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Mental stimulation for dogs: 7 ways to keep your mutts mind sharp

Boston Terrier running through field with ball in his mouth
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mental stimulation for dogs is an area that can sometimes get overlooked, but it’s just as important to exercise your dogs mind as it is their body. While feeding your pup a top quality dog food and making sure they get out for a daily walk is key to ensuring they stay physically fit, finding new and exciting ways to challenge their brains is a great way to take care of their mental health too.

One obvious way to do this is to invest in a few of their favorite dog toys, which are always a huge hit with our canine companions. But toys aren’t the only way that you can provide your pup with the mental stimulation they need to stay happy and healthy. There are a variety of games and other fun activities that will add plenty of mental enrichment into your dog's day.

Alongside giving their mental health a boost, challenging your dog’s brain as well as their body can also help cut down on destructive behaviors that our canine companions often partake in when they’re feeling bored. If you struggle with your dog chewing everything in sight or barking incessantly, you may find that adding more mentally stimulating activities into their day will put a stop to these issues.

Below, we talk you through some of our favorite ways to provide mental stimulation for dogs, including making a game out of mealtimes and putting your pup through their paces on a super fun obstacle course. Let’s take a look at the best ways to keep your mutt’s mind sharp as a tack…

1. Teach your dog some new tricks

You’ll find that most pups absolutely adore learning new tricks and if you keep a few tasty dog treats on hand, they’ll be extra motivated to master them! Spending around 10 to 15 minutes each day teaching your dog to perform tricks is a wonderful way to offer both fun and enrichment.

If your dog isn’t yet able to retrieve toys, or they retrieve them but won’t hand them over, this can be a great place to start. Practice throwing a ball or other toy and then saying the word ‘fetch’ and pointing in the direction of where the item is. Once they’ve picked it up, say ‘come’ and when they reach you, issue the command ‘drop’.

There are plenty of other tricks you can teach them too. With some treats beside you, use the command ‘nose’ to get them to touch their nose to yours, the word ‘paw’ to get them to put their paw in your hand, or ‘twirl’ to get them to turn around. Give them a treat and lots of praise each time they complete the trick.

2. Invest in a puzzle toy

The best dog puzzle toys are a great way to keep your pup happily amused while also giving their brain a challenging workout. Puzzle toys are designed to tap into your dog’s natural problem solving abilities and because they’re interactive, they’re also a brilliant way to give you 20 to 30 minutes of peace and quiet to get other jobs done while the toy dogsits for you! 

You’ll find a variety of different puzzle toys on the market, all with varying degrees of difficulty. Depending on the age, stage and breed of your canine companion, you might want to start them off on a level one puzzle to see how they go and then work your way up to more challenging puzzles as your dog masters each level. 

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(Image credit: @Mathew Coulton on Unsplash)

3. Make your canine companion work for their food

Another excellent way to keep your pup mentally stimulated is to make them work for their food by turning it into a fun game of treasure hunt. Regardless of whether your dog prefers a good quality kibble or a great tasting wet dog food, start by splitting their meal into several different bowls.

Once you’ve done that, shut your dog away in a separate room for a minute while you place the bowls in different spots around the house. After all the bowls are laid out, let your dog out and get them to go in search of their food. They’ll have a great time trying to sniff out their dinner and it will help slow down their eating too.

Another option is to invest in a snuffle mat for dogs. These are great for hiding food in and your dog will have to use their nose and paws in order to sniff out, and gain access to, whatever treats you’ve popped in there.  Alternatively, create your own DIY snuffle mat with our guide. 

You might also like to try a lick pad which is perfect for smearing with doggy peanut butter and will keep your pup amused for ages!

4. Set up an obstacle course

An obstacle course is bound to get your dog’s tail wagging with excitement and anticipation and we promise you that it’s not hard to set up. In fact, you don’t even need to rush out and buy anything special - common items around your home will work perfectly for this.

Depending on where you live and how much space you have, you might like to set your obstacle course up outside, but if that’s not possible, a decent sized room inside will work fine too. The goal of the obstacle course is to get your dog doing as many different things as possible.

You can set up chairs or other objects and get your dog to weave in and out of them. Next up, you might ask them to jump over, or go under, a broomstick or through a hula hoop if you happen to have one handy.

You can even create something that they need to crawl through. Basically, you’re only limited by your imagination with this one. You can find even more creative ideas in our list of budget-friendly backyard ideas for dogs.

Dog weaving their way through obstacle course

(Image credit: Getty Images)

5. Play the ‘find it’ game

We’ve found that most dogs adore the ‘find it’ game - especially if there’s food involved! While you can play this with toys and have just as much fun, it’s definitely one that works well with a few of your dog’s favorite treats.

Start by picking a snack that they like, perhaps a few pieces of cubed cheese or sausage. Get your dog to sit and wait while you move to another room to hide the pieces of food. Next, come back to your dog, say ‘find it’ and watch as they run off in search of their snacks. 

You’ll want to follow them into the room and as they find each piece, say ‘good boy or good girl’ and then repeat the command ‘find it’ so that they know there’s another piece of food still to find. At the end, you can say ‘all gone’ to signal that the game is over.

6. Introduce your dog to new people and places

Every time you introduce your dog to someone new or you take them to a new place, they’re surrounded by new sights, smells and sounds, all of which are great for engaging their senses and keeping them feeling happy. 

Next time you’re out on a walk, give your dog more opportunities for mental stimulation by letting them explore their environment at their own pace. Allow them to stop and sniff, to say hello to other dogs and people (provided they’re on a leash and aren’t prone to jumping up) and head off in whatever direction their curiosity takes them. 

7. Spend more time on interactive play sessions

Whether it’s picking up one of the best rope dog toys and engaging in a game of tug of war with your pup or choosing from amongst our favorite indoor games for dogs, spending more time playing with your canine companion is one of the best ways to provide them with the mental stimulation that they need. And as a bonus, it will help strengthen your bond too. 

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.