional via virtual lessons to give you more ideas.
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Beth Berkobien, MS - Animal Behavior, Cert. SAPT
Behavior Consultant/Trainer - Rehab Your Rescue Behavior Services - Masters degree in animal behavior, certified in separation anxiety
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