Is your dog anxious or bored? In this article Dr. May discusses mental dog enrichment ideas to stimulate your dog’s active marvelous mind.
Dogs of all ages and breeds have physical exercise needs, and almost everyone understands that these days. But where most dog owners trip up and fall down tends to be in providing for the mental engagement and exercise that dogs of all ages and breeds also need. This is necessary in addition to meeting their physical exercise needs!
Why Is Dog Enrichment Needed?
When you ask a dog to give up the traditional ‘job’ that they were bred and raised for over long spans of time to be your stay at home companions, then YOU are now responsible for providing for both mental AND physical exercise needs. Dogs are intelligent social beings. Obtaining a dog with the intention that it remain trapped inside a house or a small fenced yard with nothing to occupy them for hours and hours at a time is not a realistic expectation. Such an expectation certainly does not take THEIR needs to heart. You are responsible for providing the dog enrichment opportunities.
A vast majority of all ‘problem’ behaviors are actually perfectly natural behaviors that are simply not desirable in a indoor canine companion. Of those problem behaviors, most could be avoided by making sure that your beloved dog is not bored out of their mind. When you ask for their world to be much smaller and more focused, then YOU have a responsibility to provide that dog enrichment in their environment so that they can exercise their bright mind muscles every day. Smart dogs left to their own devices will often think up things to occupy their fabulous minds, and unfortunately, most of those things are not desirable to their owners = digging, barking, chewing, licking, shredding, attention seeking, etc.
Now a quick blurb on anxiety. In my experience, most dogs that exhibit significant anxiety driven behaviors fall into the above average intelligence category. Most dogs are purely living in the present, and remain focused on the here and the now. What is happening right around in this moment in their life tends to be where their focus remains.
Some dogs are a touch more capable of a level of forward thinking than average. They puzzle things out for themselves. They work out how to do things or arrange things to get the desired outcome, on their own. Those dogs are so much fun to watch when fully mentally engaged in their ‘jobs’. But those dogs often, if left alone, unoccupied and forced to spend vast swathes of their time lacking mental occupation begin to engage in various anxiety laden mental trips. Lack of proper dog enrichment is a common theme in the start of many problem behaviors, anxieties and even some compulsive disorders.
Mental engagement and exercise is a vital part of the treatment plan for most any behavior issue. When you recognize separation anxiety early and provide way more mental dog enrichment to those bright agile minds, then you invariable see a major decrease in their anxiety manifestations. More mental engagement and mental exercise means less mental energy buzzing around in their heads with which to fixate, fret and worry.
Check out our post on Early Separation Anxiety in Dogs for more information.
The Argument for Mental Dog Enrichment
Again physical exercise is great. But everyone understands physical exercise well enough that it seldom needs explanation. The purpose of this article is to discuss mental dog enrichment, and help owners understand to how to provide the mental engagement their dogs need so desperately to live their best lives.
You can take a dog for a 5 mile run every day, but after awhile that dog is fit and conditioned for that run. At that point, the dog will come back inside, lay down, rest for 20 minutes … and be immediately ready to go for another 5 miles. You can take that same dog and engage in 30-45 minutes of some sort of activity that requires them to think and work their beautiful brain, and then bring them home and watch them nap out soundly for the entire afternoon, every time. THAT is why mental engagement and dog enrichment is very important on its own. Mental work outs are great in entirely different ways from aerobic activities.
Some activities are fun and therefore certainly enriching, but they are not all that ‘brain occupying’ because they do not require full mental engagement. So, for instance, tug of war is fun, physically exercising and aerobic….but did they have to ‘think’ hard while doing it? No. Running after a ball to fetch over and over – it is sure fun for many retrievers, and great aerobic exercise… but did they have to think hard to do it? No.
Furthermore, the common refrain, “But but but, he/she has access to my backyard!”, does not really count as dog enrichment. A small backyard devoid of interesting things to interact with is … BORING. The same small fenced area day in and day out is not interesting. It takes most dogs in the average size yard all of 10-15 minutes at most to process all the new and interesting smells or items that were different from yesterday. That is it. Very little active mind engagement, especially if left alone out there for hours and hours. Boring!
Take your dog and spend very intent time working or playing with them in a one on one interactive fashion that requires them to think and work their marvelous mind muscles. If some sort of new ‘unwanted’ behavior is beginning, then commit to spending at least 30 to 45 mins for 5 days a week in such activities with your dog for the next 5-6 weeks. Make a plan to up the dog enrichment activities available for a defined period of time. This helps by breaking up their current mental/physical routine (and thus interrupting newly forming ‘unwanted’ or excessive habits). This span of time also paves the way to establishing new healthier mental routines and things for them to focus on. Plus this new dog enrichment plan provides for them to have defined time with their people, and dogs are very social creatures by nature!
Too many times all the dog enrichment activities chosen and presented to these bright boys and girls are totally fun for sure, and thus enriching, but not actually ‘mentally challenging’. THAT is what anxious, energetic brilliant little minds need to help settle them down. They need a consistent mental challenge and opportunity to work out their brains.
Read over this info with the idea of understanding ‘WHY” this or that is mentally engaging and “HOW” to make simple things more mentally engaging. I think you will find it helps increase your dog’s enjoyment of life in general and decrease anxiety based behaviors significantly IF you can actually figure out what engages your individual dog and start expanding their dog enrichment plan!
Engaging Beautiful Minds (Mental Dog Enrichment)
What sort of things should occupy this mental engagement effort time? Make a mix of the below suggestions. Variety is the spice of life. Chew and lick toys are great, but not if they are all there is to do and focus on. There is only so much licking and chewing that one can do in the day before getting bored. Licking and chewing are valuable tools but should not be the sole focus of helping an anxious animal, they should be part of a bigger mental engagement plan.
You can always start with work on basic obedience stuff (sit, down, stay, leave it, place, settle, walking on a loose leash heel). Go sign up for a basic obedience class to help commit to a routine (or if you simply need the guidance). You can certainly work on obedience for free on your own in your house and yard without a class. There are zillions of videos on how to do anything you wish to work on. Use the internet for good to help you flesh out your dog enrichment plan!
When you practice, do so in varying routines and patterns. Do not ask the same exact commands, in exactly the same routine, every single time because that is BORING. Change things up often, the goal is to make them think and have to focus on you and pay close attention to decipher what ask is coming from you next. Do not make it easy for them to anticipate what happens next. Constant rote drilling is easy to anticipate and BORING. For this purpose, we want to use the obedience work to engage their thinking mind and add some interesting fun mental workout to their day.
You can also start asking them to do obedience work periodically out of the blue in the house. For instance, if they already ‘sit’ like a champ but are slow to ‘down’ then ask for a ‘down’ more frequently here and there in the house. For example, if you are going to the bathroom and they follow you, well great, then make them sit or down or place. Just make odd requests at odd times that are out of the ordinary. This serves a lovely dual purpose of strengthening basic obedience work AND mental engagement.
Are they great at home but prone to distraction elsewhere? Then find a safe place to go and practice. Working on the same commands in a brand new place is mentally taxing for the average dog. So use that to dual advantage once more – strengthen their obedience work in new places and work their brains!
Other Dog Enrichment Activities
What other activities can you work on in that 30-45 minute frame that are mentally engaging aside from obedience? Plenty.
Figure out what THEY like to do (this is all about THEM, not you!) and do more of what that proves to be.
- Teach them tricks (the internet is your friend here). There are many good videos on teaching tricks and showing you how to shape behaviors into tricks. In fact, the AKC even offers Trick Competition titles these days and their website has several trick dog training videos.
- Teach them some agility stuff or join an agility class. You need not go out for the whole enchilada of competition either. There are many training videos and cheap instructions on making mini agility obstacles in your own back yard.
- Check out Rally stuff, or Treibbal. Again you can do your own thing in a small area with the help of the internet. Or join a nearby class if you can find one in your area.
- Teach them to play frisbee or catch. Please use a dog specific frisbee, the cheap plastic ones shred and can hurt a dog’s mouth.
- Play with your dog using a Flirt pole.
- Teach them to fetch hidden objects high and low.
- Nose games!! These range from puzzle toys, to snuffle mats, to scent games to full on nose work training. Teach them to find a series of hidden treats outside or inside. Look up ‘nose games’ or ‘nose work’ for dogs or ‘scent training’ activities.
- Digging (if they like that) – Make a dog sandbox and hide stuff in it for them to find!
- Type “Dog Enrichment Ideas” into Google or your main Facebook search bar and find tons of groups that talk about dog enrichment ideas for your pup!
Take them for a dog ‘scent walk’, not a human walk/run, and not a pure exercise run. A scent walk allows your DOG to decide where to go (within reason and safety) and how fast or slow to go, and where they want to go, and what they want to smell, and how long they want to spend smelling new things. This can all be done on a long leash or off leash depending on safety and availability in your area.
We often forget that dogs are creatures of scent. Walking along in a field and smelling a zillion new scents as well as every creature that walked or crawled by is like reading the best most engaging book to a dog. Or, if your dog is an extrovert, it is like having a marvelous conversation with twenty different people at a party. They see the world and get a beautiful boat load of information from all those scents. A scent walk is great addition to a dog enrichment plan, occasionally or more routinely if the opportunity exists in your area.
What if you do not have access to any public areas nearby that are safe for a nice scent walk? In that case try taking a look at Sniffspot. They have listings in most places in the USA that are safe private areas available to rent near you. Private places offer fun times for your dog with a mental decompression and engagement that cannot be achieved in an aggressive/reactive/hyper-aroused free for all in a dog park!
Feeding time engagement
Passive (for you) mental engagement (for them) can be accomplished for many dogs at mealtimes. Using feeding time as an addition to your dog enrichment plan is an easy way to add 15 minutes of mental effort to their day in a totally passive manner for you. This does not have to be an expensive involved feeding puzzle (though they are perfectly fine to use).
Some really intelligent dogs lose interest in those involved puzzle toys once they figure them out. More than one works out how to just bust them or flip them on their end and dump out the food. You have to love the smart ones. Some of them will absolutely stay focused on getting food from a simple interactive dispenser. I like a Kong Wobbler, but there are numerous simple active indirect kibble feeder toys that drop kibble as the dog bats them around the room. Even the smart dogs will usually happily chase them around until their meal is done.
An even lower cost option can be to take the food and pitch it around in the yard, so they have to run around and find the pieces of kibble, or try burying the meal kibble in a snuffle mat. Be aware with any older pets whether they are still able to comfortably lean down to get food off the floor (especially if they have neck or front leg arthritis issues). You can also encourage mental muscle exercise and play by hiding parts of their daily food portion in different rooms inside or places (under boxes, etc). Then you get to make a big happy deal of it when they find the treats.
Dog Enrichment When You Are Away
Think of things to keep them interested and occupied while you are away or simply unable to devote much attention their way. This is when lick and chew toys shine. Licking and chewing are self-soothing activities for most dogs. So provide them something to lick or chew for an hour or two in your absence/inattentive period. Always be mindful of their calorie intake for the day calories and adjust food portions accordingly when adding treat toys to your dog enrichment plan.
When you are going to leave or need to concentrate on other things – prepare some long-term treats to keep them occupied initially. Stuff a large Kong toy with peanut butter and freeze it, freeze a treat lick mat, or provide a bully stick with one end shoved in a Kong to hold the last piece (so they do not swallow it whole).
Going to leave or be inattentive for a while? Then leave on the TV or radio on a nice calm channel line up where people talk a lot in a normal tone of voice. Finally a great use for eternally sappy Hallmark channel 😉. What you want to aim for is a nice bunch of calm normal ebb and flow of human chatting in the background. No wild noisy westerns and car crashes and screaming.
Many times after discussing this topic, people will announce, “But I do all that already!” Well awesome if you do! But if you are having problems with different unwanted behaviors then chances are you and the dog are in a rut and you need to try out some brand new activities in the dog enrichment plan at least for awhile. Maybe you need to change up your routines in the old activities enough to make them new! If things are truly already in place and not helping, then think harder and see if you can improve the dog enrichment plan in ways that you have not considered or tried recently.
Try out some ideas and activities and pick some with you, and some more passive choices without you. Mainly try and choose the stuff that was of interest to your dog AND that are mentally engaging and not just fun aerobic exercise. These things will assist you in helping your dog develop new routines that are not run by excess mental energy and reactions.
When dealing with anxiety fueled behaviors, if you get proactive with your mental engagement and redirection early in the process then you will see a more significant success from the dog enrichment activities on their own. If you combine the dog enrichment and mental engagement efforts with a comprehensive treatment approach to anxiety then the dogs will settle down much more quickly and completely. Even if your dog is just constantly over amped with energy, then chances are you may be providing plenty of physical exercise but they are actually lacking in mental muscle exercise!
For more dog enrichment ideas, check out our post to come soon on The best toys for bored dogs.
Hope this helps! – Dr. May