Enrichment and Mental Stimulation - The Secret To a Happy Dog
Updated: Jun 17
We all love our dogs and want them to have the best life possible. Lets face it - you wouldn't be sitting here reading a blog post about them if you didn't. But goodness knows they can be a challenge sometimes right? Surely I'm not the only one with high energy dogs that seem to have the ability to outlast the energiser bunny?? If I had the time and the fitness level I could tak230..e them for hour long hikes twice a day (or if I had the money pay someone to do it for me) but realistically what I am achieving is making my dogs fitter so they have even more energy to burn and need longer walks to make them tired. You might say just let them off for a run.. except one of my darlings (Korben, 5 year old Brittany) has selective hearing and will take himself off for a four hour + unauthorised and unsupervised run leaving me a wreck as I picture all the horrible things that could happen to him so he's restricted to VERY well fenced areas which a few and far between. Meanwhile Leeloo (3 year old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever) would be content to play fetch with a ball or frisbee all day if she was allowed but has the occasional issue with small dogs (I swear she thinks they're all cats) being aware of this, we avoid dog parks and limit our ball throwing because as a Massage Therapist I know full well the type of injuries that can result. What then can we do to wear off some of that crazy energy so I can have calm well behaved dogs in the house?
Dont despair there are so many options for enrichment and mental stimulation that you're sure to find something here you can do with your dog. Before I go any further though I'd like to clarify that physical exercise IS important, we want our dogs to be fit and healthy so we do need to get them out and about for walks, runs or swimming but we don't need to spend all day doing it!
Mental stimulation is fantastic for tiring them out and for a fit dog it can be more effective to engage their minds than it is to take them for an hour run. What do I mean by mental stimulation? Anything that engages their brains. This could be obedience or trick training, or it could be engaging their nose either in a casual sniff exploration or teaching them to find an odour or item for you. If you dog is food driven you can turn food time into puzzle time giving them a mental workout while enjoying their dinner. I have listed some options below and provided you with some links on where to go for even more great ideas.
Gimme A Job
Most dog breeds were created with a purpose in mind and it wasn't sitting around in your house and yard all day. Find out what your breeds purpose was originally (and yes that counts for rescues and cross breeds too - they will also have traits bred into them that will be easier to work with rather than ignore. Your Guard dog types tend to excel at obedience so teach them. Terriers were bred to dig up rats and other pests so give them a space to dig that's not your veggie garden. Retrievers were bred to ...You guessed it .. Retrieve so make use of that and teach them to retrieve, if not for sport then for fun (see youtube video down further for how to teach a dog to "bring it"). Herding dogs are quick and agile and if not given an outlet will often try to herd bicycles so teach them agility, Tri ball (a game involving pushing large balls into a "goal") or if you're lucky enough to have a club that trains for herding competitions near by let them do what they were made for.
Obedience: All dogs should have basic obedience - sit, stay, come etc but if you have a high drive dog you can take it further, your local dog club can help guide you.
Tricks: Pretty much any dog can learn to do some amazing tricks if you're patient enough and using their mind will certainly tire them out. Plenty of inspiration on You Tube or many dog clubs are now running trick training classes. Plus you then have something cool to show your friends.
Food Glorious Food
Food Toys: There is a huge variety of food toys available now from your standard Kong variety that you can fill with food (which you can freeze to offer a greater challenge) to "licky mats" which are silicone mats with grooves or patterns on them for trapping paste type foods. These will certainly provide enrichment and keep a doggo quiet for a little while. The licking action is also somewhat therapeutic for some dogs but on the whole its not super stimulating so I'd use this as something to keep them occupied rather than something to tire them out.
Kibble Trails: Instead of giving them their dinner in a bowl lay a winding path with it in the backyard (obviously this is easy with kibble but you could still do it with whatever their dinner was.) For a beginner dog drop pieces fairly close together so they get the idea to follow the trail. You can spread it out much further for a dog that knows this game and make him/her really hunt for it.
Snuffle mats: These mats can be purchased at a number of places or made at home and are the indoor version of laying a kibble trail. Only suitable for dry foods it will keep the doggo amused searching through the material. Best to be supervised in case they decide the mats smells edible after having treats put in it.
The Nose Knows!
Nose Work: Teaching them to find a specific scent (Birch, Anise or Clove), that they can then compete and title in with Australian Canine Scent Work (https://acsw.com.au) The Australian National Kennel Council was all set to kick off their own nose work trials in July but check with your State body as to when that will be happening post Covid 19 (for us Victorians that's Dogs Victoria (https://dogsvictoria.org.au)
Tracking: Using their clever noses to find other people! Tracking and Track and Search for the urban version is the sport of following a trail of articles laid down by a person that is then found (hopefully) by the searching dog. I may be a bit biased but this is awesome fun for the dogs and the handlers. Some handy links to get you started : http://www.trackingclubvic.org.au/index.html
https://scentdogsaustralia.com/index.html (<< both tracking and nose work training)
For a comprehensive guide to how a dogs nose works and how to Track I highly reccomend "Tracking - For Companion and Sports Dogs" by Sonja Needs
Find it: Teach them to find and bring back a toy, your keys or some other object from around the home. Using their nose doesn't have to be a sport it can be fun or useful and you will be surprised at how many different things you can teach them to find.. Just be sure to start out with things you don't mind getting bite marks on it you want them to bring it to you instead of just indicating where it is.
Here are two of the many many videos online with simple steps about how to go about training your dog to find an item and the second one is how to train them to bring it back to you ( you can start that one at 1:34 minutes if you want to skip the promotional bits). I chose these ones to share with you because they show good step by step training on a variety of objects. If you want to train for sport I would recommend finding a trainer in your local area but if your happy just getting your dog to think a bit to tire them out these will work fine.
For more great ideas on canine enrichment and mental stimulation be sure to look into canine enrichment on Facebook for endless inspiration.