Dogs are amazingly smart creatures. They help sniff out dangerous substances, offer companionship, and assistance for farm work. They are know for being man’s best friend. However, many owners like myself are running into a very similar issue. Our dogs are bored and have high levels of energy. Dogs that like playing fetch with their favorite toy can play this game for hours but that doesn’t mean that retrieving and bring the toy back is a mental challenge. It is just a physical exertion on their part. So how does an owner tap into a dog’s natural talents and give them mental challenges?
There are actually a ton of ways that one can challenge a dog mentally that are not only cheap and inexpensive, but are fun for the both of you. I have broken these enrichment activities into 4 main categories.
1. Feed My Belly
I call the first category, ‘Feed My Belly’. Many dogs are food driven and love working for their treats. My dog is no exception. Belle will do anything for her favorite treats, All Natural Chicken Chips- Dog Treats. So to challenge her and convince her to work to feed her belly with her favorite food, I use several easy tools/games. The first and most popular is the kong or what I call the stuff toy. I personally love West Paw Tux Tough Dog Chew Toy. It is easier to clean and for my dog who has a short muzzle to get her treat than the standard Kong. However, Belle’s favorite enrichment toy in this category is her IQ Treat Ball Interactive Food Dispensing Dog Toy. She loves a combo of treats and her regular dry food to work out of the ball. She will bring me the ball when it is empty for a refill before playing another round with it. During the summer and after running around for a long time, my favorite treat to give Belle is to freeze broth, pumpkin, and water into various shapes with carrots, and dog treats. She can cool off while filling her belly with a special treat. I use Idig Digging Toy for a convenient freezer mold and cleaning. Another easy way to challenge your dog mentally is to do puzzles with them. You can purchase a plastic puppy puzzle like Outward Hound Dog Twister Dog Puzzle or use cups to hide treats under them while your dog searches for the treats. Another super easy way to enrich and challenge your dog is to make or buy what I call a “sniff box”. It is a box filled with newspaper or other fillers that your dog has to dig or search through to find the treats hidden. I use an old soda box with old newspaper but if you don’t want to remake this every time you play then you can buy Idig Digging Toy.
2. Let me Investigate
Dog’s strong sense is their nose. They smell strangers to see if they are friendly. They smell the trees and grass to see who has been there. You can say that they lead life by the nose. So how can you challenge them to use their nose? The first way is easy take them to a new place. Belle loves sitting on the patio of dog friendly cafés. She can explore the area while enjoying her food in the sunshine. Belle also loves when I take her shopping for crafting supplies. She likes helping me by picking up things off the shelf and perform tricks for other customers. The second way is to introduce new people. This gives a dog a chance to socialize outside their normal group and see what smells these new people bring. Belle personally loves meeting toddlers because their hands tend to smell like their afternoon snack. My only caution note to this is to go at your dog’s pace. A large group of people or people who move too quickly can be intimidating to a dog. The last easy way is to introduce new smells. You can do this by bringing items that carry heavy smells into your dog’s environment or add herbs/spices to toys to change it’s smell. Just make sure that the spice or herb is ok for the dog to consume.
3. Social aka Let’s Be Friends
Dogs are natural pack animals. Their packs can be made of other dogs or of the people in their life. The formation of a healthy pack requires a lot of socialization. There are many ways to practice social skills with your dog. My favorite way is to arrange play dates with trusted dogs from friends or day care. The key to these practices is the dogs must be dog friendly, meet on neutral ground with neutral toys, and build up to longer times together. These steps help avoid aggressive behavior. If your dog isn’t keen on other dogs, try arranging play dates with your friends so your dog can socialize with new people. Most dogs love having another person to throw their ball.
4. Designed for a Job
Many breeds of dogs were developed to help complete a job. For example, English Setters were bred to help with hunting. Collies were bred to help with herding farm animals. So why not give your dog a job to do around the house? Belle, my Cavapoo, has a strong desire to hunt so I harness that desire into several easy tasks. The first is a game of soccer. It is great exercise for me and her while challenging her to follow my movements in order to mentally figure out where I am going. The second is to play with the Squishy Face Studio Flirt Pole . She LOVES this toy. She can chase this for hours and when she does catch it, she is determined to not let go. When we are not playing with it, I have to hide it in the garage or she would bark at it all the time. Another easy job to give a dog is to search for members of your family hidden throughout the house. You can have those hiding yell “Come Fido!” if the dog needs some clues as to where they are. If you need help around the house, you can teach your dog to help you find certain items and bring them to you. For example, it could be dog toys that need to be put away or cleaned or items from the laundry basket that need to be washed. Another task is to have the dog search the house whenever they enter the house so you know it is safe to enter. This is a little bit more complex to teach but do able.
It is easy to mentally engage and challenge your dog if you are willing to do the work. The benefits of these practices are endless. I have seen Belle’s level of mischief decrease, and she is calmer. A healthy, stimulated dog is a happy dog. If you need more ideas, some good resources are The Dog People,Beyond Squeaky Toys, Brain Games for Dogs, and What A Great Dog! Training Center.