Mental Stimulation for Your Dog

A lot of owners give careful thought to their dogs’ diet and health care, as well they should. Unfortunately, these same caring owners often forget, or don’t know about, the all-important issue of their dog’s mental well-being. While a well-furnished house with all modern conveniences will provide the human occupants with comfort and entertainment, the same environment will not necessarily fulfill a dog’s basic needs. Dogs don’t care about plush carpets, fine furnishings, and human-oriented entertainment systems. They have their own ideas about what is fun and appealing, and their agendas must be addressed if their lives are to be interesting and fulfilling.

Perhaps the worst crime is to own a dog and spend hardly any time with him at all. If both “parents” work and the dog spends all day alone, the stage is set for boredom, destructive behavior, house soiling, and compulsive behaviors. A similarly unsuitable environment is one in which dogs spend hours per day crated or tied on a lead or runner, whether the dog’s owners are around or not. Such a dog will be lacking social interactions with people, as well as the freedom to behave normally. In essence, dogs confined in this way become prisoners in their own home and, as a result, many of them suffer and “misbehave.”

Various levels of environmental deprivation occur when dogs are inadequately exercised, spend too long indoors, do not have novel feeding opportunities, do not receive adequate one-on-one attention, do not have user-friendly toys, or do not have an opportunity to engage in species-typical behaviors.

The Importance of Exercise

The opportunity to get adequate exercise is arguably one of the most important aspects of environmental enrichment. Exercise is not only fun but it also generates mental dividends that last daylong. Most people think they are doing the right thing for their dog if they take him for a mile walk every day, or turn him out in the back yard to sniff around when nature calls, but that’s merely scratching the surface. Twenty to 30 minutes of aerobic (running) exercise is minimal for a healthy dog. This can be provided by throwing a tennis ball or a Frisbee for the dog to catch, or by taking him for a jog or an off-lead hike over open terrain. Even this level of exercise may not be enough for some young, highly energetic, athletic dogs. As long as a dog is physically capable, the more exercise he gets the better. Remember, a tired dog is a good dog! Exercise generates mood-stabilizing serotonin within the brain producing a feeling of well-being and mental stability.

Social Opportunities

It is better to have two (or more) dogs than one, as long as they get along together. This is especially true if your own lifestyle is not conducive to your providing your dog with company on a fairly consistent basis. Getting a dog for your dog may not, in that last instance, help resolve separation anxiety – but canine company, as a permanent feature of dog’s life from an early age, will help stave off problems of this nature. In the old days, dogs usually had human company throughout the day. This is not so today and separation anxiety is rife, affecting some 15 percent of the 58 million dogs in the United States. Dogs are social animals and, as such, need company. Leaving a dog alone at home or regularly tied for long periods is positively inhumane.

Toys and Games

It has been said that dogs have the mental age of children between 3 and 5 years of age and, like children, thrive on fun and games. These days there is a plethora of dog toys on the market, some more suitable than others. Good toys include those that can be chewed without fragmenting; ones that can be chased; ones that distribute food or scents; and ones that can be tugged or pulled around. Good games to play with dogs include fetch, Frisbee, and hide-and-seek. Not-so-good games include roughhousing and tug-of-war.

Toys that the dog can play with when you are otherwise occupied, or when he is alone, are particularly important. Putting any old toy down on such occasions will often not work to resolve separation distress or boredom. Owners should research novel, more appealing toys and provide them on rotation as they depart – enhancing them, if necessary, with food or attractive scents e.g. hunting lure scents, anisette, vanilla essence. Kong toys or other hollow toys laced with peanut butter or spray cheese work well. Better still – freeze the food-filled toy for a more sustained action.

Food Puzzles

In the wild, domestic dogs’ cousins occupied themselves for quite a while each day in search of food, yet our pet dogs have their meals simply appear like manna from heaven. Where’s the fun in that? They eat; they’re done; what’s next? One way of providing dogs with some mental stimulation is to make them work for their food by hiding it in some not-so-easily-accessible locations. For example, small piles of kibble can be sequestered around the house so that the dog has to work hard to find it. This may sound unkind but it gives the dog a job to do and this eases tensions.

Other strategies making food procurement more of a mental exercise include the use of Boomer Balls or Busta Cubes to deliver the dog’s daily ration. Boomer Balls are hard plastic balls that come with holes drilled in them (or you can drill the holes). Buster Cubes are plastic cubes with small drawer-like spaces in them. Either the ball or the cube can be loaded with kibble to make a challenging and rewarding puzzle that will keep a dog occupied for quite a while.

Working for a Living

Many breeds were developed for a specific purpose. For example, retrievers were bred to retrieve, shepherds to herd, and terriers to catch vermin. These dogs enjoy exploiting their genetic potential and many games and exercises are designed to do just that. Fly ball and agility training satisfy various aspects of predatory behavior, as well as providing much needed exercise and mental stimulation. A country walk with the dog on a long (30 foot) lead allows him to flush out birds and varmints while you have a handle on the things. Lure coursing is excellent entertainment for sight hounds and tracking will keep a scent hound up to snuff. Retrievers, in general, love water, love swimming, and love to “bring.” Activities like the ones described, tailored to suit the breed, will make life worthwhile for a dog with otherwise obsolete behavioral drives. Dogs, like us, need to feel that they have a purpose in life.

The Personal Touch

Probably the best environmental enrichment for a dog is one-on-one quality time with a caring owner. But what should an owner do during this quality time? I suggest country walks (or runs), games of fetch and Frisbee, sporting activities, benign training, and just hanging out together. Regarding the training, clicker training is extremely beneficial in building bridges of communication and thus a dog’s confidence and self-esteem.

A domestic dog is a family member and his needs should be considered. You would not leave a child alone at home all day with no company and nothing to do. Neither should you inflict the same tedium on a dog. It’s tricky to arrange your life around your dog’s needs but that’s the way it has to be. Friends and relatives can help. Doggy day care is good for those people who can afford it. Then again, it may be possible to bring your dog with you more often than you might think. I know many people who have obtained permission to bring their dog to work, and the dog has become everyone’s friend and a great morale booster for the work force. Face it, people like having an animal around. It brings out the best in all of us and, who knows, may even increase our productivity.