Exercise for the Mind

Many people believe that exercising their dog means taking them for several walks a day or throwing a ball over and over until it seems the dog is exhausted. Although this is great physical exercise, what about mental exercise? When you hear the phrase “A tired dog, is a good dog” have we considered that this might include meeting both the dog’s physical and mental needs?  

Dogs who do not have a good balance of mental and physical stimulation can exhibit signs of boredom which in turn could lead to those annoying problem behaviors that we all want to avoid, such as chewing our favorite shoes, digging in the trash or stealing items out of the laundry basket. Incorporating mental stimulation into your dog’s daily routine does not have to be a daunting task. Here’s several ways to add mental stimulation into your dog’s day.  


Dogs eat every day, and we typically make it extremely simple for them by putting a scoop of food into a bowl and setting it down in front of them. What if we mix it up a little bit, make it a little more challenging for them?  

Puzzles are a fantastic way to exercise your dog mentally as they figure out how to get to their food. Nina Ottosson and Outward Hound have created a whole line of puzzles and durable interactive games ranging in different difficulty levels to fit the needs of each dog or cat. I have several puzzles and treat dispensing toys that I rotate through for my dogs, so they do not get bored, and the puzzles keep them engaged. There are also some awesome DIY puzzles you can make as well if you do not want to purchase a puzzle. To get you started, check out this link of easy-to make items to exercise your dog’s brain:  https://www.nonstopdogwear.com/en/magazine/7-diy-dog-games/ . 

Another wonderful way to feed your dog its meals is by using a Snuffle Mat. Snuffle mats are like “fringed” placemats where you scatter and hide the food in between the fabric pieces and the dog uses its nose to sniff out the food within the fringes of the mat. There are lots of styles to choose from. Dog Obedience Group sells the Paw 5 snuffle mat which my dogs LOVE. Mention this article and receive 10% off your purchase of any snuffle mat or interactive game!  

One of my current favorites does not require any purchase. Simply scatter the dog food or treats around the house, in the corners, on a ledge, in a toy, in a box, on a chair and then release your dog to find their food and treats. Your dog will use so much energy sniffing the room over and over until they have found all the food and get that “mental exercise” session in. On nice days I do this outside and it is just as mentally exhausting searching for their food on rocks, in the grass, on a bench, on the deck, in a toy. Be creative! 


If you have heard the expression “ditch the bowl,” that is exactly what we have done with the different feeding methods that we described above. But what if we “took it up a notch” and have some fun training our dogs with their food (if your dog will not work for their dog food during your training sessions, this can be done with their favorite treats, just keep an eye on their general food intake so they are not overfed). Spending several minutes a day working on basic obedience cues, animal husbandry and some calming and fun tricks, your dog is working mentally resulting in a tired dog so they can enjoy a nice nap instead of working out their boredom in other non-desirable ways.  


Walks can be fantastic physical exercise for your dog, and mental stimulation can be added to a walk. When we are out walking our dogs the only way, we challenge them is asking them to stay in the perfect heel next to us, we are not allowing the mental stimulation that they need or to explore their world in the way dogs do. What if we built in time to let the dog sniff and explore the area around them? Since I have a reactive dog, there is too much activity that will stress him out if we take a walk in the neighborhood. So, we have had to be creative. We spend at least 15 minutes per day sniffing in the yard on a long line. I set the boundaries and just follow my dogs around letting them sniff and explore within that boundary. When we first started this, I was amazed to see the areas where my dog would gravitate toward and how they spent their time in that area. Let your dog be more in control of his activities while he sniffs around; you can provide guidance if they get off track or try to roll in something yucky. You can also take the same activity into a large field or park when there are no dogs or few dogs around and your dog will have a blast! 


Chewing is another favorite activity for dogs . Did you know that chewing releases endorphins and helps calm a dog? I usually have a few nylon chew toys out for our dogs throughout the day. I also have a few special Hero Bonetics wooden bones they can chew for an extended time when I need them to settle down. It is important to rotate your toys or put toys away after each session so they remain valuable to your dog. If toys and chews are left out 24/7 dogs can get bored with them and as a result, you have less leverage or fewer things your dog finds interesting when you need your dog to settle and chew on something. 

How about those dogs that love licking on a stuffed kong, shank bone or similar toy? This is great mental stimulation for our furry friends. You can add extra value to these stuffed toys and  fill them with a variety of dog-approved food.   You can also freeze a filled Kong to provide more time for your dog to finish the food inside the Kong. Some common fillers for Kongs are fruits, vegetables, wet dog food, plain yogurt, and peanut butter in moderation. 

These are just a few ways to incorporate mental stimulation into your dogs daily life. With daily consistency, you should notice that your dog is more settled and calmer, happier and not in search of something to solve their boredom. Your bond with your dog will strengthen and you both will look forward to what tomorrow brings. Have fun and get creative finding what your dog loves.