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As dog parents, we want to do everything we can to give our dogs happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
When talking about this, we often think immediately about feeding a healthy, balanced diet and keeping our dogs active.
But there is one more essential element to consider – mental enrichment.
Imagine being at home all day with nothing to do. It’s no wonder that boredom can often lead to unwanted behaviors like chewing, digging, and barking!
Luckily, you can challenge your dog’s mind in many easy and cost-effective ways. Ready to try something new with your pup?
Here are ten mental enrichment ideas for dogs that you can add into your daily routine.
What is Canine Enrichment?
Before we dig into how to offer mental enrichment opportunities for your dog, we need to start with the basics.
What is canine enrichment, and why is it important?
Dog enrichment activities are those that stimulate their mind. They encourage your dog to think and problem-solve.
Some enrichment activities are a combination of physical and mental stimulation.
Others are focused specifically on exercising the mind through puzzles and mental challenges.
These activities are essential to keep your dog’s mind sharp, prevent boredom, strengthen the bond between you and your dog, and address behavioral issues by providing them with a safe outlet.
How Much Enrichment Does a Dog Need Per Day?
The amount of mental enrichment that your dog needs will depend heavily on their breed.
However, every dog requires some stimulation daily to live a happy, healthy life.
The average dog needs at least 20 minutes of mental stimulation daily and 1-2 hours of basic physical exercise.
This physical exercise need can be met with a couple of walks, games of fetch, or games of tug.
However, if you have a high-energy dog like a working breed, they will need more exercise than usual.
You should be prepared to provide at least double the recommended stimulation.
10 Ways to Introduce Mental Enrichment for Dogs
1. Rotate Their Toys
If your dog always has access to all their toys, the novelty of each toy will quickly wear off. Instead, try splitting your dog’s toys into multiple parts and rotating them.
They may have been given that new squeaky toy a month ago, but putting it aside for a few weeks could make it new and exciting all over again.
In terms of mental enrichment for dogs, this works best if you have puzzle-style toys.
By rotating the toys, your dog will have to learn how to use their toy all over again after not seeing it for an extended time.
PRO TIP: Colby likes to get different textured toys. Different textures are a great way to differential one toy from another. There’s all kinds of different plush toys, Nylabone toys, KONGs, Jolly Balls, etc.
2. Have Fun Playing with Toys Together
Even if your dog loves their toys, playing with you can elevate that excitement to a new level. Introducing yourself into the equation makes those toys much more fun.
Try engaging in a game of fetch or tug of war. Incorporate your dog’s favorite toys to make this more interesting.
Some dogs will be interested in any game that involves their toys. Others are more selective about what games they want to play.
Selecting the best engagement activities for dogs starts with identifying what encourages your dog’s participation.
GUIDE DOGS ONLY: Did you know there are 2 toys that guide dogs are not allowed to play with? Guide dogs are not allowed to play with tennis balls and frisbees. Why? Because they are commonly seen when out and about and we don’t want our guide dogs to obsess and get distracted with these common toys. The good news is guide dogs can play with virtually all other toys.
3. Challenge Their Mind with a Training Session
Are you still working with your puppy on basic obedience?
This may seem like common sense if you’re currently attending a puppy training class. But training isn’t only for new puppies!
The process of training your dog is something that should start as young puppies and continue throughout the rest of their lives.
If your pup has already mastered the basics, try introducing new tricks, teaching your dog hand signals in place of verbal commands, or introducing a sport like scentwork or agility.
Training sessions not only challenge your dog to use their brain, but they also strengthen your bond as a team.
4. Food Puzzles, Snuffle Mats, and Lick Mats
Not only are food puzzles, snuffle mats, and lick mats great for enrichment, but they are also helpful tools for slowing down fast eaters.
They work by making your dog work for their food.
Snuffle mats encourage your dog to use their nose while foraging for food or treats, while food puzzles require them to problem solve, figuring out how to access their food.
You can create your own food puzzles by wrapping treats or food in a towel, rolling it as you go and tying the roll in a knot.
Another easy DIY solution is to place several smaller cardboard boxes and tubes inside a larger box and spread their food out among it all.
Lick mats are a bit different. They are grooved mats with several different textures
available that you can use with spreadable treats. Your dog then licks the treat or food off the mat.
Licking the mat releases endorphins, which can help calm your dog and reduce stress.
This makes them a great choice if you have a dog that is nervous in certain situations, like during a social gathering, in the vehicle, or during a thunderstorm.
5. Stuff and Freeze Toys
Another fun food-related option is to use a treat toy like the traditional KONG or West Paw Toppl. These are durable rubber toys you can fill with food and treats.
Like the food puzzles, these mental enrichment toys will encourage your dog to use their minds to figure out how to get all the food out.
Some food stuffer toys are more challenging than others by offering a smaller hole to access the food or multiple access points for different parts of the toy.
If you have a dog that finds these toys too easy, like our boys, you can freeze them for an added challenge.
Frozen Toppls are my go-to to keep the dogs busy while working from home!
6. Plan a Scavenger Hunt Around the House
Incorporating mental enrichment into your dog’s routine doesn’t have to be expensive. You can plan many excellent DIY dog enrichment activities without spending anything!
One option is to plan a scavenger hunt around your house. Take your dog’s food or favorite treats and hide them in different areas around the home.
The first time you introduce your dog to the activity, hide the treats in more obvious places they can find relatively easily.
As they learn how the game works, you can adjust your hiding places based on your dog’s skill level at seeking and foraging.
If you have a dog that is exceptionally skilled at using its nose to seek out rewards, try adding some extra challenges, like placing the treat inside an empty cardboard box.
7. Build a Busy Box
Another of my favorite DIY dog enrichment ideas is building a busy box.
For this, you will need a large cardboard box or laundry basket and various items to create obstacles.
Some items you may want to use for your busy box include:
- Smaller boxes
- Cardboard paper towel rolls
Towels or rags– Colby doesn’t recommend towels and rags for a busy box. Your dog may start to associate these items with kibble and treats and therefore start hunting through clean clothes and blankets that you don’t want your dog messing with.
- Your dog’s toys
- Egg cartons
- Scrunched up newspaper
Place all these obstacles into the larger box or basket, incorporating kibble or treats.
These food rewards can be tucked into items like tied towels or egg cartons or allowed to fall loose around the toys.
Your dog will be busy looking in and around all these items, seeking their tasty rewards. They will need to use their nose and their problem-solving skills to locate everything.
8. Play a Game of Hide and Seek
Playing with your dog is important, starting from a young age and continuing throughout their lives. One game I encourage all dog parents to play is hide and seek.
In addition to offering mental stimulation for dogs, this is also an opportunity to build a bond with your dog and incorporate training.
Place your dog in a sit/stay and then go to another room or a location out of eyesight.
Hide, then call your dog to come and find you. When they locate you, praise and reward them before doing it again.
If your dog isn’t confident yet in their sit/stay, get someone else to help with this portion by keeping them in one place until you are hidden.
This teaches and reinforces the sit/stay when you are out of view and offers mental enrichment in searching for and finding you.
Plus, it’s always fun to see how excited your dog is to find their person.
9. Embrace the Dog TV
Are you looking for solutions to offer mental stimulation for dogs home alone? If so, one option is to embrace the idea of dog television.
I’m not talking about a television channel or videos on YouTube (although they are both available).
By dog television, I’m referring to the many exciting views they can enjoy just by looking out the window.
From people passing by to the local wildlife, window watching is a great form of mental enrichment for dogs.
Identify a window your dog would find particularly interesting and set up a comfortable place to relax and enjoy the view.
But be sure that the window is secure to keep your pup safe.
PRO TIP: Allowing your dog to take in the view through a window is perfectly fine for some dogs but can cause some issues with other dogs. For instance, your dog may like waiting for the mailman to stop by at which point your dog starts to bark. As soon as the mailman leaves your dog stops barking. This barking behavior may be something your don’t want your mailman to reinforce. Therefore the view out the window may not be the best “mental enrichment idea” for your dog.
10. Take Your Dog on a “Sniffari”
You can also turn your dog’s regular walk into a mental enrichment activity by allowing them to “be a dog” while you’re out and about.
What am I referring to?
Rather than focusing your entire walk on having your dog walking perfectly heeled by your side, give them a chance to sniff and explore.
If possible, take your dog to a place where they can explore off-leash or on a long line to give them more freedom.
Going back to the beginning, mental enrichment is so important for your dogs. Dare I say even more important than physical stimulation? It’s arguable.
Hopefully, you can use some/one of these mental enrichment ideas for your dog to help to help keep him entertained and mentally healthy.