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.)

 

 

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Cali’s Quiet Competence

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I was in charge of puppy lunch the other day.

Puppy lunch is Deni and Koala’s name for the midday treat ball break that Koala has trained Deni to give her. The time keeps moving up; it would be more aptly named Puppy brunch, since Koala starts asking for it around 10 am, but that is a different story. Deni and I call it PL, as if Koala, and now Cali, won’t know what we’re talking about. Right.

But I digress.

Koala gets about a quarter-cup of kibble in her large orange treat ball. Cali now gets a smaller amount of kibble in a smaller yellow treat ball. Before anyone howls about unfairness, keep in mind that most dogs stop getting puppy lunch at about 4 months of age. Koala is over 4 years old and Cali is 6. Neither needs puppy lunch, but Koala has everyone convinced that she must eat multiple small meals a day to survive.

Also, Cali doesn’t seem to care. When I gave her a larger treat ball, she lost interest in it well before it was empty. Her lack of fanatical, desperate obsession with food is the least golden-ey thing about her.

They get PL in the downstairs TV / dog play area.

I’ve written in the past about how good Koala is at avoiding obstacles and keeping her treat ball from rolling under things. This large open area is easy for her. She rolls and chases the ball the full length and width of the room, vacuuming up the kibble as it falls out.

Cali has a different strategy. She takes her ball to the dog bed that is in a corner. It’s got walls on two sides and the sofa on the third. She stands in the open end, and gently bats her ball around the small, contained space. It can’t roll under the sofa because the dog bed blocks the bottom opening. This gives her a very easy way to keep track of the ball, get all of the kibble, and stay out of Koala’s zooming, looping path.

This simple strategy shows Cali’s characteristic calm, almost offhand, intelligence. She figures things out and makes the world work for her, in a quiet, unassuming way. She’s fine letting Koala’s exuberance claim the spotlight, and she doesn’t seem to mind that Koala’s treat ball fun lasts a bit longer.

It’s similar when the girls are picking up their toys (which does not happen often enough). Koala leaps and runs and bounces around, flinging toys toward the basket. One occasionally lands inside; others land nearby. She’ll toss the same toy at the basket 3 or 4 times, growing increasingly agitated — at the lack of praise and cookies from Deni. Cali, meanwhile, slowly gets a toy and thrusts it into my hand. (She and I have not worked much on putting things into the basket, for which I take full responsibility.)

Cali’s not always quiet and calm; she’s true to her golden heritage when visitors come or we meet a human, any human, walking down the street. She’s as wriggly and excited to meet a new friend as to greet an old friend. But I really do enjoy her thoughtful approach to problem solving.