Five Great Ways to Challenge Your Dog’s Mind

Proper exercise for dogs is important to their overall physical and mental wellbeing, but often “mental exercise” is given short shrift when looking at fulfilling a dog’s needs. Dogs that are bored and that have little mental and environmental stimulation can develop mild to severe behavioral problems as a result. Providing your dog with “brain exercise” is easy to do – here’s some ideas you can try out!

1. Behavior training for dogs
Obedience training can be more than just simply teaching your dog sit, down and other common manners and behaviors. Training your dog to learn a new behavior asks him to think and learn and engage his brain. You can become creative in what you teach – tricks are one wonderful way of constantly keeping your dog learning while enjoying an activity that’s fun for both of you. Using a clicker to train is an excellent way of teaching your dog complex behaviors and you can use it to “shape” behaviors as well. “Free shaping” is another type of training where you “shape” small increments of behavior based on what your dog does in a given situation. A typical example would be the well-known “101 Things to Do With a Box” exercise from clicker training expert Karen Pryor.

2. “Outside the box” training classes for dogs
Taking your dog to a “regular” obedience class helps to socialize your dog and helps you both learn how to communicate with each other. It’s also terrific mental exercise for a dog since it involves not only the learning process but also handling a new and varying environment. Once the “typical” dog parent finishes obedience class though, as many a dog trainer from my personal experience can attest, they decide they are “done.”

There are many wonderful options available today for you to continue in classes with your dog, such as classes on teaching tricks, therapy dog training, and a whole host of dog sports such as agility, rally, canine freestyle, scent work, barn hunt and much more.

You don’t need to become a competitor in these sports either, many classes are a mixture of serious competitors and dog parents who just want to have fun with their dogs, so don’t be intimidated to try one! Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Associated Certified Animal Behaviorist Katenna Jones encourages guardians to take the plunge: “I love classes that cover skills beyond the basics. My favorite class I teach is Brain Games, where dogs learn things like riding skateboards, color discrimination, and more. Classes and activities like this are rewarding for you both, great for bonding, improve communication, and tire out brains and bodies." If you don’t know what kinds of classes are available in your area, visit the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants website to find classes in your area.

3. Dog sniffing and using other senses
Take your dog out on more than “just a walk.” Find places that are richly varied in terms of sounds, sights, textures, odors and more. A dog’s sense of smell is much stronger than ours and allowing him to “see” the world through olfactory senses can really stretch his mind (hence the popularity of scent work classes and competition). Rather than taking your dog on the same walk every day, along the same path or sidewalk, look for places that may have new smells, or an abundance of them, such as parks or forest trails you don’t usually go to. On the reverse side, find dog friendly urban walks to change up the pace. You can even add in some elements of “parkour” to your walks by having your dog go up onto obstacles such as curbs, steps, benches, and playground equipment – be creative, but make sure that nothing is too high or unsafe for your dog!

4. Games toys and puzzles for dogs!
Games are a fun way of activating your dog’s mind, as well as building your relationship together and teaching your dog to see that spending time with you is the best reward ever! This is another opportunity to be creative – you can use variations on children’s games, such as hide-and-seek, or come up with brand new games based on what you have available and your dog’s interests. For example, if you have a dog that absolutely loves balls, and you have enough room for tossing it, you can create games that involve the retrieve, as well as mixing in some basic obedience behaviors. Other types of games don’t even necessarily need to involve you, but can be just as mentally engaging. Toss some kibble around the room, or in your yard if it’s safe, and let the dog “hunt” for his food. You can even do this instead of using a dog food bowl entirely for each meal. There are many types of interactive food toys and puzzles that you can use as well for the same purpose and they are not all just “food dispensers.” For some, the dog has to really think about how to get the food out of the various types of openings.

5. Bringing your dog out
Another way to stimulate your dog’s mind is to simply bring him out with you during your regular errands. Getting to see new faces, new places and a ride in the car can be very mentally challenging for a dog and also helps to reinforce socialization. Try taking your dog on trips to new places neither of you have been as well. You don’t necessarily have to take him out on a long walk or hike – the experience of being outside and experiencing novel stimuli will be a highlight for your dog. There are many dog-friendly places you can bring your dog for an outing, such as local coffee shop and restaurant patios, home improvement and garden/nursery stores, pet supply stores, and even some large national chains (for items such as craft supplies and household goods). Always check with the store manager first, of course, and be sure that your dog can handle showing his good manners off in a crowd of strangers.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

7 Best Games to Play With Dogs

1. Mystery Treat Location

This is a bit like the three cup monte employed by shady street magicians, except our version ensures everyone’s a winner. This game rewards your pooch for exploring his environment and finding a hidden treat, and it stimulates the dog's brain similarly to most other best interactive dog toys out there.

Start out simple with three or four boxes placed upside down and put a small dog treat underneath one of them and let your doggy sniff it out. When he finds the right box, reveal the treat and give him lots of praise. If your pooch has some trouble with this game, use a small piece of dog-friendly meat warmed in the microwave for a few seconds to increase the scent.

Up the ante with this game by adding more objects of varying sizes, shapes and weights, and varying the amount and kinds of treats that are beneath them. He’ll love the challenge and appreciate all the snuggles that come every time he gets the right answer.

2. Extreme Fetch

This is a more advanced version of the above challenge, and has some great obedience training elements as well as lots of tennis-ball related anticipation for your pooch. Start by practicing some games of fetch. Then have your dog obey the stay command while you walk off a little way with the ball.

Make him stay and drop the ball at your feet. If he obeys the stay command, you can gently kick the ball in his direction and give him a signal like ‘go’ or ‘fetch’ and let him pounce on that pesky ball. If he doesn’t stay, just ignore him for a few minutes at a time until he learns that waiting gets the reward.

Once you guys have that part down, you can start throwing the ball or toy further and further, making your doggy stay until you give the go command. Keep this up until your dog is able to find the ball no matter how far you throw it. Of course, make sure you do this somewhere where it’s safe for him to roam free, or keep him leashed and let him lead you to the tennis ball treasure.

3. Finders Keepers

One of the best games to play with your dog is Finders Keepers. This game is similar to Extreme Fetch, except your doggy doesn’t have the advantage of seeing the throw. Take the ball or a small treat and walk off while your dog stays. Again, if he gets confused and tries to follow you, just reiterate the command and ignore him until he understands that you want him to wait.

Begin by walking off a few feet and dropping the ball. Then tell your dog he can go and let him find the ball, giving lots of lovely praise when he does. Over a few sessions, increase the difficulty by hiding it in ever-harder to figure out places so your pooch has to use his nose and his noggin to work out where it is.

As long as you keep up the praise every time he finds it, he will enjoy the challenge. Too easy? Try feigning the drop and actually hiding the ball somewhere else when your doggy isn’t looking, or hiding multiple items.

4. Obstacle Course

Creating an obstacle course is so much fun, and you can tailor it to your doggy’s age and agility and adjust the difficulty to suit his needs. Another great thing is that you can recycle items that you were going to throw away and repurpose them, or use things from your home.

Create jumps from pretty much anything you like. Start out with something small that your dog can easily leap over then move up to something higher and wider like a box or a milk crate. Always increase size increments steadily as a stumble could throw your pooch off wanting to play again.

Even better, if you have the DIY chops, build a jump from old PVC pipes. Check out this simple tutorial from Instructables user chuybregts:

Kitchen chairs, stools and low coffee tables are nice and sturdy and make ideal pause tables. Chairs are also a great obstacle for running beneath, just make sure that if the chair has bars, they won’t be too low for your pooch to run through.

An old box with both ends opened makes a great makeshift tunnel, or pick up a collapsible children’s play tunnel from your local toy store. PVC pipes, bamboo stakes (with blunt or sanded ends) and trellises are all cheap, cheerful and make ideal weave poles. Start your dog with the poles wider apart until his toys with weaving through them, and steadily decrease the space between each pole.

Over time your dog will get faster and more adept at the course and you can make it even more challenging for him. If your dog loves it, maybe even consider signing up for doggy agility classes together? Doggy obstacle courses are certainly one of the best games to play with your dog.

5. Tidy Up

This game is a pretty nifty way to teach your pooch to put away his toys, and the best thing is that it’s still fun and dogs love it! Some doggies will get the gist of this game quickly enough if you tap the toy basket or box when they have the toy in their mouth and drop it in. Most pooches, however, will need a little more help than that, so you can use reinforcement techniques.

When your pooch has the toy, wait for him to naturally look at the basket and click or praise him. Keep that up every time he looks at it and the toy is in his mouth – soon he’ll learn ‘hey, I get rewarded when I do that, so I’ll do it more.’

Continue to praise him every time he's holding the toy in his mouth and looking at the basket, moving towards the basket and so on, until you get him to bring the toy back. Now, the tricky part might be getting him to drop it in, and you have to have some patience to have him do it naturally. Once he does, unleash torrents of praise and your dog will soon be putting all his toys away quick as a flash.

6. Bubbles!

The best games to play with your dog are simple and fun for both of you. Bubbles are great for summer, so easy, and will keep your pooch exercised and entertained for hours.

All you have to do is buy some dog-safe bubble mix (this can be found online or in pet stores), get out into the garden or park and start blowing bubbles! Your doggy will love chasing and snapping at them, and you get to just relax and watch him have fun.

7. Hide and Seek

This is a great one to play even if it’s just the two of you, but it gets even more fun when there are lots of people around. It’s also the simplest game there is! Hide somewhere in the house and call your dog, and when you get found give him a little reward and praise.

Make your hiding places get increasingly more difficult, and lower your voice each time, or get competitive and start timing your pup!

5 ways pets can ease your stress

A pet prescription can remedy all sorts of problems, says animal expert Arden Moore. Spending time around animals, such as going bird watching, enjoying the company of a therapy dog, or even playing with your pet spider can be beneficial to your well-being. "There's something about the animal kingdom that possesses the ability for us to enjoy life a little better," says Moore, author of more than 20 pet books and radio host of Oh Behave, an online Pet Life Radio show. Read on for five reasons to include some animal time in your day.

Petting your cat or dog may be noticeably enjoyable for them, but the act can relax you, as well. Moore suggests petting with a purpose to increase the release of feel-good hormones in animals and humans. "Give your dog or cat a head-to-tail therapeutic massage by running hand over hand through the body," she says. Your touch relaxes the animal and releases feel-good endorphins in you, reducing your heart rate. A therapeutic pet massage can also be used to regularly check animals for fleas or suspicious bumps, or to relieve muscle knots, says Moore.

2. They may reduce blood pressure

Communicating with animals may lower your blood pressure and improve your overall health. Moore suggests engaging animals in "happy talk," or speaking in an upbeat tone. "Happy talk or laughter around animals releases hormones in humans that lower blood pressure, and make animals feel better too," she says. Thinking happy thoughts when talking to your pet or speaking to birds and squirrels in your backyard may seem silly, but the conversation can put you at ease (even if it's one-sided).

Animals from dogs to rabbits are often used for therapy in hospitals and nursing homes. "I've taken my dog to a few hospitals and schools, and it's amazing how people are reluctant to talk to people but will open up to an animal," Moore says. There's something rejuvenating, renewing about coming home to a friendly animal that greets you like a rock star," she says. Moore suggests that the strong human-to-animal bond could be related to fond childhood memories. Even if it's a just a spider, people often feel more comfortable being themselves around animals, says Moore. (Though admittedly, spiders aren't for everyone.)

4. They can improve human nutrition

Eating alongside bad company may decrease your appetite, but eating in the company of an animal may improve your eating habits. "In nursing homes, if there's a fish tank where people are eating, seeing those fish actually motivates some residents to eat," says Moore. In some cases, the companionship of animals has helped the nutritional habits of their humans. For example, she says, research has shown that recipients of the Meals on Wheels program who were allowed to eat near their pets improved some of their eating patterns.

5. They improve your relationships

A good relationship with your animal friends may spill over into better relations with humans. An animal doesn't care who you are or what outfit you're wearing they want to play and be around you, says Moore. This carefree, playful attitude, she says, has made many animal-lovers more prone to live in the moment. According to a 1997 study at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, observing animals in nature can teach valuable characteristics like patience, and help restore mental energy. Taking care of an animal can also teach responsibility and stimulate feelings of trust, openness, and companionship.

Bored Dogs Become Destructive

Is your dog bored? Dogs that are bored tend to get into trouble by looking for ways to entertain themselves. Boredom can lead to excessive chewing, barking, digging, and other destructive behaviors.

Our dogs were bred to work alongside humans, so without proper stimulation they can easily become bored. Instead of having a job to do most of our canine companions are left alone while we work – and then when we get home we hand them a free meal. That’s great for couch potatoes, but many of our dogs are left with a lot of excess energy at the end of the day. They need boredom busters & activities to occupy both their bodies and minds.

Luckily there are a few simple games you can play, toys you can try, treats you can make, and tricks you can teach to quickly relieve your dogs boredom.

Keep Your Puppy Active and Out of Trouble With Stimulation and Exercise

In the search for something to do, a bored dog can become a destructive dog, digging up your garden or chewing on the furniture for example. This is especially true of puppies because they are curious, eager to learn about the world around them, and full of energy. Plus, they may not yet understand the rules of the house – what they are and are not allowed to do.

For a healthy, confident, and socialized puppy, it’s important to provide physical exercise and mental stimulation. Think of a toddler who delights in running up and down the hall yet is equally engaged playing with blocks or a puzzle. It’s also essential to train your puppy. Dogs need to know our expectations. And finally, if you understand how dog instincts drive puppy behavior it will help you prevent and manage potential trouble.

Give Your Puppy Physical and Mental Exercise

Your puppy needs a daily workout. But how much exercise your puppy needs a day depends on age and breed. You shouldn’t overdo workouts because your puppy’s bones are still growing. For example, no high jumping or marathon runs. However, you still need to ensure your puppy is getting enough activity to burn off excess energy. Talk to your vet or breeder if you have any questions about your puppy’s physical needs. And although roughhousing and wrestling can be a great workout for your pup, be aware that what you allow from your puppy, you will get from your adult dog. Choose safe and appropriate ways to play and exercise together.

Although a tired dog is a good dog, there is far more to the equation than that. Your puppy needs a daily brain workout too. Your puppy’s cognitive skills are still developing, and mental stimulation and play will assist with things like memory and problem-solving. Cognitive challenges will also help curtail destructive behaviors by keeping your puppy entertained. Not to mention, mental exercise can be as exhausting as the physical kind.

Play with your puppy every day. It’s great to cuddle and have fun but also consider more challenging games that make your dog smarter like hiding treats in a plastic bottle or placing kibble in a set of stacking containers so your puppy has to pull them apart to get the food. There are lots of entertaining indoor games to play with your puppy that can build your puppy’s brain power, like hide-and-seek. You can hide a treat, toss kibble around the room, or even hide and call your puppy to find you. Or how about a game of hidden treasure? Place several small boxes or flower pots upside down on the floor and hide a treat under only one. Let your puppy sniff and explore until the treasure is found.

Don’t forget that fun and games can also teach your puppy important lessons. For example, playing tug-of-war will not make your puppy aggressive. Rather it will teach him valuable skills like Drop It and emotional self-control. Games like fetch can help prevent puppy stealing and keep-away by teaching your dog that good things happen when valuable items are returned to the owner. Plus, these particular activities provide physical exercise too.

Not all mental stimulation needs to come from interacting with you. You can also give your puppy toys that help beat boredom. Cognitively challenging toys often involve hidden food. For example, a snuffle mat is a piece of fabric with pockets and flaps for hiding treats or kibble. Many other puzzle toys require the dog to lift lids, open drawers, or spin layers to expose hidden food. Some toys need to be rolled or thrown for the food inside to escape. There are also plush puzzle toys with smaller stuffed toys hidden inside a larger piece. With so many options to choose from, you can match the toys to your puppy’s size and personality.

Train Your Puppy

One of the first lessons to teach your puppy is where to go to the bathroom. Potty training your puppy will prevent accidents and problems down the road. But equally important is teaching your puppy how to be alone. A puppy that can remain entertained even without humans around, is a puppy that won’t go looking for trouble. Many of those puzzle toys mentioned above can keep your puppy busy when you don’t have time to play. Just be sure they’re safe for your puppy’s play style. For example, a plastic bottle full of kibble might not be the best choice for a power chewer.

Next comes formal dog training. Don’t wait until your puppy is a teenager before teaching basic manners. Even very young puppies can learn simple behaviors like Sit or Down. Rather than worrying about what your puppy is doing wrong, prevent problem behaviors and reward the good behaviors you want to see repeated with your pup’s favorite Purina® Pro Plan® treats. Break the treats into small pieces that are easy for your puppy to digest. Also, keep your training sessions short and fun – leave your puppy wanting more! Just a few repetitions are enough because even the most eager puppy can become bored. And be patient. Every puppy learns at a different pace and some days will go better than others. If your pup is struggling, take a break and try again later. Never train if you’re angry or frustrated. You want your dog to love working for you, not to avoid it all costs.

With positive reinforcement methods like these, your puppy will come to see your training sessions as playtime. Plus, besides teaching good manners, training is a great way to provide physical exercise and stimulate your dog’s mind. Especially if you advance to more challenging activities like tricks or dog sports. But first, consider making the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Program your primary goal. The program is designed to get you and your pup off to a good start. It’s also super preparation for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, the gold standard for dog manners in our society.

Even though it’s not formal training, taking your puppy to new places and introducing him to new people and other animals is essential. It will teach him to be comfortable in the world around him. Socializing your puppy involves activities like walking through your neighborhood or taking a trip to the dog park. Let your puppy see, smell, and hear unfamiliar things. Just be sure to let your pup set the pace, never force your dog into an encounter. All these new experiences are great mental stimulation and will prevent trouble, like anxiety, fear, or reactivity, later on.

Meet Your Puppy’s Instinctive Needs

Much of what dog owners call problem behavior is actually dogs being dogs. So, one of the best ways to prevent trouble is to teach puppies safe and appropriate ways to express their instincts. For example, it’s not practical to expect them to never chew or bark. The trick is getting them to chew the right things and bark at the right times. It will take patient training to stop your puppy from nipping at your hands or to teach your puppy how to stop barking at everything. But it’s well worth it for a well-behaved adult dog.

All dogs share certain instincts but breed heritage can play an important role too. Know your puppy’s breed and what that breed was developed to do. For example, terriers were bred to go to ground, following badgers and foxes into their underground dens. So, it’s no wonder that puppies from the Terrier Group love to dig. Providing your terrier puppy with a backyard digging spot, regularly planted with plastic toys, will go a long way to protecting your garden and keeping your puppy fulfilled. Or consider the sport of AKC Earthdog to really tap into those instincts.

Most dogs thrive when they have a “job” to do, so find a job that really excites your puppy and provides the most suitable mental and physical exercise. For example, herding breeds were developed to control the movement of other animals, so sports like herding or treibball are perfect choices. The scent hounds were bred to hunt with their noses, so tracking or AKC Scent Work make for great fun.

Remember that bored puppies will look for ways to entertain themselves. Lack of physical exercise and mental stimulation can lead to anxiety, frustration, and destructive behavior. By devoting time each day to play and exercise, training good behavior, and meeting your puppy’s instinctive needs, you’re helping your puppy develop the cognitive skills and confidence that will make for a happy and sociable family member.

The AKC is here to help dog owners adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Find answers to all your coronavirus concerns, plus at-home activity ideas, training tips, educational resources, and more at our ‘Coping With Coronavirus COVID-19′ hub.

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