Every dog owner knows the importance of physical exercise for dogs. We take our pups on walks, chase them around the yard, play with tug ropes and do much more to keep their bodies healthy and their hearts happy. Dogs love physical exercise, even in their older years. However, physical activity is not the only crucial kind of exercise your dog needs.
Outside of keeping their muscles and heart in good condition, your dog needs regular mental stimulation to stay happy and healthy. Many dog owners forget about this critical element of dog ownership, electing to just tire dogs out physically. In addition to routine physical exercise, you should be engaging your dog’s mind.
Mental stimulation is especially important for senior dogs. As dogs age, their cognitive abilities start to fade, resulting in confusion, memory loss and a lack of awareness. Challenging your dog’s brain can help fight against this decay, keeping them smart and sprightly for much longer. Mental exercise is also important for dogs with injuries or limited mobility, since they are probably not getting as much mental stimulation through adventures like walks or social interactions with other dogs.
Dogs are incredibly smart creatures, but their minds need to be put to the test a little each day to tap into their true potential and to keep them healthy overall.
Benefits of mental exercise
Working with your dog to exercise their brain is good for more than just keeping them busy. Here are just a few benefits of regular mental stimulation for dogs.
- Prevents boredom: Dogs that don’t get challenged mentally will often start to act out around the house because of boredom. This might involve them chewing on things, scratching up furniture, digging up plants or barking excessively. With regular mental exercise, your dog will be much less bored and less likely to get into trouble.
- Improves behavior: Mental exercise can impact your dog’s behavior with other people and dogs. Owners who regularly train their dogs’ brains have found their dogs to be much calmer around other people and dogs and in new environments.
- Makes them happy: Much like physical exercise, dogs love mental exercise! Working with them to use their brains can make them very happy. Additionally, you’ll be able to bond with your dog in a new way, helping to strengthen your relationship.
- Reduces anxiety: Mental exercise could be the solution to your dog’s separation anxiety. Dogs that receive consistent mental stimulation are less likely to feel anxious when their owners leave the home. Much like physical exercise, mental stimulation can tire out your pup and release all that pent-up energy. This makes it easier for them to relax, even when they have to spend long periods of time alone.
- Gives them purpose: All dogs need mental exercise, but this is especially true for breeds that were born to hunt, chase and retrieve. Mental stimulation can tap into a dog’s innate desire to complete tasks. Dogs are their happiest when they have a job to do—even if your dog isn’t used for herding sheep or hunting game. Activities like obedience training, treat hunting and puzzle toys can work your dog’s mind and give them a sense of purpose.
- Slows cognitive decline: Dogs that get mental exercise on a regular basis are less likely to develop cognitive disorders in their later years. Mental exercise forms new connections in the brain and protects existing nerve cells from degeneration. Even if your dog is still young, start incorporating mental stimulation now so their mind can stay sharp for much longer.
Creative ways to get creative with your dog
You don’t have to be a dog whisperer to tap into your dog’s creative mental capabilities. There are a lot of ways you can work to exercise your dog’s mind, either at home or in a public setting. Here are some mental exercises your dog might enjoy.
- Puzzle toys: There are tons of new puzzle toys and even doggy board games out on the market that let your dog play while exercising their mind. Some games allow you to hide treats and make the dogs search for them under pegs while others just take strategy to release a treat from the center. If you get your dog puzzle toys, rotate them out every few weeks, even if they aren’t new. This way, your dog won’t get bored of the same toy and can be consistently challenged.
- Thinking games: Games like hide and seek or treat hunt are fun ways to interact with your dog while encouraging them to explore new areas and use their brain more critically. Another idea is to teach your dog the names of their toys, so they can play “fetch” when instructed.
- New tricks and training: It’s not true that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. In fact, old dogs should learn new tricks to keep them entertained! Enroll your dog in obedience school to provide new learning opportunities. Alternatively, you could try teaching your dog some tricks at home by yourself.
- Quick outings: Dogs love to experience new things, so take them on a walk to a new area of town or bring them in the car with you while you run errands. Exploring new places and seeing new things will activate your dog’s brain as they register all the new information.
- Quality time: Cool puzzle toys and new tricks aside, there is very little that comes close to the effect of just spending quality time with your dog and letting them spend quality time with others. Interact with your dog, talk to them at home and take them to dog parks so they’re able to meet new dogs and see new faces.
Exercising your dog’s brain is not difficult or even time-consuming. In the case of some toys, the only time required of you is for purchase and set-up, and your dog handles the rest. Even just a few minutes of mental exercise each day can help your dog stay alert, happy and healthy.
Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in June 2018. It has been updated to include more relevant and comprehensive information.