Left without sufficient stimulus, dogs may invent destructive pastimes. When your Australian cattle dog is too pooped to participate or your German shepherd is snoozing belly-up — you know you've done something right.
Tiring out these athletic big thinkers who like to have a job to do is an accomplishment in itself. But after a good night's sleep, they're all revved up and have their game-faces on again. Physical exercise like running after a ball and bringing it back, brisk walking, playing Frisbee, and even organized sports such as agility wears them out.
But some cool mental exercises gives your dog a chance to get their brain in gear, spend quality time with you, and get that much smarter while having a blast at home, either indoors or out in the backyard. Interactive games, puzzles, and toys engage your dog's mind will staving off boredom and keeping your leather furniture and new designer shoes in pristine condition.
Dogs need more stimulation than you are currently providing.
Imagine being purposely designed by humans for a specific action like chasing down lions, treeing bears, catching rats, herding sheep, or defending your home and family — and then having to hang around doing nothing all day while waiting for your human to come home from work. Even worse than lounging on the sofa, your movement may be restricted as you sit in a locked cage with one tired old chew toy. Sadly, many dog's lives are insanely boring and from a dog's perspective, it's frustrating.
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Dogs not only need food, water, shelter, physical exercise, and love, but they also need stimulation for their brains. It's the responsibility of the pet parent to provide life experiences for their dogs. If you're up for a good time and a mutually beneficial bonding session with your dog, then try enriching their lives with any of these 17 challenging ideas created for your four-legged best friend to flex his cerebral cortex.
1. Give your dog some obedience training.
Even old dogs can learn new tricks and whether you enroll your dog in an obedience class or work on obedience exercises at home, any exercises that put her in a working mode will stimulate thinking.
Whenever you detect the slightest bit of boredom creeping in, reinforce training throughout the day in short bursts of 15 minutes. Like many exercises for people, variety keeps it interesting for them. Track your dog's progress, and do the exercises the same time every day.
2.Teach your old dog new tricks.
Fun new tricks are neat ways to engage your pooch and stretch their learning chops. Do a search on the internet or check out the library for new tricks you can teach and set aside a trick-teaching session every day. Before you know it, your dog has a repertoire that would put a show dog to shame.
3. Teach your dogs to help with the chores.
Give your dog a job. Just like in people, jobs require your brain to be engaged and give you a sense of accomplishment. Dogs are no different. Get creative and give your dog a job to open the fridge by tying a towel around the fridge handle so she can pull it.
Feeling useful and figuring out how to do new jobs is a great way to stimulate mental fitness in your dog. Teaching them how to help with chores around the house is a wonderful way to get your dog engaged in the daily life of your household.
4. Teach your dogs the names of their toys.
Chaser is a border collie who knows over 1,000 words and knows all her 800 toys by name. Not every dog is as intelligent as Chaser, but to amp up mental stimulation, why not teach your dog the names of their toys.
Get started by playing with a toy and calling it a name. Repetition is key until your dog associates the toy with the name. Lots of practice and praise will set the tone for this exercise, and once your dog has learned a few words, keep going until he knows the name of all his cuddly buddies.
5. Teach your dog to put their toys away.
Now that your dog has learned the names of a few of her toys, it's time to teach her how to put them back into the toy box and keep everything tidy.
6. Clicker train your dog.
Clicker training is a great way to not only stimulate your brain, but your dog's brain too. It's challenging, but using a clicker is an effective method of positive-reinforcement training that encourages dogs through a sound association (the clicker) and food reward when the dog does the right thing.
7. Teach your dog to count.
Push your dog's intellectual boundaries and you may be surprised at what you find. That furry love-bug sitting at your feet can most likely count and maybe even do calculations. Yes, it may be scary but your dog is a mathematical whiz! Scientific studies are suggesting that dogs can count, and dog owners who take the time to investigate the theory are having a blast playing numbers games with their dogs.
MORE: Can Dogs Really Count?
But keep in mind, don't set your dog up for failure. These are complex exercises. Devise a way to introduce the concept of numbers and math and just have fun as you explore your dog's mental capacity. If your dog starts getting the right answers, you get bragging rights — and feeling proud of your dog is a good thing. If your dog never gets it, keep in mind not everyone is good at the numbers game, but you will have fun working together on these exercises.
8. Create a scavenger hunt in the backyard or inside your home.
Not much thought goes into eating a meal for our dogs. We pretty much dish it out the same time every day, same quantity, and mostly the same old food. Why not change it up by making a game out of meal time. Divide your dog's dinner into smaller portions and hide them around the house or in the backyard. It's the ultimate scavenger hunt!
9. Create an indoor agility course for your dog.
Roll up some towels, stick a meandering row of Post-It notes to the floor, and create a slalom course of fuzzy stuffed toys for your own customized obstacle course. Have your dog jump over the towels, weave through his toys, and then lay down on a blanket. Be inventive and create a different obstacle pattern each time you do it. Allow time for your dog to get into the swing of this exercise and as it encourages her to focus, it will keep her mentally stimulated.
10. Make a food puzzle game for your dog.
Working for food appeals to most dogs. Sure, they may rather you just dumped their dinner in the bowl, but making an effort to find and release food from its hiding place in a food puzzle sharpens up their problem-solving skills while activating ancestral hunting instincts.
11. Online learning for dogs.
Dognition is an innovative online tool that walks you and your dog through a series of 20 interactive games. You record your dog's responses at every step using detailed instructions and how-to videos and receive a full Dognition Assessment, which is your dog's personalized 10-to-15-page Profile Report.
Dognition gives you insight into the cognitive strategies your dog uses based on an analysis of the results of each game. All you need is a monthly subscription, an internet connection, a little space at home, a few household items, and your best friend. Developed by scientists, trainers, and behavioral specialists, the games are fun and easy to play, and they give your dog's brain a workout.
12. Dogs love to play hide-and-seek.
Spark childhood memories as you run and hide behind bushes when your dog is preoccupied with sniffing and digging. When she takes a break, she will instinctively look for you and will search every nook and cranny until until she discovers you.
13. This magic trick will be your dog's new favorite game.
This exercise is so simple, but it gets your dog thinking.
To play this ridiculously easy game, stand in front of a table or counter and place three treats behind you where your dog won't see them. Call your dog over and ask her to sit in front of you. Hold both your hands palm-side in front of her face and ask, "where are the treats?" Then reach behind with both hands and grab a treat in each hand. Now bring your hands back in front of her this time with both your hands clenched and ask where the treat is.
It doesn't matter which hand she chooses because she gets the treat either way. Repeat a couple of times until she's used to getting a treat. Then start putting only one treat in your hand. Keep switching around the routine and watch her face light up with delight when she gets it right!
14. This new twist to "fetch" will keep your dog guessing.
If your dog loves a ball, is crazy about playing catch with you, and knows some basic obedience commands, she will love this "fetch with a twist." It's a savvy combo of exercises performed at a lightning-fast pace with the ball as the reward. There are no food treats required, which is great for dogs prone to weight gain. The twist in this fetch makes her put her thinking cap on to get the ball back.
You throw the ball by hand or in a ball-thrower. When she brings you the ball, have her drop it in front of you and leave it there. Ask her to perform a series of short obedience moves in quick sequence such as sit, down, sit, down, speak, shake-a-paw, then quickly pick up the ball and throw it again. When she returns, change up your exercise sequence to throw her off guard. Your smartypants dog will love this gig. This rigorous blend of mental and physical agility will have her counting sheep in her head all afternoon as she naps.
15. Play the shell game with your dog.
Despite its dubious connection to tricksters, the shell game — three shells and a pea — is a game that can challenge your dog's mind in a positive way.
To play the shell game with your dog, you can still use three walnut shells, bottle caps, or identical small cups, and delicious treats broken into bite-size bits that will fit under the shells. You want a table or flat surface at your dog's nose level. Get your dog's undivided attention and as he watches, carefully line up the shells in a straight row. Grab a treat bit and hold it up to show him, lift one of the shells, then place the treat beneath it. Move slowly and deliberately in a dramatic way to pique his curiosity. Now start shuffling the shells around, and you'll notice he is following the one with the treat with his eyes. When you stop your shuffle, let your dog guess which shell has the treat. Lift the shell and if he's right, he gets the treat. If not, the game starts over again.
16. Dogs love the tennis ball and muffin tin game.
Easy, affordable, and fun, the muffin tin and tennis balls game keeps your dog challenged and entertained. Place small training treats such as dehydrated liver or sweet potato in a muffin tin and cover them with tennis balls. Your dog's problem-solving skills come into play as she plans a strategy to remove the balls and score the treats. This game is perfect for puppies and young dogs, as it's pretty simple. But then any game where treats are involved is a game most dogs would love to play.
17. Take your dog to new places.
Like people, dogs are intelligent beings who need the stimulation of new things. No one ever encounters new people and places in a purely visual way. A new adventure with all its sites and smells does wonders for your dog's mental acuity. Introducing your furry pal to new experiences is one of the vital ways you can keep them on their mental toes.
So find a new dog park, design a new neighborhood walk route, or drive to a new neighborhood your dog has not visited in the past. Research dog-friendly accommodations in your favorite parts of the country and take your dog along on your travels. Rent a mobile home and share a road trip together, mingling with the new world you find at each stop along the way.
Putting your dog through some mental gymnastics may seem like child's play, but it takes creativity and more than a little innovation to design games that your dog will actually like, look forward to, and learn from.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
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- Dognition Blog: Keeping Your Dog Stimulated on a Rainy Day
- I Love Dogs: Why Our Dog Needs Mental Stimulation
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- Dr. Pitcairn: Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats
- Pets Web MD: Enriching Your Dog's Life
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- USA Today: Smart dog: Border collie learns language, grammar
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