Nearly all dog owners today will understand the importance of physical exercise for their dogs. It prevents them from becoming overweight, allows them to let off some energy, it is fun and it improves quality of life. However not all dog owners understand or choose to recognise the importance of mental exercise or stimulation.
To make a quick and perhaps not 100% accurate comparison many people are able to recognise and understand enrichment in zoo animal enclosures; adding lots of climbing platforms and scratch posts for lions, or scattering and hiding fruit for chimps and training the animals ready for health checks. These people would also be able to point out that all of these things above are to keep the animals from becoming bored, and would become distressed if they saw an animal exhibiting stereotypical behaviours due to a poor environment (a repetitive behaviour like pacing or head shaking) but yet the same concept is not applied to our domestic pets.
Many of the species we keep in our home can still be found living wild or feral in other parts of the world, including the domestic dog. These animals will invest lots of mental energy during the day trying to find food and keeping a look out for potential threats (Arthur, 2009) Although these animals are found in homes throughout the world and do not need to hunt for their food on a daily basis they still have that mental energy that needs to be used up. Not using up this energy can cause a dog to start to exhibit many common behavioural problems such as excessive barking, digging, chewing, destructive behaviour, hyperactivity, chasing objects and excessive scratching. In other words a physically and mentally tired animal is going to be lot calmer. Think of it like this; a bored dog is going to find ways to entertain himself, and those ways are not always going to be things that you agree with.
Mental stimulation doesn't have to be difficult, one of the simplest ways you could use up your dog’s energy is by scrapping the food bowl. Like previously mentioned a feral dog will spend the day searching for food, dog owners however put all their dogs food into a bowl once or twice a day and that occupies the dog for all off a couple of minutes. You could use food toys to feed your dog with instead. Put half of their food into a Kong or a treat dispensing ball and let them eat that way or you could go one step further and scatter their food around and let them try to find it themselves. Changing this one thing is a great way to provide your dog with some stimulation.
In fact there are many ways to ensure your dog doesn't become bored. Interactive food toys as mentioned are a great start, then there are the numerous brain games that are out there. These include toys or wooden boards with various puzzles the dog has to solve to get the treat out. They also come in a variety of difficulty so that any dog can have a go. You could have a go at making your own toys. An empty plastic bottle with the lid removed for example will make a great toy to put some treats into or an empty cardboard box full of scrunched up newspaper with a few treats mixed in. The list goes on; empty pringles tubs with the lid removed, cardboard egg boxes with holes punched in, and a kitchen roll tube with the ends rolled over etc.
Scent work is another way of exercising your dog mentally. Dogs have an amazing sense of smell and are naturally good at sniffing things out. You could put this to good use and teach them the basics of scent work; finding hidden articles around the garden for example. I will write a further article on some basic scent games that you can play later on. Training is another way you can tire your dog. Dog training whether it be obedience or trick training when done positively can help build a bond between the dog and the owner and more importantly it should be fun. There is no end to things that you can teach; fetching the TV remote, playing dead, taking your socks off, carrying the shopping etc. these tricks are all impressive and allow you to show off but it is also going to help tire your dog out, resulting in a calmer dog.
(Training is a great way to mentally stimulate your dog)
Clicker training encourages your dog to problem solve and so is one of the best ways to teach. 101 things to do with a box for example is brilliant to witness this. The idea behind this game is not to lure or force your dog to do anything but voluntarily offer behaviours themselves (Whitehead, 2012). Start with an empty box and think of something you would like your dog to do with it; stand on it, climb in it, walk around it etc. and then you start to reward behaviour that you like (it is best to charge the clicker before you attempt this). For example, I have an empty box and I want my dog to climb in it, so I would first click and treat the dog for taking a step towards the box, and then when he has got the hang of that I would click for him touching the box with his foot. The next step would be to reward him for putting one foot in, and then another until all four of his feet were in the box. By allowing the dog to work out the behaviour for himself you will actually be tiring him out more.
I've named just a few examples but the aim of writing this was to hopefully get across that pets, not just dogs, need some form of both mental and physical exercise daily to help prevent behaviour problems and provide them with a better quality of life. References (and to read more); Arthur, N. (2009) Chill Out Fido! Dogwise Publishing Whitehead, S. (2012) Mind Games For Dogs. Dogwise Publishing.