How do I provide mental stimulation for my dog?

Cali sleeps on her dog bed, cradling a tennis ball with her paws.
A tired dog is a good dog.

Trainers are great at telling dog owners that their dogs’ “bad” behavior is due to boredom. The trainers might not always be as clear about what those dog owners should do about it.

Many people who have dogs also have jobs. Jobs that actually require them to show up someplace other than their home and work on things other than entertaining the dog. Unreasonable, right? So says Cali.

Fortunately for all of these dogs, a multibillion-dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of convincing us humans to fork over lots of money to purchase toys to entertain our dogs. Toys aren’t the only way to offer mental stimulation to a bored stay-at-home dog. Here are some ideas:

  • Long daily walks — This one is good for both of you! Let the dog sniff to her heart’s content. This could mean the walk takes a long time without covering much ground, but allowing for a smell walk every day — or dedicating part of an exercise walk to smell — will offer your dog more mental stimulation and make the walk much more fun.
  • Doggy daycare or hiking groups — Once or twice a week is enough for many dogs. Being with other dogs offers stimulation. Walking and sniffing in new places also does. Several hours of that can tire even the most indefatigable adolescent.
  • A class — You do have to be present for this one, but a rigorous class can provide mental and physical challenges that burn off some of that excess energy. Look for agility, Rally, nose work, basic manners, even prep for social therapy dog certification. Again, being around other dogs, even if they don’t really interact, is stimulating, as is learning new things. And you can practice for a few minutes each evening, giving you great bonding time with your dog and, you guessed it, challenging him and tiring him out. (Sense a theme here?)
  • Play games based on what you learned in that class — after doing nose work classes with both Jana and Cali, I played hide and seek games where I hid their “bait box,” the scent we used in class, and let them search. It takes only about 10 minutes to do 3-4 searches, and the dogs loved it.
  • Home-schooling — A trainer friend recommends books by Kyra Sundance for simple instructions on teaching your dog fun and easy tricks. It’s great for your relationship (unless you lose your patience …). Offer lots of treats, keep it fun, and keep sessions to about 5 minutes.
  • Treat toys — Last but certainly not least, treat toys are a staple. There’s a huge variety on the market. Some are interactive, which means you have to actually play with the dog … but many can be left with the dog when you go to work. Kongs are the most familiar, and there are literally thousands of “recipes” for stuffing Kongs if you Google it. Try several types and see what your dog likes. Experiment to find stuffings that the dog likes enough that she’ll keep working at the toy until it’s empty, but that she can’t lick clean in 5 minutes or less. Each dog is different: Jana could clean a Kong in seconds flat, but Cali loses interest when it’s still half full.
    A caveat: If you see that the dog is able to easily damage the toy, throw the toy away. You want durable toys that your dog loves but won’t destroy. Leave two or three with the dog when you head out to work in the morning. Hide them to make it even more challenging. If your dog loves treat toys, buy a bunch and rotate them. Keep it interesting. One friend who had two black Labs kept a large bin in her freezer filled with stuffed Kongs and other toys so she always had a supply ready. Inspect them every so often and toss the ones that are cracking, have chunks bitten out, or otherwise seem unsafe.
  • Safe chew toys — Identify safe chew toys and let the dog have access to these all the time. Consumables like rawhide are not safe and the dog should not have those when you are not around to supervise. I use antlers, but I know that there are many opinions on what is safe, ethical, etc. so you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.

Offering mental stimulation pays off; even if you do the stimulating activities in the evening after work, the dog will be less bored overall. This should result in less destructive behavior. If your dog is young, particularly those 6 months to about 2 or 3 years old, there is no amount of stimulation or exercise that will truly tire him out. But the more acceptable options you offer, the less time the dog will spend destroying your home, shoes, and clothing. (Also: Young, untrustworthy dogs should not have the run of the house when you are not there. But that is a whole separate discussion.)

 

 

Is Your Pooch a Couch Potato?

No couch potatoes here!

I remember coming home one evening long ago to find not only my dog, Timo, on the sofa watching TV but Buddy and Daisy, my mom’s two dogs, up there as well. Even better — whoever had pawed the remote to turn on the TV had somehow hit the right button to bring up Animal Planet — a favorite of the humans in the household as well.

The people at DogTV think those three were onto something. Developed in Israel (where the three dogs described above lived), this first cable channel directed at dogs, rather than just being about them, says it offers “the right company” for dogs who are home alone. Or, presumably, those having a dogs’ night in with their buddies.

DogTV’s website promises that, with its 24-hour-a-day programming, our furry friends “should never again feel alone.” According to the website, the content was developed to meet specific attributes of canine vision and it “supports their natural behavior patterns.”

Since most dogs who are left home all day while their humans are at work or school snooze the hours away on the sofa, I suppose it is not a huge leap to claim that providing TV for them does support that natural behavior pattern …

Setting my skepticism aside and remembering how Timo, Buddy, and Daisy enjoyed their Animal Planet viewing, I decided to test out the sample content on Jana. The results of my statistically insignificant survey (sample size of one) are not terribly promising. Jana does not appear to aspire to couch potato-hood; she watched the “Stimulation” sample for about 3 seconds before her eyes and attention wandered. She ignored the “Relaxation” sample completely.

And it’s not that she’s simply more of an intellectual. Jana’s most strident reaction — indignant, vocal rejection — came in response to the “Exposure” sample, essentially doggy PBS. Described by DogTV as “using the most advanced veterinary science, special sounds and visuals help comfort and habituate dogs by exposing them to different day-to-day stimuli,” the sample on the website features a person telling her dog to sit as she answers the door (this made-for-TV dog is not only willing to sit, he doesn’t even bark at the doorbell or the guy at the door), people and traffic on a busy street, a baby in a car with a siren audible outside the car, small children playing. Jana, of course, barked at all of these as she turned tail and flounced away.

Tuning in a dog-centered channel when you leave your furry friends at home might do little more than make you feel better. A young, healthy dog would  much prefer a game of Frisbee or a run in a park to watching some other dog on TV have all the fun. And even an older or less energetic dog would prefer to get out and sniff the grass herself. And any dog would rather spend quality time with her humans than sit around on the sofa — TV or no TV.

On the other hand, dogs have been shown to be more relaxed in kennels and shelters if there is background music playing. The only problem is getting them all to agree on a radio station!