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The Science Behind Mental Enrichment for Dogs | Pupford

December 27th, 2023

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While mental enrichment can feel like a fun 'buzzword', it's important to know what research has shown about mental exercise for dogs!

In this episode, I give a synopsis and my opinions on research done by Lidewij L.Schipper (amongst others) in 2008. Here's a link to the article where you can learn more about the research.

Note: The researchers themselves said that the study is not completely thorough, could use more work, and had a relatively small sample size. Nonetheless, the findings are valuable.

Related Reading: Enrichment for Dogs - An A-Z Guide


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The researchers ran the tests on 8 dogs in shelters. They gave the dogs Kong toys filled with treats to test the effects that interaction had on the dog's behavior. 

In the researchers' words, here is what they had to say:

"This study demonstrated that the presence of these food enrichment toys stimulates appetitive behaviours and increases the level of activity (exercise), measured in terms of time budgets and the total number of behavioural transitions. Moreover, it also appears to result into lower barking frequencies."

That is a GREAT finding!

Appetitive behavior is essentially behaviors that proceed eating and are a signal of 'desire'. This can include sniffing, foraging, working for food, etc.

Related Reading: Contrafreeloading & Dogs

So, enrichment for dogs can help them have a greater desire to work for food, increase their activity level (especially important in shelter dogs) and can even help decrease barking.

Those are all AMAZING results from just the simple use of a Kong! 

Hopefully, this study gives you added reasoning to give your pup mental exercise! 

If you're looking for tools for mental enrichment, you can shop our full range of dog enrichment toys!

Want to leave a comment? Click here.

Related Reading: 5 Types of Enrichment for Dogs


Devin: This is the Perfect Pup Podcast, helping you build a better relationship with your pup. Presented by Pupford.

Hello pup parents, and welcome to today's episode of the Perfect Pup Podcast. This is going to be a good one. We're going to talk about what science, science has to say about mental enrichment, canine enrichment, mental exercise. Whatever you want to call it, brain games, brain toys, all that good stuff. We're going to talk about what some of the research is behind the actual effectiveness of mental enrichment for our dogs. So let's dive right into it. Like I said, when I'm talking about mental enrichment, I'm generally referring to brain games, puzzle toys, snuffle mats, lick mats, KONGs. Anything that works your dog's brain, gets them to do things like forage and sniff and have to find their food or work for their food generally speaking. There are other things that go along with canine enrichment, but that's generally what I'm referring to.

So I think it's important as pup parents to not only work off of things that are maybe anecdotal like, hey, your friend said I did this and it worked for my dog, but also things that have research behind them. There are definitely a lot of things in the dog world that are unknown or unsure. So I think it's as good as much as we can to rely on research that has been done. So this research that I am going to be referring to was done in 2008. And the researchers themselves said there needs to be more research done. The control group is pretty small. There's definitely more things that could be kind of fleshed out with this. But generally speaking, I think it's a good benchmark and gives some good ideas as to whether or not giving mental enrichment for our dogs is valuable.

So what they did in this study, they had eight dogs who were in shelters. Shelters, so kenneled. And what they were trying to see is if mental enrichment actually improved their wellbeing. One of the big concerns, especially with dogs who are in shelters, is they may stop doing things that are kind of no normal good dog behavior like exercise, or having a desire to go after food or those types of things. And you often see a lot of problem behaviors that pop up with dogs in shelters like barking or scratching at doors and whining and those types of things. So they wanted to see if giving mental enrichment could help all of those things. What they did, they took these eight dogs and they measured things before, during, and after the use of enrichment toys. They used a KONG, which many of you are probably familiar with. Think of a rubber toy that your dog can chew on.

You can fill it with things. And in this case, they filled the KONG toy with treats. What they found in the study is that they saw an increase in appetite of behaviors. I hope I'm saying that right. And then they also saw an increase in exercise and the desire to exercise as well as a decrease in the frequency of barking. So what appetite of behaviors means from my understanding is it's basically your dog's willingness and desire to go after food. Things like sniffing, foraging, working for food, those types of things. And it's a good thing. It's something we want in our dogs. And then, of course, exercise. Again, in this instance where they're looking at dogs in shelters, a lot of dogs will get sad, depressed, whatever you want to call it and stop doing the normal dog things. And so to find that using a KONG, using mental enrichment helped improve a dog's desire to not only go after food and work for food, but also improved and increases the level of exercise in those dogs is a very, very good sign.

You might be thinking, I don't want to increase the level of my dog's exercise. But if you look at it holistically, the point that they're making and the kind of evidence that they found is that it is good for dogs and their mental state to use enrichment. And they even found kind of as a secondary note that it decreased the frequency of barking in those dogs who were given KONG toys filled with treats. Like I said, the researchers themselves said, "More research needs to be done. It's a small number of dogs. It's a small study. It's not perfect, but it does provide some evidence that using enrichment for our dogs is beneficial for them." And I think that's so important. As a pup parent, really I think a couple things that I'm always thinking about as pup parent is am I giving my dog a good life?

And also truthfully, selfishly, what can I do to make my life easier when it comes to my dogs? And mental enrichment does both of those things. I'm going to step aside from science and actual research and talk about my own opinion very quickly. My opinion is that with my dogs, there's a noticeable difference on days that they get efficient, sorry, sufficient mental exercise versus days that they don't. And for me, mental exercise can come in a lot of different forms for my dogs. Sometimes it's doing trick training, sometimes it's playing tug of war, playing catch with toys, using things like snuffle mats, using things like lick mats, whatever it might be. But I've noticed certainly that there is a improvement in my dogs' behavior and in improvement in what I see as my dogs' wellbeing. And again, this is my opinion only. I've noticed that it seems like my dogs are happier.

It can be very difficult as a pup parent to know, is my dog happy? But my experience only, I... It feels like to me, and, again, my own opinion, it seems like my dogs are living a more fulfilled and rich life when they do get mental exercise. So my hope for you after listening to this is that there is not just people on the internet talking about mental exercise. There are plenty of that, but there are also... there's research being done, people who are trying to understand the value of canine enrichment and the studies that are coming out are showing that it is beneficial for our dogs. This is just one study. I'll probably cover more in the future, but there it is. Science is telling us it's helpful. And you know what? I believe in science, I think we should try and follow it as much as we can.

And again, it's going to make your dogs life better, and it's going to make your life easier. Because even in this study, they found a decreased frequency of barking in the shelter dogs. So if you're dealing with problem behaviors, mental enrichment, canine enrichment can help. So the next question, or the next thought is, how do you give mental enrichment? We've covered it in other episodes. I'll cover more in future episodes as well, but there's a whole list of things. You can use things like foraging boxes, which is as simple as you get a couple boxes, throw some treats in it, put that box inside of another box, throw treats in there and just let your dog sniff it out and find the treats. You can get a little more sophisticated and use things like snuffle mats and lick mats, KONGs, SodaPup dog toys, whatever it might be.

And then there's even brain games, puzzle toys. There's a whole list of things you can do for mental enrichment for your dog. But I think at the end of the day, it's important that you find time every single day to give your dog mental enrichment, because it will help your dog. And it'll also help you because you will have typically a more kind of tired out, mentally worked dog that is going to be less likely to perform some of those obnoxious behaviors like begging for attention, begging for food, barking, doing things that can kind of drive us a little bit crazy. So I hope you've on this episode helpful. I mentioned it, but at Pupford, we do offer SodaPup toys. They're similar to KONGs. We offer Pure Focus lick mats. We have a snuffle mat. We have a flirt pole, which can be used for some mental enrichment depending on how you use it.

But plenty of things that you can check out if you just go to the Pupford site, search enrichment or toy, you'll find it. And I hope that you, again, like I said, find opportunities every day to give your dogs some mental enrichment so you can see improvements in their behavior and in their wellbeing. If you haven't already, please leave an episode, especially on Apple Podcast. It's very important for this... It helps a lot for this podcast to be able to be found by more people if it has reviews. That's just how it works on Apple Podcasts. And I'm trying to help more people hear this podcast. So if you can do your part as well by leaving a review, that would be very, very helpful. I read all of them. I appreciate the positive reinforcement that I get, as well as the constructive criticism. If you have ideas, if you're saying, if you think, hey, this isn't good or I'd love to see more of this, please let me know. I really do appreciate it. But other than that, we will catch you on the next episode.


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