Dogs are natural scavengers and instinctually hunt and forage for food. Mental stimulation and environmental activities are wonderful ways to provide a natural outlet for your dog. Providing ‘things’ for your dog to do helps meet their mental and emotional needs in their day-to-day life.
Fun games and tasks help build your dog’s confidence (confidence plays a huge part in a dog’s behaviour as confidence comes from a feeling of well-being), improves learning and memory, reduces destructive behaviours brought on by boredom or stress, increase concentration, and in addition, gives your dog problem-solving skills. If a dog can successfully problem solve, then the chances of them learning to regulate their emotions when over-aroused (excited), or fearful increases.
The idea for the mental enrichment games like puzzles, toys, scent work, and home agility is to help utilize the dog’s brain and make them mentally tired. This will also help teach the dog to cope out of daily routines and give them focus/concentration skills, as well as build confidence – yes, I’ve mentioned confidence twice now, but it is such an important part of a dog’s life, training, and a behaviour modification.
Appropriate chewing outlets should be provided for your dog to help reduce frustration and/ or stress. Leave your dog with multiple things they like to chew around the house, and if your dog loses interest, take away the chew until you need it the next time to provide mental stimulation. Rotating and taking away chews or toys helps ensure that the dog doesn’t lose interest and they stay excited and engaged. Save the high-value chews and toys for when you want to lure them away from something, or for when you want to keep them busy to have quiet time.
These must be large enough so that they are unable to be swallowed as well as stern enough, so the chew does not break easily. Appropriate chewing outlets also help puppies through their teething period.
Pizzle Stick 30cm
Beef fill a chew
Large femur bones (from the butcher)
Kong (L) chew toy for larger dogs, Kong Classic Red (M) for smaller dogs. Pink and blue colours are designed for puppies and smaller dogs.
Kong rubber ball, genius Mike/Leo, squeeze goomz football, core strength bone.
Titan Busy Bounce dog to
Dog interactive puzzles and treat dispensing toys are one of the best enrichment activities you can give a dog for their brain! These types of puzzles teach your dog to think for themselves and gives them problem-solving skills. Puzzles for dogs have the added benefit of creating body awareness as well as building focus and duration of concentration.
These games also help the dog use their body by using their paws to scratch and move pieces, their nose to push, and their mouth to pull. There are many puzzles and treat dispensing toys that range from a simple hide-nudge-find, to moving and lifting blocks, or sliding/ rotating small compartments to uncover the hidden treats.
These toys should be used under supervision as they come with many small parts that come out and can cause the dog to choke if they chew one. As these puzzles come in different levels, 1 being easy and 5 being very hard, it motivates and increases the criteria for your dog so they don’t become bored. These toys should definitely be used at mealtimes as well as in training sessions as they are a great way to encourage the dog to concentrate for a long period of time and work on impulse control by teaching them ‘patience’ through their problem-solving abilities.
Scent/ nose work
Nose work games are a great way to use your dog’s natural talents in a constructive way and mentally tire them out. This teaches them to use their nose instead of relying on their eyesight, as well as keeps them entertained. It also helps build your dog’s confidence as they have to problem-solve to find the treat.
The word to use to tell your dog to go searching is “find it” or “seek”.
Start in your lounge as it will be less distracting, and as you progress, you can start to hide things outside in the garden.
You can either get someone in your family to hold your dog, or you can put them behind a baby gate while you hide a smelly treat or toy.
Start by letting your dog see where you hide the treat at the end of the room. Walk back to your dog and gently place your empty hand towards their nose for them to smell. Then give your dog the cue – “Seek” – and point in the direction of the treat.
When you first start out, center the game around one room, then gradually build up to new locations and distances. Place the treats in obvious spots, and some in more challenging spots like under the rug, or in between the cushions on the couch.
Muffin tray game
Take a 12-muffin tin and put a treat in each cup. Place tennis balls in about half the cups. Your dog will sniff out the treats by knocking away the tennis balls, which will reveal the ‘goodies’ underneath.
A muffin tin is also a great thing to use instead of a slow feeder for greedy dogs.
It slows down the meal process, and the dog has to work hard to get each morsel of food out of the spaces.
Crumple up some paper from magazines/ newspapers shaped into a ball and place them in an empty box.
When the box is filled to the top throw some treats inside and watch your dog use their nose to find the yummy treats.
Empty toilet rolls
Grab an empty toilet roll, fold one end of the roll then pour in some nice smelling and tasty treats, then fold the other end up to close it.
Watch as your dog tries and figure out how to get the treats out.
You can also place down multiple toiled rolls filled with treats to make it last longer.
A snuffle mat is a great tool for mental enrichment and provides wonderful entertainment for your dog. It allows your dog to use their natural foraging ability which can help reduce boredom and anxiety behaviours.
Every time your dog uses their noses it’s like a gym workout for their brain. You can use a snuffle mat when you have visitors over, for mealtimes, or just for general fun.
Lick mats are also a great way to keep the dogs mentally busy. The great thing about lick mats is that when the dog is licking it releases endorphins from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland which is a feel-good hormone and can help reduce frustration, anxiety, and stress-related behaviours. It also helps gives your dog something to do which tires them out.
A lick mat is also a great tool to use if you want to groom your dog as it helps keep them busy and still while you are brushing.
Lick mat ideas:
Raw food (if the dog is on a raw-fed diet)
Bone broth – low sodium (pour it over and freeze it).
Dog tin food (wet food).
Possum (you can get it from the fridge in the pet food section in most shops).
Peanut butter (no added sugar or salt).
For many dogs, feeding times are the highlight of the day, but 30 seconds later the bowl is empty, and they are left with nothing to look forward to. This is obviously a very unnatural situation as dogs are natural scavengers and would spend a large portion of time and effort acquiring food.
Make getting food slightly more challenging and fun. The first thing to do is take away the food bowl. Eating a pile of food like kibble or raw is never going to be a challenge. Instead, if it’s dry food, try scattering it around the garden. Not only does this encourage your dog to use their nose, which is mentally tiring, but you will be amazed at how much energy they will expend crisscrossing the garden/ lounge/ kitchen/ or patio to ensure that she has found every last crumb.
Try filling a plastic container with snacks and dry food (under supervision). Then, as your dog nudges it around they will be rewarded with food falling out. Alternatively, suspending a similar container just above nose height will encourage aerial nudging.
If you really want to up the ante, stuff food into specially made toys such as a Kong®. These have an advantage as canned food can be put in as well. Once your dog gets adept at emptying their Kong®, try freezing it – that will slow them down a bit.
Apart from prolonging your dog’s mealtimes and consequently pleasure at being fed, these are great energy burners. Too often we try to physically exhaust our dogs with long walks and runs but don’t burn off any mental energy.
Providing mental enrichment into your daily routine can be simple and fun!
– Van der Staay J.F., van Zutphen J.A., de Ridder M.M., Nordquist R.E. Effects of environmental enrichment on decision-making behaviour in pigs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 2017;194:14–23
– Amaya V., Paterson M.B.A., Phillips C.J.C. Effects of Olfactory and Auditory Enrichment on the Behaviour of Shelter Dogs. Animals. 2020;10:581.