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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Mental Stimulation for Dogs

by Lisa Lafferty

Most dogs don't get enough mental stimulation to be satisfied and happy.  Behavior problems are nearly always the result.  Please read the article "Top 5 Reasons You Are Having Dog Troubles"

Mental stimulation is NOT the same thing as physical stimulation.  Many websites, books and dog trainers preach the religion of "a tired dog is a good dog."  I do not accept this as the truth, and as a matter of fact I feel that this is possibly a dangerous assumption.  Dogs that are heavily physically exercised but do not have adequate outlets for mental stimulation suffer from an imbalance...an imbalance that can potentially create larger behavior problems.

For example...you take your dog jogging 5 miles every day.  His physical exercise needs are met, and met well.  But you don't give him any mental stimulation, and he's bored.  Now you have created a marathon athlete who is BORED and looking for stuff to do to meet his mental needs.  He certainly has the stamina to find bad stuff to do now, since he's so amazingly physically fit!  This means he'll be able to chew up 20 shoes instead of just one!

Think about it in a human perspective.  I will use myself as an example...I love to read books, watch movies, write, surf the Internet, shop on Ebay, paint, talk to my friends, have a few drinks now and then around the fire, etc.  Do you think that I could replace the satisfaction that I get from these activites with physical stimulation?  Heck no.  Try telling me to run on the treadmill instead of watching a good movie!  The two don't even compare. 

If you took all of the activities I listed above and removed them from my life, isolated me with nothing to do except eat, sleep, and run on the treadmill...I would not be happy, and I would slowly go insane.  We do this to dogs all the time, and they slowly go insane as a result.  When they start to go insane, their behavior bothers us.  We need to offer mental stimulation to have a "good dog."  If we don't offer it, they will try to get it themselves (and this is where the shoe-chewing, wallpaper stripping, excessive excitability, obsessive/compulsive behaviors start to show up and bother the heck out of us).

You do not need to take hours out of your day to provide adequate amounts of mental stimulation.  If you begin to provide more mental stimulation, you will probably notice that your dog is more settled, less restless, less hyperactive, less attention-seeking, and guess what?  He won't need massive amounts of physical exercise just to make him tolerable to be around.  Balance is key!!!  Some of the items below even allow you to kill two birds with one stone (mental stimulation and physical exercise together).  ALL of the items below increase your interaction with your dog, as well, and that is always positive.  All of the items below increase your control and training of the dog, too.

Dog Comes Along:  Take your dog with you when you go places.  Need to return movies?  Take the dog along if the weather permits you to safely leave him in the car for 5 minutes.  Return your moves, then get the dog out for 5 minutes and walk him around the parking lot.  Every outing you can allow your dog to enjoy is mental stimulation, even if it's just for 5 minutes!  Need to go to the ATM at night?  Take the dog along and have him do a sit-stay in the room while you get your money.  Checking your mail?  Take the dog along, and do some trick practice outside the post office.  You can add immense amounts of mental stimulation just by allowing the dog to accompany you wherever you go.  Even if you don't take him out of the car, the trip itself is fun and exciting and offers all kinds of new sights, sounds, smells, and experiences.  Plus he gets to be with you.  Simply starting to include the dog in your life on an everyday basis outside of the home environment, folks, will make a HUGE difference.

FEEDING ROUTINE:  Get your dog on a twice-a-day feeding routine IMMEDIATELY.  Dogs are pre-programmed to work very hard and be very excited about food.  If your dog has a food bowl on the floor that he picks at all day, this is BORING.  See article Feeding Routine for how to switch your dog from free-choice to twice a day.

KONGS as meal replacements.  Please note:  If your dog is not on a proper feeding routine, you cannot use this as mental entertainment.  Your dog will not work hard to get the food out.  He will lick at it a few times and leave it.  If he is on a proper feeding routine, he will work VERY hard to de-stuff the KONG and it is the same as a difficult crossword puzzle or a math problem...after he's done, he will shake himself, lie down, and probably sleep.  This is high-level mental entertainment!  Even a very young puppy can easily dissect the beginner-level KONG described below.

Dogs initially try to de-stuff KONGS by simply licking at them and following them as they are pushed by the licking.  As time goes by, however, you will see your dog learning extremely creative and effective ways to de-stuff.  Some dogs jam them into a certain corner of the kitchen, or learn how to fix them in place with their paws to dissect. Many dogs actually learn to drop them down stairwells and then clean up the stuff that falls out, or climb onto furniture and drop them to the floor! 

Because some of the items in a KONG can be messy, please offer the KONG somewhere that you do not mind wiping up if necessary.  You can offer KONGS in a crate if you wish.

  • Buy at least two Kongs that are the largest size that your dog can pick up.  For most dogs above 15 pounds, the size LARGE is what you will want (about the size of a large fist).  Black is the strongest KONG, red is the next strongest, and most other non-brand-name KONG type toys are crap and your dog will be able to rip them to pieces easily.  They cost less but it's not worth it.

  • Offer KONGS as meal replacements as often as possible. 

  • Stuff KONGS creatively and offer as meal replacements as often as possible.  NOTE:  KONGS are dishwasher-safe.  Other brands of similar toys may not be.

    Click here for instructions on how to creatively stuff KONG toys!

Kibble Hunting:  Do you have a fenced backyard or a grassy area where you can be sure the dog will not ingest pesticides or fertilizers?  If so, measure out your dog's kibble in a bowl and go outdoors with him.  Throw the kibble into the grassy area, making sure to spread it as far as possible.  Sit down in a lawn chair and read a good book while your dog roots around to find each kibble.

Crate/Bed Surprise:  If your dog can be relied on not to chew towels, this is a fun method that not only allows the dog to have fun hunting his food, but also can be used to get a dog happier being in a crate. 

Take dog out of the room and place 5 large bath towels in messy layers in his crate or on his bed.  Within the messy layers, hide his kibbles and a few tasty (but dry or semi-soft) treats.  Bring dog back into room and allow him to discover the treasure trove on his own (don't point him at it, that's too easy!), and watch as he systematically paws through the bath towels to find every last morsel.

Rotate toys and chew items:  Rather than leave your dog's whole collection out for him to peruse, stimulate his instinct to like novelty by putting down 3-5 different toys each day, and keep the rest up.  Simply rotate the toys on a daily basis and your dog's interest will be peaked when he gets his "new" toys each day.

Butcher Bones--Uncooked beef shank bones cut to the size your dog can handle are wonderful.  Simply ask the butcher to cut you some dog bones, tell him how long you want them, and you will get 4-5 bones in a package usually for less than 3 dollars.  At first they will get all the marrow out, and after the bones are clean you can stuff them just like KONGS.  Note:  never give cooked bones of any kind to your dog.  Cooking breaks down the bones, causing them to easily splinter and the dog is basically eating sharp shards of bone that can wreak havoc in their gut.  Only uncooked bones for dogs!

Rawhide:  Rawhide is a favorite of most dogs and can be used to provide mental entertainment.  HOWEVER, care should be taken to supervise the dog when chewing on rawhide, and only a certain kind of rawhide should be offered.  If you offer the wrong kind of rawhide, it presents a very significant danger to your dog.

  • Pressed rawhide ONLY

  • Buy the largest bones your dog can possibly pick up.  DO NOT buy rawhide, pressed or otherwise, that the dog can fit well into their mouth.  This includes chips, sticks, and other widely available rawhide products.

  • I repeat, do not leave your dog unattended with rawhide products, no matter what the type.

Nylabones:  This line of products offers safe, interesting chew toys that last a long time.  There are three basic kinds:  a rubbery soft type, a hard nylon chew type, and types that the dog can chew through quickly/eat.  I would advise to focus on the rubbery type and the hard type, and don't waste your money on the type they can eat.  My dog's Nylabones are years old and are cherished chew items for every dog I've had.

Clicker Training:  Training your dog to offer behaviors using clicker training is a superb way to offer mental stimulation without worries.  A 5-minute clicker session is a "brain drain" for a properly prepared dog.  You don't even have to have a goal in your training!  Who cares if you never go anywhere with what the dog is doing?  I do this often with my own dogs.  It is their absolute favorite activity...they will leave a delicious KONG to work for the click.  They will tear down doors if they hear me working with another dog!  Click here for how to clicker train your dog.

Teaching Tricks/Obedience:  Teach dog a number of silly tricks and functional obedience behaviors like sit/down/stay/stand and then ask the dog to do them throughout the day when they want something like petting, going outside, leash walks, ball games etc.  Teach a variety so that you can ask for different things, always keeping the dog guessing what's next. 

Taking Classes:  If you can manage to take an obedience, agility, flyball, frisbee, barn hunt, formal retriever training, stockdog, lure coursing, Rally-O, or any other type of regular training class, do it!  Even if you don't need to "learn" anything, your dog will get MASSIVE amounts of mental stimulation from the activity.

When it comes to taking a class, try to pick a class that uses your dog's breed-specific instinct.  To a dog, there is nothing more fun that performing the activity for which it was bred.  You have not seen happiness until you have seen a terrier actively hunting.

Doggie Buddies:  Find a friend who has a nice dog, and arrange for a 30-60 minute play date once a week.  Try to go for a free run/woods-walk with the playmate so that the dogs can sniff out bugs and mice and read the pee-mail and leave some of their own.

Retrieval games:  If your dog likes to play ball or frisbee, add a "mental component" to it by asking the dog for a different obedience behavior or trick before each throw.  Then, throw the item creatively...sideways, out front, backwards, straight up in the air, long, short...keep the dog guessing.  A good enriched retrieval session of 5-10 minutes can leave the dog mentally satisfied and physically exercised (and plus, you don't even have to walk...I'm lazy, can you tell?)  You can do retrieval games with dogs that do not have a good recall by using a long line/Flexi lead, or by going to a ball diamond or tennis court.  Click here to go see the Dog Games website for more ideas.  For extra exercise, get a Chuckit and really fling that ball!

Busy walks:  Take your dog to a busy area and hang out for 15 minutes.  The Wal-Mart parking lot, a softball game, a town fair, any outdoor event is super.  If you live in an area where there is a large pet store that allows dogs to enter, that's great too (but please boycott any pet stores that sell puppies!).  The sights, smells, and interaction with people are all new and interesting items for the dog to take in.  Just go somewhere, sit down, and hang out.  If your dog is anxious in environments such as this, please start remedial socialization and use less challenging environments at first.

Hiding from your dog:  While free running your dog, find opportunities to duck out of sight and let your dog use his nose to find you.  Not only will you be allowing the dog to use his favorite sense,  the sense of smell, you will get a dog that keeps a sharp eye on you on walks. 


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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas