Mental stimulation for dogs

Expert Contributor

Brian Faulkner

Veterinary Surgeon
RCVS Registered
Expert Contributor

Nick Jones

Dog Behaviourist and
Dog Expert Witness

How can you keep your dog’s mind active all year round? We review some fun canine toys and activities to keep them entertained and engaged.

To keep our dogs happy, we need to give them plenty of physical exercise. Their walks are also an excellent opportunity for mental stimulation. Just think about all those exciting sights, sounds and (especially) smells for them to investigate! The trouble is that when the weather is cold, grey and wet, you might well be tempted to spend less time outdoors.

Luckily, there are lots of activities you can use to burn off some of your dog’s energy and keep their mind active without setting foot outside. Read our expert tips for providing mental stimulation for dogs with toys, games and indoor play – and find out how to make the most of even short dog walks.

Brain games IMG

1. Go on an indoor treasure hunt

Many dogs love using their nose to sniff out hidden treasure! Start this game by hiding a treat somewhere obvious and allow your dog to watch as you do so. Under a cushion placed on the floor is a good place to start. Ask your dog to ‘find’ and reward them with lots of verbal praise when they sniff out and eat their treat.

Now that your dog understands the game, you can slowly start to increase the difficulty. Work up to hiding treats in another room, or somewhere with lots of other scents to mask the smell. You can also increase the challenge by setting up cardboard boxes of different sizes and hiding a treat in just one box. Let your dog sniff all the boxes and figure out where that treat is! 

2. Provide stimulating dog games and puzzles

Games or puzzles involving food are almost always a hit with our dogs! If your pet is motivated by food, some of the best dog toys for mental stimulation include puzzle boards where they have to move levers or flaps to reveal a treat, licker mats for spreading soft treats on or Kongs stuffed with pet-safe peanut butter that does not contain the sugar substitute xylitol.

Even if your dog isn’t particularly food motivated, there are plenty of other games you can try – from tug-of-war to teaching them to tidy up their toys! Another fun example is a variation on the classic game of fetch. Tie a string to the end of a long stick and attach one of your dog’s favourite toys to the other end of the string. Dangle the toy in front of your dog and move it away slowly, stopping and starting as you go. This encourages your dog to focus their excitement, challenge their mind and use their natural hunting instincts to catch the toy in a controlled way that’s fun for you both. 

3. Play hide-and-seek with your dog

One of the best games to play with dogs for mental stimulation is good old hide-and-seek! This game works best with two people around. One person should ask your dog to sit and stay with them while the other person hides. They should then ask your dog to ‘find’ the name of whoever has hidden.

Start by hiding in a very easy spot, such as the corridor outside the room your dog is waiting in. When your dog finds the person who is hiding, give your dog a treat and lots of praise. If your dog enjoys this game, you can start increasing the level of difficulty, by hiding in harder-to-find spots around the house or garden.

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4. Teach your dog some new tricks

Adding a few short training sessions to their daily routine is a great way to keep your dog mentally stimulated and improve the bond between you both. The colder months are a great time to work on some basic commands or teach your dog some new tricks. From shaking paws to high-five or rolling over and playing dead, why not have some fun together? 

Or if your dog has picked up some habits you’d rather they hadn’t, such as jumping on the sofa or chewing things around the house, spend some time using positive reinforcement training to gradually break those patterns. The mental stimulation from regular training sessions can also help keep cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) at bay in older dogs.

5. Switch up your winter dog walks

Walks in cold, wet weather might be a bit shorter than other times of the year, but you can still make them exciting and stimulating for your dog! Exploring new dog walks in your area and allowing your pet to discover the sights and smells there can help form new neural pathways in their brain. Try varying your morning walkies to visit a new park or different area of your neighbourhood.

If you can, taking your dog for an outing in a completely different environment, such as a beach or riverside, can make a short walk far more mentally stimulating than your usual quick trip around the block. Make sure you allow time for your dog to stop and sniff all the exciting new scents!

Remember to choose activities that suit your dog’s breed and personality. Some breeds, like Golden Retrievers and Labradors, particularly enjoy games based around food. Just remember to count any treats as part of their daily food allowance! Others, like hard-working Border Collies and German Shepherds, may find games involving finding a hidden object, or learning a new trick, more fun.

Use the #PethoodStories tag on social media to share your favourite dog games and activities with us – we’d love to see them!

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