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Mental Exercise for Dogs Guide: Games, Exercises & Stimulation for Puppies & Dogs | Pupford

July 28th, 2023

Filed under Health + Wellness

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If I said 'exercise for your dog', what's the first thing that comes to mind? (You're probably lying if you say mental exercise 😜!)

Most people go right for the physical stuff -- walks, laps around the park, jogging or running with their dog, that kind of stuff.

While physical activity is certainly an important part of keeping our pups healthy, it’s only part of the bigger picture.

Most pup parents aren’t giving their dogs enough mental exercise, which is just as important for a dog’s well-being (and your personal sanity).

In this article, we’re going to talk about why mental exercise and stimulation for dogs is important and what you can start doing with your dog to get that brain work in.

You can use this table of contents to jump around:

Otherwise, let’s jump in from the beginning!

WHY IS MENTAL EXERCISE IMPORTANT FOR DOGS?

grey-dog-doing-nose-work-for-mental-exercise | Pupford

Let's put it this way. A mentally stimulated dog is a happy dog.

While it’s important to make sure your dog gets enough physical activity each day, it’s equally important that they get enough mental exercise too.

Believe it or not, mental fatigue can make your dog more tired than physical fatigue. That’s why mental exercise decreases hyperactivity, boredom, and destructive behaviors.

Don’t believe us? Try this experiment ⤵️

One day, give your dog rigorous physical activity, like an extra-long play session or a hike.

Another day, give them a mental game to play (we’ll have plenty of examples later in this article) and see which day they seem more tired.

Let us know in the comments which one makes them snooze harder.

In short, mental exercise gives your dog the outlet they need for extra energy -- and keeps them out of trouble. Which brings us to our next topic…

WHAT CAN HAPPEN IF YOUR DOG DOESN'T GET MENTAL EXERCISE?

brown-dog-tired-after-mental-exercise | Pupford

When dogs don’t get enough mental stimulation they get bored.

And when dogs get bored, they get destructive.

And when dogs are destructive, well... we won't go there!

Sidenote: If you find your dog tends to destroy things when you’re gone head here.

Let be clear. Your dog didn’t chew your shoes while you were out because he was mad at you – it’s likely because he was bored and needed stimulation.

If dogs don’t get enough brain exercise, they’re more likely to show digging, excessive barking, and unwanted chewing behaviors.

There’s a very good chance that mental exercise and stimulation is just the thing your pup needs to kick those unwanted habits (along with some training, as well)!

🐶 Don't miss out! Sign up for a 100% free online dog training course, 30 Day Perfect Pup with Zak George. Get access to videos & daily tips covering biting, leash walking, potty training and more! Sign up for free here! 🐶

HOW MUCH MENTAL STIMULATION DOES A DOG NEED?

With what we just said, you might think “the more, the better!”

But that’s not always the case.

While over-stimulating dogs doesn’t have the same physical impact as overdoing it with physical exercise (joint issues, paw pad wear and tear, etc.), there’s no need to be performing hours of brain games with your pup.

The goal of mental exercise is to engage your dog. Too much of it can have the opposite effect and cause your dog to become bored or frustrated with the activities.

And like we said before when your dog is bored or frustrated, that’s when the trouble can start.

So don’t feel like you need to spend hours on this with your dog – mental exercise and stimulation sessions as short as 5-10 minutes can have a meaningful impact.

Remember, it’s the quality, not length, of the activity that will make an impact.

Related Reading: 4 Impulse Control Games for Dogs

CAN YOU DO BOTH PHYSICAL AND MENTAL EXERCISES TOGETHER?

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For pup parents who might be worried about making time for both physical and mental exercise, don’t worry! There are plenty of activities you can do with your pup that satisfy both needs.

Any type of “interactive play” like fetch and tug of war is perfect for getting your pup’s pent-up energy out while also providing mental stimulation.

Challenge your dog with interactive play games.

Surprise them by changing direction frequently, making them guess where you’re going to throw/pull their toys, and have multiple toys in the mix to keep them on their paws!

HOW TO MENTALLY STIMULATE YOUR DOG: EXERCISES, IDEAS, AND EXAMPLES

Remember, your dog’s mental exercise routine doesn’t have to be long and complex. You just want to make sure you choose activities that provide a good mental challenge.

While the possibilities are endless, here are some of our favorites 👇

SNUFFLE MATS

Snuffle mats are inexpensive to buy and really easy to make!

Fill it with high-value treats that will encourage your dog to keep searching through it until they find their reward.

You can buy one or make your own.

TRAINING SESSIONS

Training sessions are great multi-purpose tools for your dogs. They let you teach your dog new skills, improve listening, give physical exercise, and give mental stimulation.

One of the best routes for a 'mentally engaging' training session is to work on impulse control and/or trick training with your dog!

PS- You can learn over 40 different tricks and impulse control games in the Pupford Academy. Learn more here.

OBSTACLE COURSES

Forward-and-Backward-Leg-Weaves | Pupford

Obstacle courses can be built out of the things you already have in your house.

Gather some chairs, boxes, crates, toys, and whatever else you have available to create a course that makes your dog think and problem solve to get through it.

Here is an obstacle course to inspire you!

HIDE AND SEEK

Hide and seek can be played with treats or humans, which is a great way to get kiddos involved.

Be sure to use high-value but low-calorie treats so you can hide multiple around the house and really get your dog searching.

Just get your dog into a sit-stay (or put them in their crate if their stay isn't strong), hide treats (or yourself), and then release them to get them!

FETCH & TUG OF WAR

Fetch and tug of war are classic dog games for a reason. It’s an easy way for your dog to get both physical and mental exercise, indoors or out.

Be sure to really make them work here -- get them thinking, predicting, and working to outsmart you.

PUZZLE FEEDERS & PURE FOCUS LICK MATS

Puzzle feeders and lick mats are great for incorporating mental stimulation into your feeding routine.

Puzzle feeders are great for kibble-type food, while lick mats are ideal for dehydrated food.

Your pup will have fun, work their brain, and get food -- what’s better than that?!

Get your Pure Focus Lick Mat here.

Dog-Licking-Focus-Mat | Pupford

FORAGING BOXES

Foraging boxes are one of the simplest, least expensive puzzle games you can make for your dog. These are a great addition to hide and seek for the ultimate mental and physical workout combo.

Related Reading: Contrafreeloading & Dogs

Here’s a great example.

CUP GAME

The cup game is a lot of fun for your dog, and entertaining for you to watch.

Put multiple cups face down in front of your dog, with a treat in one of them, and let your dog try to figure out which one has the treat.

You’ll probably want to video this… trust us.

NAME GAME

black-and-white-dog-retrieving-toys-for-mental-exercise | Pupford

The name game is great for dogs who know all of their basic skills and need a challenge.

Give your pup’s toys specific names, line them up, and ask them to retrieve certain ones. It might take some time to get the hang of this one, so it’s a great long-term skill to practice!

ENRICHMENT TOYS AND CHEWS

Enrichment Chew Toys are easy-to-use brain games that helps exercise your dog's mind and keep them busy! Put spreads, treats, or chews into different toys like this one and let them go to town.

Long-lasting chews are also great for engaging your dog's mind and will keep them busy for an extended amount of time. Bonus, try putting a Yak Cheese Chew into an enrichment toy.

MENTAL EXERCISE FOR DOGS RECAP

Above all, remember that mental exercise for your dog is a great way to minimize problem behaviors and tire your dog out!

It doesn't have to be complex, just get your dog to use their brain for at least 10-15 minutes per day.

Providing your dog with proper mental stimulation will help reduce problem behaviors, improve your dog's confidence and strengthen your bond!

What are your dog's favorite mental exercises? Tell us in the comments below!

And don't forget to check out our full line of mental exercise toys and games here.

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