There is a theory making the rounds that Homo-Sapiens (our ancestors) ousted Neanderthals because the latter preferred to sit at home, while our ancestors, as hunter-gatherers, were always on the move.
Apparently, the mental stimulation that resulted from remaining on the move made Homo Sapiens smarter and, thus, better able to cope.
Your dog may not be in danger of extinction, but animal behaviorists (and most veterinarians) have no doubt that dog mental stimulation is a close cousin of physical exercise in keeping your pet in great shape.
Here are some of the proven ways that your dog enjoys significant benefits from mental exercise, in addition to his physical exercise.
1. Change His Walks
It is a known phenomenon that regular (human) runners cling to a small set of routes. This doesn't work for Fido.
Your dog will find much more excitement in running if you vary his routes. The park, the forest, down the riverbank, the walking trail — mix it up!
Here’s something else you can do. Allow him more time for a walk, rather than rushing his walk to get it over with.
Allow him to sniff around the corners of your neighborhood. He’ll love smelling all the dogs, squirrels, possums, and other animals who came before him in recent days.
2. Vary Up His Exercise — Variety is the Spice of Life
Providing your dog with variety in his physical exercise is another great way to mentally stimulate your dog.
A simple method of incorporating variety is to involve additional members of the household in his daily walks.
Beacuse each family member tends to have different predilections, it mixes things up for your pet. If you live alone, throw in the occasional jog or bike ride.
3. Take Him to the Dog Park
Dog parks — enclosures wherein dogs can run free under the supervision of their owners — can act as a huge thrill for your dog.
The variety of individuals at the dog park also make for a very mentally stimulating environment for your dog.
You may want to remain cautious if you are taking him there for the first time; it may be a good idea to keep your dog on a leash initially until he gets used to the idea.
4. Employ Obedience Training
The mental exercise involved in obedience training may be just what the doctor ordered for several working dog breeds. Highly intelligent dogs — like the Border Collie or the bigger Poodle mixes — tend to do very well within this structure.
The old adage “an old dog can’t learn new tricks” is absolute rubbish.
You can even teach older dogs new “tricks” as part of your obedience training to keep his mind fresh and his interest up. For example, teach him to pick up his toys and put them back in his toy box.
You can also teach him new words that he can then associate with other things. Like, instead of “walk,” which I’m sure he already knows, teach him “jog” for when you want to go for a run – things like that.
You’ll be amazed at how many words your dog can learn (and how many words you’ll have to think up a codename for when he starts understanding you better!).
5. Teach Him Agility Training
Agility training also provides an excellent combination of physical and mental stimulation for your dog. This is hind of training is ideal for dogs that are intelligent, strong and energetic — like the German Shepherd, the German Shorthaired Pointer and the like.
6. Visit Friends
Taking along your dog when visiting friends can be a great way of providing him with mental stimulation.
Not only is the ride interesting, but friends at the other end — both human and animal — will be sure to boost your dog’s spirits as well.
Obviously, you must use your judgement – not all your friends may welcome your pet.
7. Play Hide-and-Seek or “Go Find It”
That’s right – you can actually play hide-and-seek with your dog! You’ll need two people for this, though. One person asks the dog to sit in one room while you hide in another.
Keep it simple at first – hide behind the couch or the den drapes. Then, call your dog and wait for him to find you – he’ll be so excited when he does!
As for the “Go Find It” game, most dogs love the “find the toy” game. Plus, it’s a great way to keep him entertained. Some toys, like Kongs, even provide your dog with an edible treat to celebrate his success.
You can also play “Go Find It” with treats, too. Simply put your dog in one room (or in his crate if he refuses to stay put) and hide some of his treats in another. Release him and tell him “go find it!” and watch as he hunts his treats.
As he gets better at this, you can vary up the complexity of the hiding spots you pick to give him more of a challenge.
8. Change His Toys
We all need to change our “toys”, or electronic devices, occasionally; corporations know that and exploit it mercilessly. Unsurprisingly, your dog can tire of his toys, too.
Set up your electronic calendar to send you a reminder to switch his toys around on a regular basis; he will be happier for it. If he still seems bored with them, then pick up a new toy every now and again to keep his spirits up.
9. Play Games with Him
That’s what breeders bred many of them to do. Games are a guaranteed way of mentally and physically stimulating your dog.
One fun game involves an old muffin tin. Simply place a few treats in some of the muffin tin’s cups, then cover the holes with toys, tennis balls, towels – whatever you want to use – and delight in watching him find the treats!
You can also look for wooden puzzle toys built specifically for dogs. These toys allow dogs to do everything from turn a knob to open a drawer to get to his beloved treats!
10. Join a Dog-Walking Group
A dog-walking group is yet another tool you can use to provide your pet with both physical and mental stimulation. In a way, it’s also kind of like a “playdate” for your dog when he gets to meet up with all his buddies once a week.
If you tend to be a busy individual, the mild peer pressure exerted by such groups may act as that extra incentive you need to ensure regularity in your doggie “expeditions.”
7 Additional Fun Ways to Mentally Stimulate Your Dog
Here are seven more ways to spice up your dog’s life and keep things interesting for him. (After all, if you were stuck inside all day every day, you would hope your master would do something to keep you from getting bored, too.)
1. Take Him for a Car Ride
That’s right – take him for a car ride!
If you’re running an errand to a place that allows dogs, bring yours along for the ride. Just be sure not to leave your dog in the car waiting for you when it’s too hot or too cold outside.
And if you do, don’t be surprised if someone smashes your window to save your dog! You can also risk animal abuse charges, not to mention putting your beloved pet in serious danger. So just don’t do it!
2. Play the Cup Game with Him
That’s right – the cup game you’re used to seeing magicians do at kids’ birthday parties. Line up three cups on the floor, placing a treat under one of the cups. Slide the cups around, then let your dog have the treat when he selects the correct cup!
3. Play “Come/Stay” with Him
“Come/Stay” is the doggie version of “Red Light/Green Light.” Tell your dog to “come”, allow him to walk a few paces, then tell him to “stay.”
Do this up until he gets to you. Then reward him with love and/or treats for a job well done. You may find this game especially helpful if your dog has issues with impulse control.
4. Consider Doggy Daycare
Just like children, dogs can benefit from socializing with others of his kind at a doggy daycare facility.
There are two things to keep in mind if you want to pursue doggy daycare. For one, it sure isn’t cheap. For another, your dog may not enjoy it if he’s not the type to get along with other dogs.
Generally, dogs who do well in doggy day care are outgoing, friendly dogs with lots of energy who don’t mind other dogs.
Your dog must be okay with you leaving him for a bit, and he must feel comfortable in a public environment. You should, however, refrain from engaging doggy daycare if your dog has a significant medical issue.
5. Hire a Dog Walker
Every dog needs a walk, and they typically need at least one per day, usually two. Many dog owners underestimate the importance of the daily walk and, as a result, we live in one of the only countries whose dogs are as obese as we are.
If your schedule often leaves you too busy to walk your dog, consider hiring a dog walker to help.
Before leaving your dog alone with the dog walker, you can set up a cursory meet-and-greet so your dog has a chance to get to know the person. You don’t want to leave your dog alone, only to have this stranger show up to your house, seemingly uninvited.
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of hiring a stranger to walk your dog, consider a friend or family member.
Is there anyone outside of your family whom your dog absolutely adores? Could that person use a few extra dollars? Then voila – you have yourself a dog walker!
Your dog will be thrilled to be getting the walks he needs, and your friend or family member will love both spending time with your dog and making some extra money on the side.
6. Consider a Dog Camera
If the biggest issue you have is leaving your dog alone for long periods, you may want to invest in a dog camera.
Depending on the brand you choose, you can do everything from allowing your dog to hear your voice to calm his nerves to even programming the camera to your phone.
Connecting your phone to the camera via an app allows you to actually, get this, give your dog a treat when you’re not even home!
That’s right – a treat will actually pop out of the device for your dog to enjoy. How crazy is that?
You can also take video of your dog with a dog camera, so if you want to help your dog become the latest internet sensation, you can always watch and edit the videos later, then upload them to your favorite social media channel.
7. Enhance His View
Does your dog enjoy watching the neighborhood goings-on?
Why not make his view more comfortable? Set up a dog bed near the window he loves most, or near the sliding glass door, so he can watch to his heart’s content in a comfortable spot – and then take a nap right where he is when he’s done!
A Final Word About Mentally Exercising Your Dogs Mind
Studies show that all living organisms are healthier when mentally stimulated — and dogs are no exception.
Highly intelligent breeds tend to need more mental stimulation than others.
Dogs who have less access to the outdoors — if you live in an apartment, for example — will particularly benefit from a structured program of mental stimulation.
If you find your dog regularly succumbs to bad habits, like chewing, chasing his tail or other obsessive compulsive disorders, one of the best ways to counter these tendencies is to increase his mental stimulation.
Doing so does require a concerted effort and a commitment of time on your part, but you may find that you will get used to the new routine in no time, and that it will no longer feel like a burden.
Your dog certainly will be much happier – and better behaved – which is a true benefit for the both of you.
Kailyn has worked as a professional freelance writer since 2012, and during that time she has written about nearly every dog breed imaginable. Her mother loved Collies, and so Kailyn grew up with three of them throughout her childhood – including a blonde one who was half-blind! Now her home belongs to her first official dog, Macho, a Dogo Argentino rescue.