A tan dog sniffing in a field

Creative, cost-effective ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated

Unleash your dog’s intelligence

Story by Bailey Gilliam

Everyone knows the value of walking their dog every day. The importance of exercise in dogs has been known for decades. But because dogs are incredibly smart, mental stimulation is just as important, if not more, than physical exercise. This is especially true for high-energy working breeds such as German shepherds, border collies or Australian shepherds. Lack of mental stimulation leads to boredom and destructive behavior. Dogs are pack animals that were bred to perform certain jobs. But now that most of them don’t have a job to do, they often spend a lot of time alone when their human parents are gone, so it’s only natural that they would get bored. Many destructive dog behaviors can be resolved simply by implementing daily mental exercise. But there are other benefits to mental stimulation too, such as improving mental health and cognitive function, building confidence, releasing stress, decreasing hyperactivity, tiring a dog out, improving brain development in puppies, keeping dogs happy and strengthening their bonds with their owners. Many companies have ramped up producing toys, puzzles and feeding tools to help. There are countless ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated and happy. The best part? Many of them are free (or very inexpensive). Here are a few creative ways to strengthen your dog’s intelligence and happiness.

Go on a “sniffari”

There’s a reason dogs love walks. Most dogs want to take in the smells on a walk and explore what’s around them. When they can’t, it can be very frustrating for them and robs them of the opportunity to follow their noses. Imagine going on a hike and being whisked along too fast to visually register the trees, flowers and view of the mountains. You would be disappointed. A “sniffari” is an outing where your dog sniffs whatever they want and leads you where they want to go. It’s different from taking your dog for a walk. The point of a sniffari is to allow your dog to explore the world through all its glorious smells. These adventures in smelling leave many dogs more content (and more tired) than after a walk when they are moving but don’t have the opportunity to take it all in through their nose. Providing stimulating opportunities puts dogs in a calm state afterward. So let your dog sniff to their heart’s content.

Rotate toys

You would burn out fast if you had to play with the same things every day. Rotate your dog’s toys weekly by making only four or five available. Keep various types easily accessible, and if your dog has a favorite comfort toy, like a soft “baby,” you should always leave it out for them. When you rotate toys, your dog will be filled with the same excitement they got when you first gave them that toy. We’re not saying you shouldn’t buy new toys; you should absolutely get your canine companion a new toy occasionally. They make excellent birthday or “gotcha day” gifts. And who doesn’t like new toys for all the holidays? 

A puppy holding a checkered dog toy bone

DIY food puzzles

Dogs are natural scavengers, so it’s no surprise that dumping their food in a bowl daily doesn’t provide the mental stimulation they would get if they were still hunting for food. While there’s nothing wrong with how you feed your dog, try changing it up sometimes to allow them to work for their food or treats. While you can purchase slow feeders, snuffle mats, Kong toys and food puzzles, there are some creative and cheap ways to achieve this, too. Try sprinkling food in a muffin tin and placing tennis balls in each cup. Or freeze some food or treats in a bowl with water or broth to create a frozen puzzle treat. Sprinkle their food in a large towel, roll it up and tie it in a knot. Put treats under a cup and have your dog choose the right cup out of three. Or sprinkle food around the house and allow the dog to sniff it out. (Just don’t let it sit out too long!) There are so many ways to stimulate your dog with food. The possibilities are endless – just get creative. *Ensure your dog gets all their food within a reasonable time to prevent extreme frustration. 

Cute dog playing the shell game with her human. Concept of training pets, domestic dogs being smart and educated

Lick art

Lick art uses food, a baggie, a canvas (or piece of paper) and paint to help your dog create a work of art. Not only is lick art mentally stimulating for your pet, but the end product is an art piece like no other, a keepsake that your best friend helped create. Start by spreading peanut butter over random places on the outside of one side of the plastic ziplock bag. Pour dots of paint all over a canvas and insert the paint-soaked canvas into the plastic bag. Double and triple-check that the bag is entirely sealed. Optional: place pieces of treats or dog food on the peanut butter. Place the bag on level ground, and let your pup get to work. Be sure to closely supervise your pup as they gently spread the paint around the canvas using their tongue, mouth and paws. Once all the dog food and peanut butter have been enjoyed, remove their masterpiece from the plastic bag and leave it in an out-of-reach safe place to dry for about 30 minutes. Now you have your paw-casso piece and a happy dog. 

Coonhound dog with tongue out licking peanut butter.

Hide and seek

Hide-and-seek isn’t just a kids’ game. It’s a fun game to play with your dog too. Ask your dog to sit and stay while you find the perfect hiding spot. When you’re ready, ask your dog to come and find you. Since a dog’s sense of smell is pretty incredible, it shouldn’t take long for them to find you. Reward them once they discover you. Over time you can pick more challenging spots to hide in, so they must work extra hard to figure out where you are. Try hiding toys and telling your dog to “find it” for another twist on this classic game.

Woman and her little dog playing hide and seek in a park. Pet and outdoor activity concept.

Teach your dog new tricks

Your dog probably knows basic tricks like sit, stay and shake. But there’s much more you can teach them that goes beyond the basics. With trick training, there’s always more to add, and their age doesn’t matter. You certainly can teach an old dog new tricks. Teaching your dog a new trick or command is excellent for mental stimulation and can benefit shy or fearful dogs. All that training will help boost your dog’s confidence and strengthen the bond between the dog and owner. Learning new commands also helps increase your dog’s focus and manners. That sounds like a win-win to us.

The dog rides a penny board outdoors. Jack russell terrier performing tricks on a skateboard

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