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February 2024

Brain Games and Mental Stimulation for Dogs

Behaviour & Training

Is Mental Stimulation Good for Dogs?

Mental stimulation is crucial for your dog’s emotional wellbeing. Dogs are smart animals – they’re far more intuitive than we would think – and when their brains aren’t challenged, they seek out their own fun…often engaging in behaviour us owners would deem unacceptable (digging? Chewed wires? Shredded toilet paper? Oh my!) Avoid these pesky and destructive behaviours by keeping your dog’s brain challenged and stimulated – leaving them fulfilled and tired by the end of the day resulting in better sleep for them and less clean up for you!

Benefits of Brain Games for Dogs

  • Reduced chance of destructive behaviour.
  • Provides a positive mood boost to your pet.
  • Improves your dog’s concentration, memory and problem-solving skills.
  • Beneficial for your dog’s sleep cycle and encourages your dog to sleep through the night.

What Are Mentally Stimulating Activities For Dogs?

Where to start? There are countless ways you can inspire your dog to challenge themselves. Luckily, we’ve sought expert advice from Lara Shannon, a certified dog trainer and behaviourist. Here are Lara’s top tips for brain games to play with your pet.

Target Training for Dogs

Target training is a simple type of training which improves your dog’s focus. It involves teaching your dog to touch a target (this can be anything really – your hand, a light, a stick with a tennis ball attached – the options are endless!) with a part of their body (usually their nose or paw).

Hot Tip

It’s important that whatever you use as the target isn’t a lure (so avoid using reward items as a target such as treats or a favourite toy) because then they’ll instinctively go for it.

This is an easy training exercise – you definitely don’t need to be a dog trainer to do it and you don’t need complicated tools or courses to complete it! All you have to do is poke something in front of your dog, ask them to touch it and reward them when they do. Dogs are curious so if you stick something in front of their nose, they’re going to touch it! So, reward the behaviour when they do it (with a treat and a click – more on clicker training below) and ramp up the difficulty as you go!

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When it comes to ramping up the difficultly, target training is just the first step that can then be developed to teach more complicated tricks as well as other useful behaviours. Would you like your dog to close doors for you? Ring a bell to go outside? Press a button at a pedestrian crossing? Weave in and out of your legs? How about more adventurous activities like rolling a soccer ball or even riding a skateboard? If you’ve seen these tricks floating around on the internet, it’s like those behaviours were developed with target training!

Clicker Training for Dogs

Clicker training is a rewards-based training tactic which pinpoints the exact behaviour you’re requesting from your dog and rewards them for it – thus helping your dog learn the correct behaviour. It involves using a small device with a button that makes a clicking sound when pressed. The idea is that you press the ‘click’ as soon as your dog performs the action you’re requesting. The ‘click’ affirms they’ve done the correct behaviour and should always be accompanied with a treat.

Hot Tip

When a dog completes a desired behaviour, they need to be rewarded within a fraction of a second for them to associate the reward with the behaviour.

Clicker training is useful because you can do it with your dog when they’re in distracting situations to bring their focus back to you. The ‘click’ comes to mean a reward is coming, so they’ll be more receptive to what you’re doing and less focused on negative distractions. Target and clicker training are excellent training tools which provide building blocks to teach your dog more advanced tricks and behaviours. Once your dog has mastered both target and clicker training, you’ve established the fundamental basics and can move on to more creative training!

Hot Tip

Avoid overwhelming your dogs by keeping training sessions short – no more than 10-15 minutes at a time, and even less for younger dogs. They retrain information better this way and it keeps training fun and engaging.

Interactive Games for Dogs

You can also play games with your dog to stimulate them mentally – but you’ll need to get more creative than standard physical games like Fetch and Chasey.

Hide and Seek is a great brain game – and it’s a lot of fun for you and your dog! If your dog isn’t nervous, you can do it out in the parks to make it a little bit more exciting – otherwise you can play it at home. It’s great for improving your dog’s recall as well, which doesn’t hurt! You’ll need two people the first time you try it, but once your dog is trained you can play it just the two of you!

Here’s how to play:

  1. Choose a place to play. Ideal locations are off-leash parks or walking trails with plenty of trees, rocks, or buildings to hide behind.
  2. Have one person holding the dog on lead, while the other hides. Don’t go too far at first, start off easy.
  3. Call your dog to you, repeatedly, using an upbeat tone.
  4. Have the person holding the lead let the dog go and allow the dog to find you. When they do, reward them with praise and a treat.
  5. While your dog is occupied finding you, your partner should hide. After you’ve finished praising and rewarding your dog, they should call the dog to come and find them.
  6. Repeat the process, alternating between the two of you and giving treats for each time your dog finds you. You can gradually make the hiding spots more difficult.
Hot Tip

If you’re playing indoors, copy the process but no need for the lead!

Something a bit more adventurous…

Herding and Agility for Dogs

If you’ve got a working breed, you can tap into those instincts and take them herding. Use the internet to search places near you which offer herding classes – even if you’ve got a city dog who’ll never be required to work for their supper, it’s a great way to burn off energy and challenge them.

You can also do this with agility training and courses! Search for what’s available near you and take your dog to some classes!

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There are also some great things to do if you’re leaving your dog at home alone or if you’re doing some independence training!

What Brain Games Can I Play With My Dog?

Here are some tricks you can do at home to keep your dog busy!

Scatter Feeding for Dogs

Here’s a great trick when you’re leaving the house. Who feeds their dog their meal from a bowl? Wasted opportunity!

If you feed your dog kibble, throw it outside instead of putting it in a bowl. We’re not talking lightly scatter, but grab their bowl and chuck the contents out the back door before closing it. Food will go everywhere, and your dog’s got to find it. This is a great thing to do in the morning before you go to work because your dog will be busy hunting around the whole backyard. This is great because not only is it working their brains and bodies, but it’s also mimicking what they’d be doing in the wild. It’s making them work for their food rather than getting it in a bowl.

If you’ve not got a lot of space outdoors, that doesn’t mean you can’t engage in some creative feeding! You can use snuffle mats to make things harder for your dogs. Hide their kibble through it or disperse treats through it. This still mimics the foraging and hunting behaviour they’d be doing in the wild.

You can also use other interactive toys.

Interactive Toys for Dogs

Another great idea to entertain your dog when you need to leave the house – give them an interactive toy! If you’ve got a treat dispensing toy, put peanut butter, mince, chopped vegetables, kibble or wet food in there and freeze it. This can keep them occupied for hours – and is far more effective than the standard peanut-butter-in-a-kong trick which they’ll finish in about 30 seconds.

You can also smear peanut butter on licking mats, and leave them with your dog right before you leave.

Puzzles are a great idea as well. They really develop your dog’s cognitive functional ability – and you can hide treats in there to encourage them to use them.

Whether you chuck their food out the door, give them snuffle or licking mats or leave them with a puzzle toy to play with – you’re giving them something positive to do while you leave! They’re too busy with their exciting new treat to pay you any attention and by the time they notice you’re gone they’ve tired themselves out and they’re ready for a nap. These toys are a great way to create a positive association with you leaving the home – do not underestimate the power of giving your dog something to do while you’re away!

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FAQS For Brain Games For Dogs

My dog is anxious – can I train them to play brain games?

If your dog suffers from anxiety, you should still engage in training, but monitor their behaviour and make sure the training isn’t causing them stress. You need to be patient and consistent with them and keep training sessions short and repeat them regularly.

Can older dogs learn how to play brain games?

Definitely! You can teach an old dog new tricks – it’s important to keep them stimulated to retain their cognitive abilities. Keep in mind they might have sore teeth so they might not be able to do the carrying games – their hearing or eyesight may be a bit off – so choose games which are suited to their abilities.

Do brain games tire out your dog?

Yes! While your dog is engaging with a puzzle, trying to access a frozen treat or foraging for their meal in the backyard they’re expending energy. They’re working for something and they’re using their brain – just as you feel tired after a full day of using your brain at work, your dog tires after playing brain games preparing them for naptime later in the afternoon.

How do you know if your dog is under stimulated?

An under-stimulated dog is a destructive dog – watch out for undesirable or destructive behaviours. If you’re seeing these, there’s a good chance your dog’s needs aren’t being met from either a physical or mental perspective.

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