How to give your dog enough mental stimulation

September 13, 2021

If the mental stimulation needs of your dog is not met, then we will notice more unwanted behaviours such as chewing, attention seeking behaviours, mouthing and biting. Ensuring that your dog or puppy has enough mental stimulation  can prevent a lot of unwanted behaviours and ensure your dog is happy.  Mental stimulation is  just as important, if not more so, than physical exercise. 5 minutes of mental stimulation is equivalent to 10 minutes of physical exercise, so here are a few suggestions on how to provide this for your dog.

Make mealtimes enriching

Chewing, licking and sniffing are natural behaviours for dogs that help reduce stress and anxiety and also prevent your dog getting bored. Puppies and young dogs in particular get very bored, very easily.

How long does it take your dog to eat his dinner from his bowl? Maybe 30 seconds?  1 minute? Often it is much less! Mealtime will be one of the highlights of your dog’s day, and feeding from a bowl is a wasted opportunity to provide some much needed mental stimulation. Instead, feed in a way that will give your dog an outlet for their natural instincts, and encourage them to lick, chew and work out how to get food out. I am a fan of feeding part of the meal allowance in a bowl, so as to avoid frustration, and then feed the remainder in a way that will provide mental stimulation. After all, if I really hungry and had to work really hard to get a small bit of food out at a time, I would get really annoyed!

There are also loads of toys that you can stuff food with, such as numerous toys from Kong, K9 Connectables and the West Paw Toppl. Good fillings for such toys included mashed potato and tuna, natural yoghurt, good quality wet food or mashed banana, and small amounts of doggy liver pate, peanut butter or cream cheese can be smeared inside a Kong throughout the day. You can mix in dry food too, or soak dry food and squash it in the toy.

 

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Once your dog has the idea of how to get the food out, you can make it harder for your dog by freezing the Kong or Toppl when stuffed. With dry food, you can put the food in mixed with grated cheese, and then put it in the microwave for 10-15 seconds so the cheese melts and binds the food together. Just make sure you let it cool before giving it to your dog! Not only does this give your dog some much needed mental stimulation, it makes mealtime last longer which will help their digestion.

Apple and carrot slices (or whole carrots) can be good chews for your dog, and indeed you can give your dog frozen carrots too. Treats or kibble can be placed in empty plastic soft drinks bottles for your dog to knock around and empty.

Food activity toys such as Nina Ottoson toys, and various treat ball toys can be a good way to feed your dog to ensure mealtimes last longer, and your dog has to think about how to get the food out, thereby working their brain.

Lick Mats are a brilliant way of giving your dog an opportunity to lick. Licking helps with the release of serotonin in the brain and therefore has a calming effect. You can smear food on the lick mat (yogurt, wet dog food, pate, peanut butter, cream cheese, mashed banana) and then freeze them once your dog has got the hang of it, giving your dog a great, long lasting and calming enrichment opportunity.

I recommend these lick mats:-

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Scatter feeding is another great way of feeding your dog his dry food……you can utilise their strongest sense (their sense of smell) by scattering their food across the garden or house for him to find, which stimulates natural hunting and feeding behaviour.  Make it easy at first by laying a very simple trail and making food easy to find then telling him to ‘find it’ As he gets the hang of it you can start hiding food in harder places and making the trail more complex.  Try putting some underneath plant pots of cardboard boxes.

Chew for calmness!

Chewing is so important for producing calmness, as it helps with the production of oxytocin in the brain an therefore helps lower arousal. In addition, dogs hold tension in their jaws in the same way that we do, so chewing is really important to relieve tension.   Puppies need at least an hour of dedicated chewing time each day, but very often they need much more than this. Natural chews such as pizzles, ostrich tendons, chicken feet, vegetable chew, coffeewood chews, yak milk chews and the like are great, but be sure to pick chews suitable for the age and size of your puppy or dog.  I would suggest avoiding rawhide chews which are simply chemically treated leather and can easily get stuck in your dog’s throat. Chewing is a really important activity for all dogs, especially young dogs and puppies.

A very good website to visit for some natural, long lasting dog chews is www.jrpetproducts.com

Play Time

Regardless of what toys your dog prefers, he will be less likely to play on his own. You will need to play with him. It is a really good relationship building exercise to spend time each day playing with your puppy or dog.  If he enjoys retrieving, play fetch with him. If he enjoys a game of tug, play that with him. Just be mindful of not playing for too long so that your dog becomes over aroused, as when you stop the game, that energy will have to go somewhere! Usually, with puppies and young dogs, that will be redirected in biting and mouthing and jumping!

However, you do not necessarily have to buy toys to stimulate your dog…you can use items you may have at home.

  • Hide a treat under an upturned plant pot or under other various objects and and let your dog sniff out which one the treats are under.
  • Hide pieces of dry food inside scrunched up pieces of newspaper, and then put them all in a cardboard box, then let you dog get all the pieces of food. Yes, you will end up with pieces of paper everywhere, but its not hard to clear up!
  • Hide a stuffed chew toy, Toppl or Kong under an upside down mesh laundry basket or similar that you can see into, and let your dog try and work out how to get to the food toy.
  • Put pieces of kibble in an empty plastic drinks bottle (with the lid off!) and let your dog work out how to get the food out.
  • Place empty cardboard inners of toilet rolls lengthwise inside a shallow cardboard box, so that they fill the floor of it, and then scatter treats or kibble amongst them, then let your dog work out how to get the food out.
  • Place some pieces of kibble or treats in sections of a muffin tin, then cover each compartment with a tennis ball – let your dog sniff out the food and work out how to remove the tennis balls to reveal the food!

Let them sniff

On walks, allow your dog to engage in more natural and instinctive behaviours. All too often we think we need our dogs to run around until they are physically tired, and so we bring out the dreaded ball chuckers (yep – I really don’t like them!) and throw the ball over and over. Dogs will not naturally, if given their own choice or in the wild, run around and chase constantly. Rather they will engage in short bursts of speed, and will only chase if chasing prey or playing, and will chose to more often sniff and investigate the environment. Fast moving exercise results in adrenaline being released an consequently can increase your dog’s arousal level. This makes it very hard for young dogs to make good decisions or remain calm. Sniffing is a very low arousal and mentally tiring activity. So next time you’re out with your dog, leave the ball at home and instead scatter some food in long grass at certain times during your walk, hide food on tree trunks or benches for your dog to sniff out. See how much more relaxed your dog is when he gets home than when he has been chasing round after a ball (which is also really bad for their joints and spine as well, but thats another topic!).

 

Mental stimulation is so important, for all ages of dog but especially for puppies and young dogs (and then once again important for dogs during their golden years when they can’t do as much exercise. If you need any advice on mental stimulation please get in touch – angela@politepaws.co.uk

 

 

By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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