The Importance of Mental Stimulation For Dogs

the importance of mental stimulation for dogs

I have a hard enough time explaining the importance of physical exercise, but the importance of mental stimulation for old dogs?

That’s a whole other matter.

Never heard of it. What is it?

When I mention the words “mental stimulation” people stare at me with a blank expression. They’ve never heard of it, and quite frankly don’t seem terribly interested when I explain what it the importance of mental stimulation for dogsis.  

Simply put, it is about keeping the brain active and is an important aspect of keeping our dogs healthy. Did you know that working their brain will tire them out as much as a game of fetch? Good to know, especially for those who may not be as physically able as they used to be, or unfavourable weather keeps dogs of all ages indoors more.

Who needs it?

That’s simple – all dogs no matter the age, size, health status, activity level, injured, recovering from surgery… you get the point!

When do they need it?

Every day.  

How do they get it?

Simple – games, interactive toys, training

Anyone in your family can do it, it doesn’t have to cost anything, won’t take up a lot of time and can easily be incorporated into your daily routine.

A few quick notes

I am stating the obvious but… use low fat/low calorie treats so your dog doesn’t put on weight. Make them “high value” meaning something he loves but rarely gets. Save them for training mental stimulation for old dogssessions as extra motivators.

Set your dog up to succeed by keeping games easy at first, then gradually increasing the level of difficulty. Too challenging from the outset and he’ll get frustrated and walk away.

Keep sessions to a few minutes and end on a high note, meaning when he’s successfully completed a task or activity.  

There is no “right” way to play a game. I’ve presented you with a few ideas, you can change them, add to them and come up with your own versions. The key is to find ways to interest and challenge your dog.  

Here are a few ideas

Find the treat in the muffin tin

Hide a treat in only a few of the cups, but put a tennis bowl in each. You want your dog to dislodge the balls so he can reach the prize.

How to teach him you ask? It’s easy, and here is one way.  

Put a treat in one cup then praise him when he eats it. Do it a few more times. Now put a treat and add the tennis ball. When he moves the ball and gets the treat, praise him. After doing that a few times, put a treat in one cup and add a tennis ball to two.

If you use a small 6 cup muffin tin for example, put treats in 3 or 4 but a ball in each.

Don’t increase the level of difficulty until you’re sure he “got it” and don’t do it all in one session. Maybe spend 3 or 4 minutes and end before he loses interest.

The shell game

Remember this one? Hide something under a plastic shell, move them around then select the one that holds the prize? Same thing here, only your dog is the player.

Have your dog sit and stay (if he doesn’t know those commands then teaching him is another great mental stimulator), take 1 cup light enough for your dog to knock over and a favourite treat. With your dog watching, place the treat under the cup and let him find it and eat it! Use a cue like “find it” or “take it” so he learns what you’re asking him to do.

Once he’s mastered it add a second cup, but place the treat under only one. Keep putting the treat under the same cup and when he’s consistently finding it, move the cups around. If he doesn’t select the right one, he doesn’t get the treat. Try adding a third cup if he’s no longer being challenged.  

Treasure hunt

Put your dog in a “sit/stay.” If he doesn’t know those commands, now would be a good time to teach him. If it’s difficult for him to sit for whatever reason, just get him to stay or have someone help you.

Using a delicious treat or favourite toy, hide it where your dog can see it. Use a cue like “find it” in a very excited voice, and when he does praise him. Do it a few times so he understands the point of the game, then start slowly increasing the level of difficulty. Hide it in the same area but under something, further away, even another room.  

Name that toy

I had a neighbour’s dog stay with me a few years ago, and she brought over several of his toys, all of which he could name. I don’t remember how many she said he knew but it was an impressive number – 8? 11? Anyway I thought I’d add that game here.

You don’t have to aim for so many, even a couple is amazing.

Pick one toy, let’s say a soft toy in the shape of a pig. Hold it in one hand, say the word pig as he grabs it, then give him a treat. Repeat this a ton of times until you’re sure he understands.

Next put it on the floor, say pig and reward when he picks it up. Repeat until he “gets” it.

Now take the pig and set it down on the floor next to a completely different toy, a rubber toy or ball for example. Say pig again and when he chooses it praise him like crazy. If he picks the other, ignore it, put it back and say pig again.

Once he’s mastered that, teach him the name of another toy. When he’s learned it put them both down and ask him for one. Again reward him when he gets it right, don’t say anything when he doesn’t just put the toy back and try again.

Do it with different toys and see how much fun and challenging it is!

Hide and seek

You had fun playing hide and seek as a kid, why not recreate those happy times by playing it with your dog!

If it’s you and the dog playing, ask him to sit and stay, hide then call him. Reward him when he finds you. If playing with 2 people one hides, the other stays with the dog then “releases” him out the importance of mental stimulation for old dogsof the sit/stay to seek.  

Get the food out of the bottle

Hide dry food in an empty plastic water bottle, and let your dog figure out how to get to it. Feed him an occasional meal that way and make it last longer.

Cat dancers for dogs

My cats always went crazy for cat dancers, but did you know they’re great for dogs as well? Moving it quickly helps drain energy, and slowly forces him to learn impulse control and “stay.” 

Interactive toys

Store bought interactive toys teach your dog puzzle solving and adds variety to the activities you can offer him.  

Organised dog sports

Work their bodies and minds by signing your dog up for one of the many organised dog sports offered in your area. Options may include agility, flyball and tracking to name just a few. Of course the one you choose will depend on your dog’s physical ability.

Training

Training is another great way to work your dog’s brain. If he knows every trick in the book, then a refresher will still get him thinking. If he doesn’t now is the time to teach him a few. Can he lie down? Give you his paw? It doesn’t have to be a fancy trick, even something simple will do, it’s about learning.

The importance of mental stimulation for old dogs – conclusion

I’ve presented you with a few ideas to give you a starting point, but the number of games and toys is unlimited. Get creative and have a good time.

I hope you realise the importance of mental stimulation not only for old dogs but dogs of all ages.  

 

How do you provide mental stimulation for your dog? Have you come up with your own games? I would love to hear about what you do, and any pictures or videos could be posted on my Facebook page if you like. Sharing helps others.

 

Related Post

Hindy Pearson
Helping people care for their senior dogs
I am a certified dog trainer and pet care consultant, specialising in working with rescue dogs and first time pet parents. I foster and adopt senior and special needs dogs, and advocate for shelter adoption of all animals, particularly older dogs and cats. I am currently working on a spay/neuter program in Spain.

48 Comments

  1. Dash Kitten Crew

    Mental stimulations is vital for us all, and especially for older dogs and cats. Let them know they are loved and encourage activity.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I couldn’t agree more! We all need mental stimulation, it keeps the brain functioning.

      Reply
  2. Pawesome Cats

    Mental stimulation is important for all ages – young and old. In an old pet it keeps them young and it helps curb boredom and mischief in the young ‘uns.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Absolutely right!

      Reply
  3. kelly

    Mental stimulation is very important for dogs of all ages! A wonderful post with great tips. During the cold, wet months when I can’t get out with Miss Edie as much as I would like, I play games in the house with her. Keeps her active, fit and helps keep the boredom at bay.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      That’s amazing you play games with her, she’s a lucky dog. I see too many around here who barely get a walk, never mind games.

      Reply
  4. Rachel

    Great tips – and yes, mental stimulation is so important for senior dogs! Our dog still loves toys, he’s just a little slower on fetch. But you’ve given some really great ideas here and I will definitely be using some!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks I’m glad you can use some of the ideas. What’s great is how easy it is to find fun things to do with them, and it doesn’t have to cost a penny.

      Reply
  5. Susan Bewley

    YES!!! So many people seem to think only puppies need things to keep their brains active, but the wrong reasons (usually keeping them from chewing). My family always did this with our dogs growing up and I never understood why. To me, a happy, healthy dog is one that is playing, actively thinking, and always learning new things, no matter what their age.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Hi Susan, I totally agree with your definition of a happy healthy dog.

      Reply
  6. Amy Shojai

    Mental acuity requires exercising the brain, just as muscles need exercise. GREAT post! And love the suggestions.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thank you Amy.

      Reply
  7. sherri

    I’ll try some of these but my dog’s favourite mental stimulation is stiffing – everything, everywhere and going to new places to sniff is a BIG thrill for him. While I’m looking up at the scenery, he’s looking down.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I know what you mean, but if you do get him interested in something, let me know!

      Reply
  8. Nichole

    I LOVE this post… thank you for sharing and bringing attention to it. I see so many folks just let their old dogs “be” and don’t really give them the stimulation they need. It’s important to keep them interested and active.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks very much Nichole! You’re right about how many people basically ignore the needs of their old dogs. Mental stimulation is important for dogs of all ages, yet it seems like too few people have heard the term.

      Reply
  9. Tonya Wilhelm

    “When I mention the words “mental stimulation” people stare at me with a blank expression. ” That’s so sad. I love this post. We have to keep spreading the word about engaging our pets. Thanks for this.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I know exactly how you feel. They don’t have a clue, and worse they’re not even interested in hearing what it means. Dogs of all ages need mental stimulation, so I guess we’ll have to keep banging on about it. Where did I put my soapbox?

      Reply
  10. Cathy Armato

    Great ideas for mental stimulation! I love playing some of these with my dogs, but for some reason they just can’t get the Shell Game down! Even when I only use 2 cups they’re still bad at it, BOL!! I’ll keep trying.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Bless them!! I guess they can’t excel at everything, but it’s good they found a challenge.

      Reply
  11. Ruth Epstein

    Love these ideas but Layla is just impossible – I bought a muffin tin put treats in each hole, then covered with little balls and put it on the floor, she sniffed, looked and then looked at me as if I was mad, left the whole thing and went to her box. It stayed on the floor for over an hour plus – no interest, so gave the balls to a friend of mine for her dog and I am making muffins, The treats she will get LOL

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Ruth you’re hilarious!! If something is too hard for Jack he’ll look at me with that expression that says “how hard do you think I’m going to work for this treat. My human dad will be home soon and give me too many.”

      Reply
  12. Kandace

    Love this post about our senior pets. Its so true! I have three seniors at home and they need just as much mental stimulation as my younger dogs. When Hope is too old to hike, I will enlist the help of a baby carrier lol

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Mental stimulation is so important for dogs of all ages, too bad the message hasn’t gotten out there enough!! Baby carriers, slings, strollers – they’re all brilliant and it means our dogs get to enjoy themselves, rather than be stuck at home.

      Reply
  13. The Daily Pip

    What great ideas! I am definitely going to try the shell game and hide and seek. Of course, you are right on the treats. Ruby is a smaller dog and very prone to weight gain – same goes for her mom. LOL.

    Dogs are very similar to humans in this way. Keeping the mind healthy and alert is as important keeping the body healthy

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I hear you!! Very similar for sure. As important as it is for us to keep challenging ourselves so our brains still function, same for dogs of all ages.

      Reply
  14. Sonja

    SO wish my boy would play like this. I sometimes think he thinks he’s “above that”. he isn’t food driven at all. Not even a little. Even for cheese. And although he does know the name of each of his toys, and if feeling playful will fetch one – fetching isn’t something he feels he wants to do for more than … two runs?
    So we do a LOT of outdoor activities and a lot of it hiking in places where he can go off leash as well. His nose and brain are stimulated same time as his body. But I worry about what we will do when he gets older.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I know what you mean. Some dogs look at you with that expression that says “you want me to do what?, I’m not bothering.” It does make things more challenging when they’re not motivated by food at all. When he gets older you can still go on your adventures, they just might be different types of adventures. Who knows, he may have developed an interest in some kind of game by then!!

      Reply
  15. Beth

    My dogs love puzzle toys as well as the games you mentioned.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      That’s great to hear Beth. I love they get a workout while I can just sit and watch!

      Reply
  16. Rebecca at MattieDog

    These are all great mental stimulation games – we use the cupcake tin/tennis ball/treat one quite often. Since our pups have tiny/short noses we like to put small little tennis balls in the cupcake tins that they have to root through! It turns out into a fun game – and you can even use the games to teach them things! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Hi Rebecca, it is a fun game, the big tennis balls are too big for my dogs as well.

      Reply
  17. Sweet Purrfections

    So many of your recommendations for senior dogs also apply to senior adults. I’ve noticed that my response time when doing a project isn’t as quick as it used to be. I try to stay stimulated by playing games that require me to think.

    Great ideas!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      You’re absolutely right! I’ve read how important mental stimulation is for adults – puzzles, learning a new language…

      Reply
  18. christy caplan

    I use puzzle toys with old Bruisy and I was just thinking about this today – we went on three short walks but just having him out using his nose and hanging in the leaves was great enrichment. I think enrichment ideas for seniors is so important – even if they cannot go on long hiking adventures there are other things they can do!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Couldn’t agree more. There are tons of ways to provide enrichment for dogs of all ages.

      Reply
  19. Carol Bryant

    I have had puppies and seniors. I know that keeping them mentally alert is a key to never growing old – they just get better with time. You have a slew of fab tips here. Way to go!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thank you Carol. It’s nice to hear from someone who has experienced the spectrum of age ranges, and has seen the difference mental stimulation can make.

      Reply
  20. Tenacious Little Terrier

    We do a lot of training and Mr. N also goes all over the city with me and is constantly going to new places and seeing new things.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I’m sure he’s very well known where you live!

      Reply
  21. FiveSibesMom Dorothy

    Love some of these ideas! My Huskies love puzzle games and interactive toys. I love your suggestion of hiding treats under a tennis ball in a muffin tin! I’m going to try that! I’m also Pinning this over on my “Bark About” board!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks so glad to hear that. There are lots of great and super easy ways to challenge our dogs and best of all it’s fun.

      Reply
  22. Paul Kirhagis

    Such good information for old dogs, but this type of stimulation is golden at all ages as well! Making mental exercise as important as physical exercise will lead to a happy, healthy dog

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      You’re absolutely right! Mental stimulation is so important for dogs of all ages, and is as important as physical exercise. If only people would get the message!

      Reply
  23. Talent Hounds

    Mental exercise is so important for Kilo the Pug. That’s such a great list. We play lots of games and do training every day. He actually asks me mid morning and mid afternoon- he gets my attention and stimulation and rewards. He loves puzzles and anything with treats, and enjoys sniffing around on our street, but does not seem to have the best nose for scent work finding hidden things. He also seems to have trouble learning verbal cues and names except for sit, wait, treat, and dinner time. He does lots of tricks but tends to rely on hand cues and my response although maybe it is my training skills or consistency. I have him do some tricks or chew a toy to reset his brain when visitors come or out on a walk if he gets anxious.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      It’s amazing how much you help mentally stimulate Kilo. I tend to pair verbal cues with hand signals, force of habit from having a deaf dog a few years ago. It’s funny how he can’t seem to understand the word “sit” but the hand signal he gets. I think it’s great for them to learn both, just in case they start losing their hearing, you can still communicate. If you have any good games you’d like to share, or pictures of Kilo playing, feel free to send them to me and I’ll post them.

      Reply
  24. Malaika Fernandes

    Loved this post most pet parents think that their old dogs want to be left alone but that is not true. After all they need mental stimulation too. Even an old dog can love learning new tricks

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Sad isn’t it! They think all they want to do is lie on their bed all day, when even if don’t take as many walks as they used to, they’d love to play a game, learn a trick… Hoping one day people will get the message.

      Reply

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