Exercising your Dog’s Mind

By Kay Bradnum

We all know to take care of our dog’s physical exercise and, for most, a couple of good walks a day make the difference between a hyper, almost out-of-control dog, and one who’s content to snooze by the fire in the evening.

However, there are lots of times when walks aren’t the answer; they’re not for dogs on restricted exercise, or when you can’t walk because of extreme weather conditions, nor are they for dogs who are just too fearful or anxious to cope with a walk. Very fearful dogs might need to be left in peace altogether for several days, weeks, or longer. If your dog is happy with you at home but afraid of walks, no walk at all is the best thing. We can just tire their brain instead. Twenty minutes of hard thinking can equal a good hour’s walk. Think how tired you are if you’ve spent all day swotting for an exam or writing up a difficult presentation.

A few simple training tasks might be all you need. Teach a ‘high five’, ‘roll over’, ‘play dead’, ‘say your prayers’, and so on. Teach your dog to touch your hand whenever you hold it out. Teach him the names of his toys or to put them away. It doesn’t have to be anything formal or ‘special’, just as long as it’s fun for both of you.

There are many food enrichment toys on the market; lickimats and Kongs are the ones most people know. These are great, but there are lots of free alternatives to food toys:

  • Teach him the Cups Game. Put one treat under a cup and encourage him to touch it with his nose or paw to get the treat. Once he’s understood that, add another cup. Once he is choosing the correct cup each time, move them around, then add a third. It’s fun for both of you
  • Instead of giving him his food in a bowl, throw it on the grass for him to forage for it. This is otherwise known as scatter feeding
  • When you have time, lay short trails of food for him to follow
  • Play hide and seek. The hider should have a toy to play with the dog when found
  • Hide a treat in a cardboard toilet or kitchen roll tube and fold the ends over for him to open
  • Put a few treats in a cardboard box with some scrunched up newspaper and let him find them.
  • If he’s fed kibble, spread it on an old dog towel, and roll it up for him to search for. When he gets good at this, cut the leg off an old pair of jeans and roll that up with kibble hidden in each layer
  • Put some treats in an old plastic bottle with no lid. Let him play with the bottle to get them out. If he struggles, poke a few holes in it. Before you start, make sure that the noise doesn’t frighten him

Scent work is also a good activity for tiring your dog. See guide 19 for some videos.

Here are a few links to give you more ideas:

Canine Enrichment Facebook Group

Budget Enrichment for Dogs & Cats Facebook Group

101 Things to Do with a Box, from Karen Pryor Clicker Training

For an arthritic dog, these are not cheap but can be a good choice
PickPocket foraging blanket from Canine Arthritis Management. They also have a version that hangs in a crate for a dog on crate rest.

DIY hacks for food enrichment (the only caveat I would add to this one is that I would use scraps of material to tie the ends of the plait, rather than elastic bands):

DIY Brain Games for Dogs! Homemade food puzzle toys