Exercising your dog’s brain is a crucial component of everyday care throughout your dog’s life. Mental stimulation helps puppies learn commands, tricks and more about their environment, and it helps adult dogs stay alert and stave off boredom, which can lead to anxiety and destruction.
But mental stimulation is probably most important as your dog enters its senior years. Older dogs may begin to experience cognitive decline that can be scary for the dog and you as the owner and make day to day life more challenging. Keeping your senior dog active, alert and interested in the world around it can help delay cognitive dysfunction and allow your dog to live a happier, healthier life.
Cognitive Decline in Dogs and How You Can Help
When your dog gets older, you’ll probably notice some changes in its behavior, physical activity level and more. Cognitive decline is one of the most common aspects of dog aging. However, it is not necessarily inevitable.
Cognitive decline, or dysfunction, is considered the dog version of dementia and may manifest in a few ways, including reduced memory, confusion, agitation, restlessness, separation anxiety and distress. Dogs experiencing cognitive dysfunction may also start sleeping more, eating less and becoming indifferent to things happening around it.
Just like in humans, dogs need to be continuously stimulated both physically and mentally well into their later years to keep their minds sharp. Not only will an under-stimulated dog get bored, but it has the potential to suffer from more severe or rapidly progressing cognitive decline.
In order to keep your dog’s mind as clear and sharp as possible, you’ll want to make sure it is getting plenty of mental stimulation. While it’s not exactly possible to stop cognitive dysfunction altogether, it may be possible to slow its effects by keeping it active and engaged with the world around it using toys, puzzles, games and more.
Keep Your Senior Dog Mentally Stimulated
It is possible to slow the progression of your senior dog’s cognitive decline through regular mental stimulation, but how exactly can you provide that? It’s actually pretty easy—and fun!
Puzzles and mind games
Giving your dog complex puzzles and challenges to solve will help it learn and strengthen its cognition by working harder to find something it desires. By rewarding your dog with a treat or toy after it solves the puzzle, it will be eager to do more in the future. However, you’ll want to make sure you’re changing up the puzzles your dog solves every so often to keep it fresh and continue challenging your pup.
Play search and find games like hide and seek, which force your dog to rely on its senses to find you inside the home or a treat you’ve hidden under a cup or in a muffin tin.
You can also give your dog new toys that help it use its brain, such as puzzle feeders and hidden-treat toys. While these are great and fun options, though, remember to not overuse them, or your dog will crack the code too easily and not be challenged by them enough later.
Give it new experiences
When dogs age and potentially develop health problems or mobility issues, their owners tend to let them sleep all day and don’t take them out as much as they did when they were puppies. While your dog may be comfortable at home, it may benefit from getting out of its “comfort zone” at times.
Taking your dog to new places and allowing it to experience new sights, sounds and surroundings can also help sharpen its mind.
A major way dogs take in their environment is through sight, sound and smell, and it will need to use its brain and senses more in a new place to learn about where it is. Exposing your dog to new things actually helps create connections in neurological pathways in its brain, which can help learning and memory.
Teach it a new trick
Don’t believe the old saying—old dogs can and should learn new tricks as they age! Take time to teach your dog to do something new, or try teaching it the names of all its toys and get good at identifying and bringing them to you when you ask. Tricks are a great, long-term way to exercise your dog’s mind and check on it over time.
Keeping Dogs Sharp
Although cognitive dysfunction is common in older dogs, it does not have to be severe or progress quickly if you work hard to keep your dog activated and engaged with the world around it well into its later years. And, the best part is that both you and your dog will continue to have fun and bond through all this playtime and stimulation!