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7 Ways to Provide Mental Stimulation for Dogs

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An Australian Shepherd dog sniffs for treats hidden in a snuffle mat made of blue and yellow fabric strips. Puzzle toys, such as snuffle mats, are one way to provide mental stimulation for dogs.

If you have a dog, you probably invest a lot of resources into caring for their physical health. Your dog’s behavioral health is just as important. Like humans, dogs have complex emotional and social needs. Appropriate mental stimulation for dogs can support their overall behavioral health, giving them a way to exercise their brains as well as their bodies.

The importance of mental stimulation for dogs

What is mental stimulation for dogs? This term (also called cognitive enrichment) refers to any activity that allows dogs to channel their natural instincts into a “job” or purpose. Mental stimulation enriches your dog’s life by exercising their brain and adding variety to their daily routine. It can have a significant impact on a dog’s mental well-being over their lifetime.   

Without adequate mental stimulation, dogs can become bored. Boredom can predispose dogs to serious behavioral issues like reactivity and separation anxiety. In a 2022 report, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) found that most pet owners think about their pet’s mental and behavioral health at least monthly.  

As veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker said at the 2022 Embark Canine Health Summit, “You’ve got to feed the body and feed the mind.”

Fortunately, there are several ways you can easily incorporate cognitive enrichment into your dog’s daily life. Read on to learn about fun ways to offer mental stimulation for dogs. 

7 fun activities that provide mental stimulation for dogs

These activities can help give your dog the mental stimulation they need and support their behavioral health throughout their life. Try rotating through a variety of activities to maximize the benefits and keep playtime interesting.

1. Keep your dog active with regular exercise

Physical activity keeps your dog’s mind and body in top shape. Forms of exercise that offer mental stimulation for dogs include:  

  • Daily walks with plenty of sniff breaks 
  • Hiking or exploring new trails
  • Swimming (if your dog enjoys water)
  • Sniffspot private dog parks to safely explore outdoor areas off leash

You can combine exercise and training for extra mental stimulation. For example, you can walk your dog in safe open spaces on a 20-foot-long line to practice recall. You can also incorporate dog parkour into your daily walks by teaching your dog to leap onto benches or circle trees. 

2. Socialize with other dogs 

Many dogs enjoy socializing with other members of their own species. Safe playdates with familiar friendly dogs allow your pet to burn energy and help them learn or practice appropriate canine manners. 

Options for socializing your dog include: 

  • Playdates with a friend or family member’s dog
  • Puppy preschool classes
  • Adult dog training classes

If your dog gets overwhelmed or scared when playing with other dogs, you can meet up with a friend and their dog for a calm, on-leash walk. Not all dogs enjoy the company of other dogs, and that’s okay, too!

Take extra care when socializing young puppies. Learning how to interact with other dogs is an important part of a puppy’s cognitive development, but it also carries risks. Ensure that your puppy only interacts with friendly, puppy-savvy, fully vaccinated adult dogs and other puppies their own age to reduce the risk of your puppy getting sick or frightened.

3. Bond through shared activities 

Our pets enjoy spending time with us, and shared activities can provide additional cognitive enrichment. If your dog is social and well-behaved, you can take them to explore new, pet-friendly locations, such as beaches, breweries, and home improvement stores. 

At home, you can bond with your dog by playing hide and seek, setting up a sprinkler, or teaching them tricks. 

4. Build a backyard sandbox for mental stimulation

Digging is an instinctual behavior for dogs, but if not channeled properly it can destroy your garden and yard. One way to provide a safe outlet for digging energy is to build a backyard sandbox or designate a specific area where your dog is allowed to dig. You can bury toys or treats for them to find and praise them when they dig in the designated digging area.

5. Empower your dog to make their own decisions

Allowing your dog to make choices is a free and simple way to add mental enrichment. Consider letting your dog choose the direction of their walk or offering them two different toys so that they can pick their favorite. 

6. Mix up daily meals with puzzle toys 

Pet retailers offer an array of mental stimulation dog toys. Instead of simply feeding your dog in a bowl, make mealtime a game using puzzle toys. 

Puzzle toys require your dog to manipulate objects to access treats or kibble hidden inside. For example, your dog may need to roll a ball to make kibble fall out of a small hole or search for food hidden in a snuffle mat.  

You can also easily create homemade puzzle toys from inexpensive materials, such as: 

  • Bath towels: Roll up treats in a towel and encourage your dog to sniff them out. You can increase the challenge by knotting the towel, so your dog has to work to unroll it.  
  • Cardboard: Channel destructive urges into an appropriate outlet by allowing your dog to destroy cardboard destined for the recycling bin. You can stash dog treats in an empty paper towel tube and allow your dog to roll and rip it. You can also fill a cardboard box with dog toys, sprinkle your dog’s food inside, and encourage them to sniff out the kibble. 

When using any puzzle toy, especially a homemade version, be sure to supervise your dog closely to make sure they don’t ingest parts of the toy. 

7. Participate in dog sports 

Getting involved in dog sports is another fun—and often addictive—way to provide mental stimulation for dogs. Training in a sport will challenge your pet mentally and physically, giving them a positive outlet for their energy. 

If you want to start a dog sport, the best way to get involved is to find a local training class. A qualified trainer can help you learn the rules of the sport and teach your dog the fundamental skills. 

Here are a few introductory dog sports for any breed. 

Fast CAT

If your dog loves to chase squirrels or sprint around the yard, they may enjoy fast coursing ability tests (Fast CAT). Your dog will chase a lure during a timed 100-yard dash. This sport comes so naturally for dogs that most people don’t even need to train to compete, especially if their dog has a high prey drive. Show your dog the lure, release them, and watch them run. Just make sure your dog is in good physical condition and is appropriately warmed up and cooled down before and after their run.

We recommend speaking with your veterinarian before starting any coursing events.

Rally obedience (Rally or Rally-O)

This sport is an accessible and fun way to practice obedience. You and your dog will navigate a course with a series of signs. At each sign, your dog will perform a different obedience exercise, like lying down or making a U-turn while heeling. If you compete, you can keep your dog leashed during the exercises in earlier levels. 

Trick Dog

You can earn certificates and titles by teaching your dog creative tricks like jumping through a hoop, sneezing on command, and weaving through your legs. Trick Dog levels can be evaluated virtually, so you don’t even need to leave your house to earn titles.

Scent work

This sport involves training your dog to seek out various essential oil scents (such as birch, clove, and anise). Only a few materials are required to get started, and there are many online class options to learn this sport. Most dogs love putting their noses to work, and expend a lot of mental energy to do so. Scent work is also a good option for senior dogs, as the physical demands of this sport are low.

By adding these easy mental stimulation activities into your dog’s daily routine, you can enrich their mind and support their behavioral health. In return, you’ll enjoy a rich bond with your pet.

Writer Dr. Brianna Anderson smiles at the camera while standing in front of a lake.

Brianna Anderson, PhD Contributor

Brianna Anderson is an educator, editor, and freelance writer. She teaches writing classes at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She received her PhD in English from the University of Florida, where she specialized in children's literature, digital writing, environmental literature, and popular culture. There, she served as the managing editor of the academic journal ImageTexT. She also holds a BA and MA in English.

Read more about Brianna Anderson, PhD

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