5 ways to keep your dog's brain fit and healthy

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You probably already know that keeping your pet's mind active is the best way to keep cognitive dysfunction (or dementia) at bay. But knowing where to begin can seem daunting. To help, we've put together five simple, cost-effective ideas you can easily put into practice today.

1. Make old things new

Dogs are capable of learning new things at any age, but your pet doesn't necessarily need to master a new trick to exercise his mind. Any situation that requires your pet to think flexibly or problem solve can help to form new neural pathways, keeping his brain fit and responsive. Try putting items your dog is familiar with in an unexpected place. For example, as long your dog isn't visually impaired, hiding his toys in different areas of the house can make them more interesting and stimulating when he eventually comes across them again.

2. Treasure hunt

Getting your dog to use his nose to find hidden treasure is a great way to stimulate his brain. To start out, hide a treat somewhere obvious, letting him watch as you do so. Then give him the cue to go find the tasty snack, rewarding him with lots of praise when he gets it right.

Once your dog understands the game, you can then ramp up the difficulty. Hide treats or toys in another room, or in a spot where other scents mask it such as at the bottom of the laundry bin or under his food dish. You can also make the game more challenging by setting up cardboard boxes of different sizes and, without your dog seeing, placing the reward in only one box. Then let your dog investigate all of them and provide the treat when he selects the correct box.

3. Hide-and-seek

Make playtime with your dog even more exciting and rewarding by getting involved in a game of hide-and-seek. For best results, you'll need to play this with at least two people. One person should give your dog the command to sit and distract him, while the other person hides. Then it's time for your pet to start looking! This game works wonderfully both indoors and out, and is a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon with your dog.

4. Play like a dog

All dogs love to run and chase things, and it's a great way to keep both mind and body active. For a variation on a classic game of fetch, tie a string to the end of a long stick and then tie a dog toy onto the string. Dangle it in front of your dog to catch his attention but, instead of moving it frantically, move it slowly, stopping and starting again. This will encourage your dog to focus his excitement and leave you in control – the faster you go, the more you'll drain his physical energy; the slower you go, the more you'll challenge his mind. This allows your pet to put his natural hunting instincts into practice in a focused, disciplined way that is fun for him and you.

5. Switch up your walks

New experiences will help to encourage your dog's mind to stay fit, as discovering new sights and smells, and exploring different areas, will automatically cause new neural pathways to form in response. And one simple way to put this into action is to vary your morning walks. Visiting different parks or parts of your neighbourhood will automatically ensure your pet's mind is more elastic and responsive to the different stimulus around him. To really ramp up this effect, it can be worth adding walking trips to the beach or countryside to your dog's routine.

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