Mental Exercise

A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

This old adage definitely has some truth to it!  However, it’s not just about physical exercise.  Dogs, like any other animal (including humans!) need daily mental stimulation and exercise to be truly content.  The good news is that it’s pretty easy for any dog owner to do and doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.

The true benefit of providing appropriate mental exercise for your dog is that he learns how to calm himself down.  He may only show interest in a “thinking” activity for short periods at first.  However, if you stick with it, before long he should learn to enjoy the feeling of calming down and settling into an activity that is mentally challenging.  He will soon learn to look forward to and enjoy the satisfaction of the challenge.

If you send us fun video or photos (with a brief story or description) of your dog working on one of our exercises or games, we’ll post it on our website to share with everyone!  If you have a good idea for a fun, safe mental game, let us know and we’ll post it here!

Easy Mental Exercises and Games:

All of these activities require little or no additional equipment.  Anything you might need are things you can find around the house.

Kibble Scramble

This one couldn’t be easier – and fun for us too!
Pour a glass of wine, go out on the deck, and . . .

  • Take your dog’s meal portion of kibble and toss it into the backyard and cue them to go “get dinner”.  It’s as easy as that!  If they want dinner, they’re going to have to go and look for it.
  • Most dogs will spend at least an hour looking for their dinner  and  then go back  later for any they’ve missed.
  • If you feed your dog raw food, you can cut back meal sizes and use an equivalent amount of good quality of kibble or tiny  treats.
  • The longer your grass is or the more natural the area that you use, the longer it will take to find the kibble or treats.

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Treat Toss

  • Excellent practice for your Recall!   Even in the snow . . .
  • Either inside or outside grab your dog’s meal portion of kibble or some tiny treats and call your dog over to you.
  • Toss one piece out, wait for your dog to find it and come back to you.
  • As soon as your dog comes back to you, mark and praise – Yes!  Good boy!  Toss another treat out.
  • In order for the game to continue – more treats tossed – your dog needs to return to you after finding and eating each treat.
  • If your dog doesn’t return to you at first, simply call him to you the first few times.  Stop calling him once he gets the hang of the game and wait for him to come back on his own.
  • Vary the distance and direction you toss the treats to keep the game interesting.

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Buried Treasure

This game encourages your dog to dig, so ensure that you create a very specific digging spot and prevent (NOT punish) your dog from digging elsewhere.

  • In your yard or on your balcony /deck, create a specific area for your dog filled with sand or dirt – a low, large plant pot or sand box works well.
  • Cover a handful of very smelly treats in an old, holey sock or dishrag and bury the package a few inches deep in your digging spot.
  • Cue your dog to “Get It” and help them by scratching a little bit of dirt or sand away from the package.  Once they begin digging, you can encourage them with praise.
  • When they have dug up the package, mark and praise them and help them unwrap their gift (if necessary!).
  • When they get really good at this game, you can add to the challenge by using less smelly treats, burying the treats in a clean yogurt container with holes punched in it (so they also have to figure out how to open that), and burying the object deeper.
  • If you feed raw bones, you can bury their bone for them to find.

Towel Diving

A great way to re-use those old towels that no longer match your newly renovated bathroom!

  • Using one large towel or several smaller ones (or several large ones for more challenge) – lay one towel flat out on the ground.
  • Sprinkle some tiny treats over a corner or over the whole towel if using more than one.
  • Fold the rest of the towel over the treats, or lay another towel on top and sprinkle more treats on another exposed portion of towel.
  • Continue sprinkling treats and folding over portions or laying one towel on top of another until all your treats and towels are used.
  • Call your dog over and cue them to “Find It” – you may have to lift up a corner to show them the first treat.  Continue cueing them to “Find It” (if necessary) until all the treats are gone.

Mental Muffins

A good solution to liven up a boring dinner party . . . !

  • Use a metal muffin baking pan for this game – either 6, 8 or 12 muffins slots is fine.
  • Find a variety of balls to match the number of spots in your muffin pan – as many different sizes, weights and types of materials as you can.  Balls that are too large and/or heavy for your dog to pick up easily (like pool balls) work really well.  You can even scrunch up a piece of paper to make a paper ball.
  • Put one very smelly and yummy treat in the bottom of each muffin slot and then cover each treat with a ball.  Call your dog over and cue him to “Find It”.
  • Just stand back and watch the fun!  Each dog is different in the various techniques they employ to get the treat under the ball.

Wait For It

With a little obedience practice mixed in for good measure.

  • You can play this one inside or outside.
  • Using a stationary obedience cue your dog knows like Wait (or Sit, or Down, or Go To Your Bed) cue your dog and go and hide several small treats on the ground either around furniture legs or trees and rocks.
  • Keep track of how many you hide and where you put them.
  • Don’t put treats anywhere that might encourage your dog to do anything destructive to find (like under couch cushions or corners of the carpet).
  • When you’re finished, go back to your dog and cue him to “Find It” and watch while he races off to find and eat each treat.
  • Keep track of what he finds – while he’s first learning, you may have to help him by pointing out a few of the treats.
  • Once he gets really good at this game, you can ask him to wait in different rooms of the house, or out of site outside while you hide the treats.

 Walk and Toss

A way to keep your daily leash walks interactive and fun.

  • You can play this game on leash or off leash.
  •  Get your dog’s attention, toss a treat off to the side (not further than the end of the leash length) and cue him to “Find It”.
  • Wait for him to find the treat and return to you before continuing on your walk.  Walk several feet then toss out another treat and cue him to “Find It”.
  • If you vary how often you play during the walk and how many feet you walk between each toss and find, you should start to see your dog checking in with you frequently and paying more attention to you in general over the course of your walk.

Bobbing for Hot Dogs

Seems self-explanatory, but . . .

  • Use a container for this that is appropriate to the size of your dog – smaller for small dogs, bigger for big dogs, etc.  If you have a dog with a pushed in nose, be sure to use a very shallow pan.
  • Fill a shallow pan, casserole dish, bucket or children’s wading pool with a couple inches of water – depending on the proficiency of your dog.  Start very shallow at first.
  • Float thinly sliced pieces of hot dog or pieces of dog pepperoni on the surface and cue your dog to “Get It”.  Make sure to monitor their progress so they don’t have trouble or breathe in water.  Most dogs will resort to using their feet or their heads as scoops to splash bits of hot dog out of the water and into the grass.

Bait and Switch

Ah – the old Bait and Switch – our version for dogs!

  • Use 3 plastic cups or empty yogurt containers for this game.
  • With your dog watching, hide a very smelly treat under one cup then switch all the cups around keeping track of which one holds the smelly treat.
  • Cue your dog to “Find It” and see if he can figure out which cup holds the treat.

Mentally Stimulating Toys for Meal and Treat Dispensing – “Destuffers!”

Ideally, you want to try and get your dog “addicted” to some of the toys below so you have some entertaining and challenging things to leave your dog with when he is alone during the day.  Of course you always need to monitor your dog’s use of any toy until you’re comfortable that he can safely be left alone with each one.  The best way to develop your dog’s “addiction” is to feed him meals in one or more of the toys listed below.

Make it very simple at first – his food should fall very easily out so he doesn’t get discouraged.  If it’s really easy but your dog gives up before finishing his meal, just put the toy with the food in it away and let him try again next mealtime.  If the toy is the only way to get his meals, he will quickly begin working hard to get his food out.  It won’t be long before your dog realizes the enjoyment in working for his dinner through the use of these toys and eagerly anticipate getting another.  Dante, one of our test subjects, takes almost 2 hours to eat his raw, frozen food out of Kongs – and he’s exhausted afterwards!

In order to keep the value of the treat dispensing toys high, we recommend keeping them put away when your dog isn’t eating his meal or having it for entertainment.  He shouldn’t be able to just grab and play with one whenever he wants – keep it special by putting it away between uses.

All of these toys have been tested on our own dogs and many of the dogs in Lisa’s daycare.  We have found these to be the best in their category and highly recommend them.  As always, you should monitor your dog with any toy to ensure he plays safely.

Kongs!  www.kongcompany.com

The Kong Company makes some fantastic products for dogs (and cats) and we highly recommend many of their toys.  The make chew and treat dispensing products for all ages and bite strengths of dogs – from puppies to seniors.  These are just a few of our ultimate favorites specifically for treat dispensing or food de-stuffing toys:

• Kong Wobbler (#1 Pick!)

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The Wobbler is a large treat dispensing toy that you can fill with kibble or similar-sized treats.  It has a weighted bottom so it “wobbles” when you play with it.  Treats come out through a keyhole on one side when your dog pushes it over.  Treats fall out randomly and it does take quite awhile to empty, which makes it fairly long lasting – always a good thing!  A great feature is that the top screws off so the whole thing can be washed out, which means it can be used indoors or out.  The cavity is large enough to fit an entire meal portion for most dogs.  Kong recommends it for dogs over 20 pounds – they will be coming out with a version for smaller dogs soon.

• Kong Genius (formerly Canine Genius)

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The Genius is one of the best destuffing toys around!  We put treats, cheese, or bits of fruit and meat in ours and top it off with peanut butter or cream cheese and then freeze for maximum entertainment value.  It is a brightly colored, bowling pin shaped toy with 3 openings to get food out.  The openings are not very large, so it can be fairly challenging and last awhile if you’re creative with your treat choices.  The Genius can also be linked to other Genius’ so the treats can fall from one to another and add to the challenge.

• The Classic Kong

Hard to beat the Classic Kong!  The original cone-shaped, rubber Kong continues to be a great entertainment toy and a good place to start to get your dog used to eating meals out of toys.  The cone shape with it’s one, round opening is not quite as challenging as the Genius but you can get it in many different sizes and strengths of rubber, so it’s ideal for any type of chewer or size of dog.  We use ours with dry kibble and treats as well as raw food and just throw it in the dishwasher when it’s done.  To make them more challenging, look for treats that don’t easily fit into the round opening – we step on ours to flatten it out so we can jam treats in that don’t fall out when it bounces back into shape!  As with the Genius, you can add peanut butter or other nut butters, yogurt, cheeses, etc. and freeze for maximum challenge.

Omega Paw  www.omegapaw.com

• Tricky Treat Ball

The bright orange Tricky Treat Ball is one of our favorite kibble dispensing toys.  It has a kibble-sized opening that dispenses kibble or small treats as it’s rolled around on the floor.  Because you can’t open it up for cleaning, we don’t recommend you use it outside.  It’s a fairly soft plastic, so not the best choice for big chewers – although some of these dogs do seem to respect toys that give them food and refrain from chewing them apart!  The kibble falls out fairly quickly but you can fit an entire meal in them for most dogs – so it’s a fun way to eat dinner, or just to get some stimulating entertainment.  Casey, one of our test subjects is almost 15 years old and it’s her favorite morning treat toy!

Aikiou  www.aikiou.com

• Aikiou Food Bowl

The Aikiou Food Bowl is a very cool way to feed your dog!  It’s a large plastic, paw shaped “bowl” that has sliding doors on each of 4 “toes” and a round disk that turns to uncover one slot at a time in the centre area.  Between the slots on the “toes” and the centre area, there is enough room to hold about 3 cups of kibble and it can be used with raw food too because it’s dishwasher safe.  Your dog has to figure out how to uncover each section to get at the food underneath.  Great for slowing down dogs who tend to gulp their food too fast and fun for any dog as an extra challenge at mealtime.

Nina Ottosson www.interactivedoggames.com

• Nina Ottosson’s Puzzle Games for Dogs

All of these toys are great mental challenges for dogs!  There are many different varieties of games – each of which has different doors that need to be slid, spun or lifted to find the treat hidden underneath.  They aren’t really a treat or meal dispensing toy but they are definitely mentally challenging and fun to watch as each dog tries different things to get their treats.  The toys are available in both a wooden and plastic version.