For thousands of years, dogs have been our constant companions, helping us with everything from herding our livestock and hunting big game to guarding our families. That’s why they’re so smart—in fact, they’re about as smart as a 2-year-old human child, and some can even distinguish between 1,000+ different words.1
Since dogs have such sharp minds, it’s important to give them mental exercise (in addition to their daily physical exercise) to keep them from developing behavioral issues stemming from boredom. After all, your dog may start using their intelligence for unpleasant things—like chewing your slippers or ripping up your couch—if their mind isn’t engaged in something productive.2 Here, we look at different ways to provide healthy mental stimulation for your dog to keep them healthy and happy.
Why is dog mental stimulation important?
Think about it—can you imagine sitting in a room alone with nothing to do for hours at a time each day? Neither can your dog.
A bored dog can often develop behavioral problems when left alone without anything to occupy their time. In fact, 85 percent of dogs suffer from some sort of behavioral issue, according to their owners.3 Getting physical exercise is only half of what your dog needs to stay healthy—they also need brain games to keep them happy and ward off behavioral issues that stem from boredom.4
Don’t fret, though, because puzzle toys, obedience training, socialization, playtime games and trick training are great ways to harness your dog’s intellect and focus it in positive directions. Otherwise, your dog may focus it in the form of negative behaviors, such as:5
- Destructive chewing
- Separation anxiety
- Excessive barking
- Destructive digging
Types of mental stimulation for dogs
To keep your pup occupied while you’re away and prevent behavioral issues like separation anxiety, there are several types of mental stimulation activities you can consider, including:6
- Playing interactive games with your dog
- Giving your dog agility training
- Teaching your dog to perform a task such as closing a door or helping you put away their toys
- Training your dog to respond to various commands
- Providing socialization with other people and dogs
- Engaging in different types of canine sports, such as dock diving, flyball, scent work, Treibball and herding
Can obedience training help my dog’s mental stimulation?
Yes, obedience training is a great type of brain stimulation for dogs. It also helps ensure that you always have control of your dog and that your dog is well-mannered around others. Some basic commands to teach your dog include:7
- Leave it
- Lie down
How can I train my dog?
Training sessions should always be positive and fun, so never punish your dog during them. Only reward your dog for the behavior you want and ignore the behavior you don’t want. Generally, training will work as follows:7
- First, pick a treat your dog loves—chicken, small training treats or any low calorie snacks that agree with your pup’s digestion work well—and use it as a reward. Food-motivated dogs will often gladly work for their normal kibble, which is a good way to cut down calories!
- Associate the treat with a sound, such as a click from a training clicker for dogs.
- Encourage the behavior you want. Once your dog does the behavior, click and treat your dog to “mark” it.
- Repetition is key! Try to shape the behaviors by having one command build upon another to set your dog up for success. For example, the “sit” command can easily be used to set up the “stay” and “leave it” commands.
Tips for dog training
Follow these tips to ensure that training sessions are not only successful, but also fun and engaging for your dog: 7
- Remember to keep sessions short—no more than 5 to 10 minutes—especially in puppies, whose attention spans are often limited.
- Dogs need at least 20 minutes of mental stimulation per day.4 However, this can vary widely among different breeds, ages and even individual dogs. You may find that two training sessions at different times of the day work well and won’t overwhelm your dog.
- Always end on a positive note.
- Use high-value treats to keep your dog’s attention.
- Lavish your dog with praise for the behaviors you want.
Mental stimulation games for dogs
All school and no play will make for a dull—and bored—dog. Most dogs can be taught to play with puzzle toys. These are particularly valuable for older dogs and for those with health problems that might limit their physical activity. Puzzles are also games that can be played in a confined space. Interactive games are a great way to engage with your dog when you’re together, but puzzle toys are a good solution for keeping your dog occupied when they’re alone.
Brain games for dogs at home
When it comes to puzzle toys, there are lots of mind games for dogs of all ages. These toys can keep your dog occupied for hours and help provide mental stimulation. They include:8
- Kong toys that you can fill with peanut butter, treats or whipped cream. Freeze toys filled with chicken broth for even more fun to make a long-lasting “pupsicle.”
- Treat-dispensing toys that your dog has to move around to get to the food inside.
- Toys like activity boards with compartments that your dog must open to get to the treats inside.
- Puzzles with squeaky toys hidden inside that your dog has to dig out.
- Snuffle mats that you can sprinkle with treats for your dog to find.
Selecting the best puzzle toy for your dog
Not all puzzle toys are created equal; some are more advanced than others. Here are some tips for selecting the best puzzle toy:
- Choose simple toys for puppies and young dogs, like snuffle mats or rolling treat dispensers.
- Once your dog masters simpler puzzle toys, look for more advanced toys that are harder to use, like activity boards.
- For dogs who aggressively love to chew, durable toys like the Kong work best because they not only engage your dog’s mind, but are also durable enough for those heavy chewers, although any chewing activity should always be supervised and limited in duration. 5
How to mentally stimulate your dog with homemade toys and games
Before you head to the pet store, make some homemade puzzle toys and engage in some games at home with your dog. Some ideas to consider:
- Play a “shell game” with your dog. Using three plastic cups, hide a treat under one and move the cups around. Have your dog choose the correct cup to get the treat.9
- Hide treats in cardboard toilet paper rolls. Fold in the ends and poke holes in the sides so that treats fall out when your dog moves the rolls around.10
- Fill a muffin tin with kibble or treats and cover each muffin slot with a tennis ball. Have your dog “hunt” for their food.10
- Hide toys or treats in a small box and place them within one or more bigger boxes. Have your dog find the small box and reward inside.10
Mental stimulation vs physical for dogs
All dogs need both mental and physical stimulation to stay healthy and prevent boredom. The best types of physical exercise you can give your dog will combine some aspect of mental stimulation too, giving you and your dog the best of both worlds. A great example is fetch! Most dogs can be taught to retrieve items, and the “drop it” command is always useful to have in their repertoire.
Daily exercise requirement needs vary considerably between breeds and ages of dogs, but most dogs need anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours of exercise per day.11 Younger dogs may need more exercise, while older dogs might need less. Energetic and working dog breeds will appreciate more exercise than brachycephalic ones.11
Games to provide mental stimulation for dogs
In addition to using puzzle toys, you can play interactive games with your dog at home or outdoors. Consider these games:
- Have a sniffing adventure when walking your dog. Let your dog stop to smell the roses (and everything else) while on your walk, and vary your route.10 This is a great option for older dogs and brachycephalic dogs.
- Hide treats in your home or yard and direct your dog to find them.10
- Direct your dog to stay in one room and hide in another room or behind a tree if you’re outdoors. Then have your dog find you.
- Using positive training methods, teach your dog fun tricks like how to open doors and shake hands.
Dog sports that provide mental stimulation
In addition to playing with your dog, you can get them involved in various sports that make use of their mental abilities. Depending on your dog’s energy level and where you live, mental exercises for dogs include:
- Agility training5
- Dock diving
- Scent work12
Why socialize your dog for mental stimulation?
An important aspect of mental stimulation involves exposing your pup to other people and dogs. To prevent dogs from becoming fearful and, in turn, aggressive around strangers, they’ll need to socialize with lots of different people and dogs under pleasant circumstances.
How to socialize your dog
Ideally, start socializing your dog as a puppy, anywhere between 3 and 20 weeks of age.13 This is a vital period of development for your dog. But that doesn’t mean socialization stops there—continued positive exposure to experiences and people should be continued throughout your dog’s life.13
While it might seem like a good idea to head to your local dog park to socialize your dog, that might not be the best idea if your canine companion has shown any form of aggression to other dogs in the past.14 In fact, it’s beneficial to expose your dog mostly to well-behaved dogs when socializing.
The dog park isn’t always filled with the most trustworthy pups. Instead, ensure only positive interactions with other dogs and people (at least initially) by:13
- Setting up a pup playdate with a friend’s dog who is trustworthy, vaccinated and well-behaved
- Observing your dog’s interactions with other dogs and people for signs of distress so you can quickly intervene
- Rewarding good and non-aggressive behavior around other pets and people with treats and praise
- Allowing other people to give treats to your dog when they come to your home or when you visit them
Fun group activities for dogs
The best way to socialize your dog and engage your dog’s mind is to combine socialization with mental stimulation. Some ways to do this include:
- Attending puppy training classes, where all dogs learn and interact and are supervised
- Taking more advanced classes with older dogs or even enrolling them in therapy dog training15
- Sending your dog to doggy daycare to interact with other dogs and get some much-needed mental and physical exercise throughout the day5
- Participating in activities like agility contests or other types of canine sports so your dog is exposed to other dogs and dog-friendly folks
Ensuring proper mental stimulation for dog minds
Dogs need both physical and mental stimulation to keep them healthy and prevent behavioral issues from developing. Consider the following tips:
- Positive, reward-based obedience and trick training are great ways to engage your dog’s intellect and ensure good manners.
- Puzzle toys help your dog occupy themselves when you aren’t interacting with them. Chewable toys help keep aggressive chewers from chomping on things they shouldn’t.
- Playing interactive games with your dog and taking them on scent-exploring walks engages their brain.
- Socialization with other dogs and people (especially starting young!) is an important part of keeping your dog mentally stimulated and preventing problems with fear-based aggression.
- Canine sports, doggy daycare and training classes provide great opportunities for physical and mental stimulation as well as socialization for your dog.
- Most dogs need at least 20 minutes of mental stimulation per day, but if your dog enjoys more, that certainly won’t hurt them!4 However, don’t overwhelm your dog with training and games if you see they’re getting anxious or frustrated.
Remember, you should always consult with a veterinarian or professional trainer if you have any concerns about your dog’s mental or physical health.
Final Thoughts From Pets Best
Mental and physical exercise help keep your dog healthy and well-adjusted, but regular checkups with your veterinarian are vital too. That’s where a policy from Pets Best Pet Health Insurance can help. Pets Best can help you pay for everything from routine veterinary care to emergency vet visits. Choose the right plan for your pet and get a quote today!
1 “How Smart Are Dogs? Here’s What Science Says,” Miller, Q. (1/2023), Hepper, https://www.hepper.com/how-smart-are-dogs/, accessed January 29, 2023.
2 “Destructive Chewing,” ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/common-dog-behavior-issues/destructive-chewing, accessed January 29, 2023.
3 “Demographics and comorbidity of behavior problems in dogs,” Dinwoodie, I. et al. (8/2019), Journal of Veterinary Behavior, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787818302727, accessed February 9, 2023.
4 “Mental Stimulation For Dogs: Why It’s Important & Best Activities Explained,” Safakish, J. (11/2020), Holistapet, https://www.holistapet.com/dog-care/mental-stimulation/, accessed January 29, 2023.
5 “Mental Stimulation for Dogs: An Essential Guide for Pet Owners,” Hughes, L. (1/2023), Pawrade, https://www.pawrade.com/resource/wellness/mental-stimulation-for-dogs, accessed January 29, 2023.
6 “10 Ways to Mentally Stimulate Your Dog,” PetCoach, https://www.petcoach.co/article/10-ways-to-stimulate-your-dog-s-brain/, accessed January 29, 2023.
7 “Teach Your Puppy These 5 Basic Cues,” Lunchick, P. (8/2022), American Kennel Club, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/teach-your-puppy-these-5-basic-commands/, accessed January 29, 2023.
8 “Play Brain Games With Your Dog,” Reisen, J. (3/2020), American Kennel Club, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/play-brain-games-with-your-dog/, accessed January 29, 2023.
9 “Mental Stimulation for Dogs: Keep Your Canine Sharp,” Son, K. (11/2022), Veterinarians.org, https://www.veterinarians.org/mental-stimulation-for-dogs/, accessed January 29, 2023.
10 “Canine DIY Enrichment,” ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/canine-diy-enrichment, accessed January 29, 2023.
11 “Exercising With Your Dog 101,” (5/2019), PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/dog/wellness/evr_dg_exercising_with_your_dog101, accessed January 29, 2023.
12 “Get Started in Dog Sports and Events,” (9/2021), American Kennel Club, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/sports/get-started-in-dog-sports-and-events/, accessed January 29, 2023.
13 “Socializing your dog,” Animal Humane Society, https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/resource/socializing-your-dog, accessed January 29, 2023.
14 “The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually,” Lowrey, S. (2/2020), The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/smarter-living/the-dog-park-is-bad-actually.html, accessed January 29, 2023.
15 “Dog Cognition: Dogs Are Even Smarter Than You Think,” Robins, M. (8/2019), American Kennel Club, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/dog-cognition-dogs-are-smarter-than-you-think/, accessed January 29, 2023.