As humans, we sometimes underestimate the amount of things we can do during the day to stimulate (or relax) our minds. From reading, to the latest boxset on TV, to baking, to knitting, puzzles, computer games, yoga, reading, playing a musical instrument, or even studying or learning a new skill. All of these activities are reinforcing for us, and that’s why we keep doing them, they provide an outlet for our energy, keep us sane, happy and mentally healthy.
What we mustn’t forget here too is that we can do this whenever we like, with our human brains, opposable thumbs and access to our hobbies we can do what we like, whenever we like (unless we’re in work…so maybe not whenever we like!).
For dogs it can often be much more difficult. They do not control their environments the way that we humans control ours. They can’t pull a favourite book off the shelf (to sniff or chew more than read maybe), they can’t swipe into the iPad for a few games of Candy Crush, and try as they might they can’t stuff a Kong, or prepare some mental games for themselves like a human can.
As you probably know a lot of dogs often can find ways to entertain or stimulate their minds if nothing is (deliberately) provided, however this can often be a source of irritation for their owners. Dogs chewing shoes, clothes or other items, dogs practicing attention seeking behaviours, and dogs who can’t settle and seem restless or ‘hyperactive’ could all be suffering from a detriment of mental exercise, the right amount of which is essential to a healthy dog.
Although every dog is different, each will need an appropriate balance of physical and mental exercise to keep them stimulated and physically and psychologically healthy. The benefits of a few mind games or mental exercises for your dog are enormous. Not only does this help provide stimulation for your dog (which can actually tire them our more than physical exercise!), it will also help in training your dog as they will be more focused if they have had a chance to exercise their brain. It can additionally help to reduce or prevent behavioural issues arising out of a lack of mental exercise such as boredom related chewing or destruction, attention seeking behaviours, hyperactivity, inability to settle, boisterousness and many others.
Just as daily walks and play sessions are thankfully the norm for most dogs in the UK, it is really so easy, effective and rewarding to add mental exercise into our dogs’ everyday routine.
Try it for yourself and see if a week or two of daily mental exercise has noticeable effects….I’m confident that it will!
So, if a lot of dogs don’t get enough, there are heaps of benefits, and it can be really simple and easy to provide mental games and challenges for our dogs, we should do it right?
Exactly! But how…?
Here are 10 great toys and games that you can use for your dog to help enrich their days, tire their bodies and minds and make them love you even more! (Most of these 10 cost next to nothing to make and can be made from things around the house.)
1. Kong’s are a dog trainer’s best friend. These durable rubber toys can be stuffed with your dogs favourite treats, or the inside can be smeared with pate or soft cheese. Once your dog is hooked, they will lick, chew, paw around and gobble up all the treats they have inside – no matter how long it takes. Great for keeping your dogs busy for periods of time, as well as giving them a great brain work out too. The awesome Oli Juste will show you the right way to stuff a Kong right here.
2. Snuffle Mats are brilliant DIY enrichment games that you can make at home for next to nothing. Using just a rubber mat with holes in and some strips of old fleece blanket, or sheets, or even old clothes. Check out this video on how to make one for yourself (for a fraction of the price of buying one in the shops!). Try scattering treats in under the fleece and watch your dog root and snuffle until they are all gone! Top tip: For super energetic and active dogs, try putting some or all of their dry food in the mat and make them use their brain to get their dinner.
3. Search in the garden or yard is a simple game that can be taken basically anywhere. Start with some of your dog’s favourite high value treats (hot dog pieces, cheese, or chicken maybe) and begin to toss them into the grass or around the garden then help your dog to find them with a point or encouragement. Keep making the distance a bit bigger and if you can, ask your dog to stay whilst you hide the treats so that he can see where you’re putting them, then ask him to ‘find it!’ – behind plant pots, chair legs or on steps are all good ideas. After a few repeats your dog should be hooked. Start asking him to “Find it!” before he darts off in search of treats and he will begin to learn that “Find it!” means go and hunt for some cheese! Top tip: This is a great distraction device too if you are out and about and your dog seems worried or alert to something up ahead, distract him with a ‘find it’ and toss some treats nearby. He’ll be so busy sniffing for treats that he’ll forget about what’s up ahead (don’t forget not to get too close if your dog is worried, it may be best to distract him to break his attention and then move away from whatever he is focused on).
4. Toilet roll tubes can be easily turned into a free mind game for your dog, put some treats inside, fold in each end so that the treats are secure in the middle, and let your dog work out how to get the treats out himself. Note: This may require a little hoover afterwards, or sweeping up any torn card pieces – your dog will have a great time though!
5. Empty plastic bottles can be made into a free and easy mind game too. Put some (non wet) treats inside, and make sure you remove the top and the plastic ring around the lid and any labels or glue residue, so that your dog doesn’t chew or swallow any of these nasty bits. Then place on the floor and watch your dog work out how to get every last treat out, using his big old brain.
6. Tennis balls can be used for more than chase and fetch. Try putting some dog treats in the cups in a muffin tray. Then put a tennis ball, or similar shaped dog toy, on top of each hole so that your dog has to move each ball to get to the treats inside – another free mind game to make your dog’s day more exciting (if you have 12 tennis balls or toys lying around!).
7. I couldn’t talk about mind games without mentioning the vast array of professionally made dog puzzles on the market. Available in most pet shops and online, these can be a long term investment and durable addition to your dog’s routine. They can be filled up ready, and given to the dog when you leave the house. Giving him something fun to do in your absence, and also helping to show that being alone without mum and dad can be a positive thing too! (That’s the same for all of the mind games and toys – why not leave your dog more than one?!)
8. The amazing tennis ball strikes again! For a simple bit of enrichment if you’re pushed for time, try putting a tennis ball on top of your dogs dinner? Sounds odd right? But your dog will then have to move the ball here and there to get to his dinner, making him exercise his brain, as well as his mouth. Top tip: This is an especially good trick to try if your dog bolts their food down quickly, as it will make them eat slower and more steadily.
9. Touch training is a gift that keeps on giving. It basically means teaching your dog to gently touch anything with his nose – a great way to start is to use your open palm. Hold your palm flat in near to your dogs nose, and give him a treat if he shows interest, a sniff maybe, then keep rewarding closer behaviours until he touches your hand with his nose. Repeat this a few times until your dog is consistently touching your palm when you present it close to him, then you can add a word before you put your hand down next time – “Touch.” maybe. After a few more repetitions your dog should know that touch means nose to palm, and means that he gets a treat. Once the foundations are laid, you can use this in a huge range of ways. Call your dog to you, call him past distractions, work towards agility ramps or see saws, teach spins, 2 leg stands and a whole range of tricks just by gently controlling where your dog positons himself.
10. The bucket game is a relatively new addition to the mind game repertoire, but don’t be fooled by the name, you don’t even need a bucket to play! Basically what we will ask is for our dog to focus on a bucket, or cup, or box, or tub of treats placed near to them, and we will reward this attention with a treat from the container. This is a great way to help build impulse control, confidence and allows to dog to start (by looking), and stop (by moving or looking away), the game whenever they want to – allowing them to have a real conversation with us about how comfortable they are. This is especially good for shy dogs as distractions can be very slowly added as the dog’s concentration and confidence grow. Check out the game’s inventor the wonderful Chirag Patel show you how to start right here.
One final note: Don’t forget, don’t make these games too hard too soon. Sure, once your dog is ‘addicted’ to Kongs lined with pate, they might spend an hour licking the last morsel off – but, if the game is made too difficult, or the access to the food is tough at the beginning the dog may lose interest or become frustrated – the exact opposite of what we want. So when stuffing toys, or putting treats in boxes or bottles etc. make it relatively easy for the dog to ‘win’ at first, so they learn the game can be fun, and then you can have fun yourself seeing how the dog can tackle slightly more challenging games after that.
It’s as simple as that! I hope you will try one or more of these this weekend and maybe even start to add mental exercise alongside physical exercise as a ‘must have’ part of your dog’s day. They will definitely love you for it!
Plus you’ll see how clever and determined your dog really is!