If you're a dog owner, you’ve probably heard the term “mental stimulation” or “enrichment” before. But what does it really mean and how does it apply to your 4 legged friend?
Mental stimulation can be described as anything that stimulates, activates or enriches the mind. Stimulation can be provided internally from thought, or externally through the environment and helps to enrich the mind and improve brain power. It is so important for our furry friends as it not only helps to occupy and tire them out, preventing many behavioural issues, but is also very important for their overall brain health. Just like their muscles weakening due to lack of physical exercise, your dog’s brain needs regular workouts to avoid premature aging.
Anything that encourages your dog to think and use their brain can be considered a form of mental stimulation. We’ve put together our top 5 favourite enrichment activities to get your dog's brain working and improve both your’s, and your dog’s quality of life!
1. Food based long lasting treats
Nothing quite gets a dog’s attention like food! That’s why one of our favourite enrichment activities for our pups is a long lasting treat for your dog to decipher and devour. Using a feeding device such as a Toppl, Snoop or LickiMat, simply fill with your dog’s favourite foods, treats or even their meals and let them loose with it. Some you can even freeze prior to create a longer lasting treat! This is a great way to engage your dog’s brain, as instead of eating out of a boring bowl, they have to navigate small openings, manoeuvre the toy and stabilise with their paws or environment to get to the food. As a bonus, the act of licking and chewing are very calming and soothing activities for dogs, so your dog will not only get their mental enrichment in, but also provide an appropriate chewing/licking outlet at the same time!
Check out some great treat toy recipes here.
Who doesn’t love a good puzzle! Fun, achievable puzzle-like games are fantastic for humans and dogs alike! Many pre-made puzzles and snuffle mats are available which use hidden food in compartments to encourage your dog to slide, roll or sniff out their treats, really making them use critical thinking and trial and error to figure out the puzzle and get their reward. Or, you can create your own DIY puzzles at home, using treats hidden in rolled up towels, old bottles with holes punched in them filled with kibble to roll out when pushed around or a good old game of treat hide and seek! The Nina Ottosson range of dog puzzles are designed specifically for a good mental workout!
See our range of puzzles here to get started!
3. Tricks and training sessions
That old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”... very much FALSE. Dogs love learning new things! Short, fun obedience training sessions or teaching your dog a new skill are a great way to mentally tire out your dog, and also often provides physical stimulation as well, a win-win! 15 minutes of training known commands such as sit, down, fetch and loose leash walking is a great way to work your dog’s brain and get them thinking. Teaching new skills is also lots of fun, simple activities such as a high 5, spin in a circle or roll over are great new tricks to teach and practice with your dog - taking a lot of brain power and also giving you a fun party trick to show off to your friends and family how impressive your pup is!
Dogs love to sniff and sniffing tires out the brain. So take a longer walk with your dog and enjoy what we call a ‘Sniffari’! We call these sniffaris, because they act as an excursion of the nose and safari for your pup, letting them lead the way with their noses, following their instincts and smell receptors. Inside your dog’s nose there are around 300 million smell receptors, compared to humans' mere 6 million. The dog’s brain area that detects smell is 40 times bigger than ours, so a good 10 minutes of sniffing uses up a TON of brain power and is very rewarding to most dogs! We recommend using a release command, a different harness or different leash set up to regular walks when going on a sniffari - to help your dog differentiate between a “regular” walk and these “special” walks as to reduce pulling or over scenting when you go on a normal walk again.
To start a sniffari, simply head to a nice grassy area with no other dogs and pop your dog on a long or retractable leash.
** Bonus ** You can combine tips 3 & 4 for a big brain workout and practice your obedience or tricks in a 5-10 minute structured walk on the way to your sniffari location, and you will have one tired pup after all that fun!
5. Treasure hunt
Turn your home into an enrichment fun-zone by creating a treasure hunt for your dog. Pop your dog on a leash or in a room and take their favourite treat or toy and rub it over a few surfaces in the house creating a “trail” of smell for them to follow, then release them and allow them to hunt for their item. Start easy, making it very clear where you are taking the item - you could even do it in their line of sight the first few times so they really get an understanding of the “game” before slowly stepping the hiding level up. It doesn’t need to be super challenging to be fun, often the easy finds are the most fun for the dog as they are using their senses, but not struggling or confused and likely to get frustrated or give up.
As your dog learns the game, you can add the cue “find it” when you release them and ask for a “stay” while you are hiding it to really test their obedience and brain before beginning the game. Slowly make the game more challenging, but if you ever feel your dog getting frustrated or can’t find the items, scale it a step back and focus on making it an achievable game, the goal isn’t alway to be super hard work, but a nice balance of difficulty level and achievability.