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Mental Enrichment

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Mental Enrichment

Dogs need both physical and mental enrichment. Have you every noticed after letting your dog play fetch for several minutes or walking your dog for 5 miles that your dog is still full of energy? That is a good sign your dog needs more mental stimulation. Your dog might be physically tired, but not mentally. Most families do not understand that mental stimulation and health is just as important as physical stimulation and health for our dogs.

Just like us, dogs need mental stimulation and exercise to live a long happy life. Have you noticed after you study that you are mentally drained? The same thing happens to dogs! Not only will consistent mental and physical stimulation help promote good behavior, but it will also prevent destructive behaviors such as chewing and barking. Without mental stimulation, dogs get bored, frustrated, and even anxious just like us.

Mental stimulation for dogs involves their 5 senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. Daily activities that trigger these 5 senses are important in keeping your dog stimulated.

Signs Your Dog is Lacking Mental Stimulation

If your dog has one or more of these symptoms, it is worth thinking of ways to improve their daily activities and help stimulate their minds.

1) Your dog has the tendency to destroy household items. Chewing is often a sign that your dog is bored. Chewing is a natural way for them to release endorphins.

2) Your dog is restless. Is your dog constantly on the move? He or she may pace, run in circles, chase their tail, and show other restless behaviors.

3) Your dog excessively licks and chews its paws (If your dog doesn’t have allergies). Like chewing, some dogs over groom themselves. Over grooming can be self-destructive causing hair loss or even sores. Licking also is a natural way for them to release endorphins.

4) Your dog constantly barks and whines. Your dogs may start to bark at everyone or everything that passes near your house. They may even start barking and whining towards you if not mentally stimulated enough. Make sure to take them out and help them explore their 5 senses.

How to Engage Your Dog in Mental Simulation

1) Add variety to your daily walk. They love to explore new places! Consider taking your dog on a different route instead of taking the same path around your neighborhood. Visit parks, go hiking, walk a different block in town, switch it up and let them explore new sights, sounds, scents, and touch!

2) Consider a slow-feeding bowl. Not only will these bowls stop your dog from inhaling their food and choking but it also forces your dogs to utilize their brain and maneuver their tongue around the puzzles in the bowl.

3) Consider buying mentally stimulating toys. Kong Classics, Toppls, and Puzzles are a few favorites with my pack!

4) Teach your dog a new trick

5) Obedience training

6) Scent games. Hide treats around the house and have your dog find them! They love this game!

Mental enrichment / stimulation is any activity designed to improve and enhance your dog’s mental state and exercise their brain. These activities encourage your dog to problem solve, learn new skill, and to be confident. If you have done training with me, you may have noticed after sessions your dog is tired. That is a good sign! We have worked your dog’s brain enough that he needs to nap! That’s one example of mental enrichment, training (talked more in social enrichment.) Other examples include licking, sniffing, foraging, and social enrichment.

Licking: Licking releases oxytocin. Licking has many benefits, such as reducing stress and anxiety, burning access energy and improving dental health. Lick mats are a great item to use to encourage your dog to lick. You start with a spreadable base then top it with a variety of treats and supplements. If your dog is prone to eating lick mats then try freezing their food bowl! Add some water to your food and treats of choice and pop that bad boy in the freezer. Another option is the West Paw Toppl. My dogs love these. These toys are similar to the Kong classic that you stuff, except they wobble and the opening is larger. They aren’t nearly as durable as the Kong, so I do take them away after they are finished, but my dogs enjoy them. You can make the Toppls more challenging by connecting two together.

Sniffing: A dog’s most powerful sense is it’s ability to smell. That nose is powerful. A dog learns so much about its environment by sniffing. If you are a client of mine you know I preach about structured walks. I stand by structured walks, especially if you are in the beginning stages of training, but there comes a time when a dog benefits from sniffing. Sniff walks is when a dog can freely walk where they want to sniff. These walks are much slower than normal walks since the dog is taking in its environment. If a dog lacks self-confidence, allowing sniff walks are so beneficial. I’ve done a few sniff walks in one location and once I notice the dog is becoming more comfortable in that area then I begin to make walks more structured.

Another way for your dog to use their nose is to play sniff games. One fun game to play is to hide food or treats around your home for your dog to search for them. Start in one room and once your dog understands the game then expand the search area. Dogs love that game! It’s a great work out for their minds!

Foraging: Dogs are natural born scavengers. That is why so many love to search through our trash. Since spring, I have been thinking “outside the food bowl.” Meaning I have been thinking of ways to feed my dogs somehow other than in a bowl. I use Kongs, Toppls, lick mats, puzzle feeders, hand feed, and even scattering their food. Yup, I literally take their food portion and dump it in their crate so the kibble scatters. They love it. I’m not sure what they enjoy more the Kongs / Toppls or me dumping their food. Puzzle feeders are a great way to slow down fast eaters, but scattering their food also slows them down. Dogs also have to use their nose to find each kibble. If you have more easy-going dogs, unlike myself, I also suggest the use of snuffle mats. A snuffle mat is made of fabric and is designed to hide kibble or treats in lots of nooks and crannies. Very similar to my dumping food method except there is fabric involved. My dogs would shred a snuffle mat.

Social enrichment: Social enrichment is a term that refers to providing new and stimulating experiences for dogs. This is where training is categorized. Social enrichment can include visiting a new environment, playing with another friendly dog, and learning a new trick. Letting a dog observe calmly and not reacting is also beneficial. Always reward calm behavior when they notice a person or other animal out the window. Let them take in the outside world in a calm state. When visiting a park, allow them to sit and watch what is going on around them, again in a calm state. No barking, whining, or pacing is allowed. Work on desensitizing them if needed. Social enrichment helps improve their cognitive function, reduces boredom and destructive behavior, strengthens the bond between owner and dog. Social enrichment also can prevent behavior problems, increases confidence, and adaptability. Dogs need many new experiences to enrich their lives so they can become a social, confident dog. This is why keeping them only at home year around except to see the vet once a year puts a serious damper on their temperament. Home is all they know so of course getting out in the big world is scary. Socialize your dogs.

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