June 17, 2021 7 min read

Mental Stimulation For Dogs The Complete Guide For Owners

Dogs, like humans, need to stay active to live a long, healthy life. Dogs were bred for active pursuit, so exercise maintains the lean and limber frame they need to live a longer and fuller life. And while dogs aren’t shy about begging for walks or chowing down on a delicious chew, pet parents often don’t realize they need to exercise more than their jaws and joints — they require mental stimulation as well.

If they don’t stay in mental shape, they can lose their energy, appetite, and bladder control. Or they can slip into erratic misbehavior.

Your bulldog might not seem lean and limber, but notice how he still takes about 6,045 laps around the backyard before even thinking about using the bathroom. The urgency of your dog’s activity might seem silly sometimes, but it serves a purpose. He isn’t carrying around those stuffed dog bones because he’s toying with a paleontology degree or trying to look important; chewing strengthens muscles and strips away plaque. 

Mental stimulation is harder to measure than physical exercise because it’s not just a matter of tracking steps. Moreover, dogs use a lot of the same signals to communicate different needs. Is your cocker spaniel frantically barking because she is bored or stressed, or because there has been an uptick in the local squirrel population? Is your Australian shepherd ripping the couch apart because he misses you, because he is missing something in his diet, or because he can smell a treat that slipped into a crack?

The good news is that dogs are so efficient that a single solution can address a lot of problems — that backyard tour can be a bathroom break, a physical workout, and a mental tuneup. However, correctly diagnosing your dog's most pressing need or discovering an underlying condition can make a huge difference in finetuning your approach. Here’s a guide to your pup’s mental health. 

Yak Cheese 2 Pack

Entice Your Pup With Some Chews

Boredom Symptoms

Maybe Fido turned that garden bed into a diorama of trench warfare while chasing down a mole, but it’s equally likely that he was simply bored. Our furry friends don’t spend hours assembling jigsaw puzzles or scrolling through videos, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t go to incredible lengths to amuse themselves. Our shared sense of curiosity is one of the things that makes the human/dog partnership work so well. 

If you don’t like your canine companion’s particular mode of diversion (spreading the contents of the wastepaper basket evenly throughout the entire house, for example), you probably don’t want to know what they think about your model train obsession! But in all seriousness, a dog’s most destructive and even dangerous behavior often results from not having a proper outlet for their mental energy. Dogs dislike the mental part of being cooped up just about as much as the physical limitations.

Enthusiasm is your pomeranian’s middle name, but does he seem unusually over-excited to see you — maybe there is excessive licking and barking? That might be a sign that he’s really been starved for mental stimulation while his activity partner is away. Is your setter panting even though it’s not hot and she hasn’t been exerting herself? It’s possible that she’s been desperately scrambling to find something to do. If all that scratching appears unrelated to allergies or fleas, your pointer’s brain is likely itching for occupation. And if your otherwise content pug keeps running away from home, he might just be searching for adventure. 

One of the most important parts of diagnosing boredom is ruling out stress. Not only do stressed and bored dogs share a lot of the same symptoms, but boredom stresses dogs out. Tricky! This is where context is so key. 

If you are around when he engages in destructive behavior, note the timing and setting of that behavior. Is it being triggered by something stressful or does it seem to be brought on by a lack of options? If he acts out while you are away, consider setting up a recording device while you are gone. If his barking is especially intense for the first 30 minutes, then it might be separation anxiety. If he takes a quick nap after you leave before settling down to the business of dismantling your house, then the odds favor boredom. 

Boredom Solutions

If your dog is only bored during the long stretches when you are away, consider having someone drop in to take him for a walk or even a run. Set him up for success with a safe, engaging environment. What that ideal set-up looks like will vary. It might mean ensuring that his enclosure is stocked with his favorite dog chew treats and a variety of squeaky toys. It could be that you raise the blinds, turn the TV on and let him have the run of the house for the scavenger hunt you’ve already walked him through! If he is particularly gregarious, contemplate throwing a few canine playdates his way or even getting him a companion. 

Canine Boredom Solutions

6-Inch Beef Gullies

Then make sure your time together is as stimulating as possible. Branch out a bit and explore new territory when you go on your walks. Give him a good rub down and reassure him you know what a good boy he is! Offer breed specific diversions like puzzle toys for border collies or dock diving for retrievers. Don’t get us wrong: you should definitely still be playing the classic game of fetch with your bloodhound, but don’t be afraid to mix it up! Try playing “hide and seek” with your pup — hiding a tasty treat somewhere in the yard and encouraging your pup to go sniff it out. 

You know your dog best — don’t part the curtains if he’s going to try to shatter the window getting at the Amazon delivery guy, don’t give him a massage if he hates touch, and don’t plop a second dog in the house if he doesn’t socialize well.

Stress Symptoms

Just as dogs and humans share a drive to interact with the world, they also share a sensitivity to their surroundings that makes them vulnerable to anxiety. And like humans, dogs often need outside help when it comes to dealing with stress. 

As we previously mentioned, the signs of anxiety can look a lot like boredom, but the physiological effects can be even more severe.Stress can weaken an immune system and make preexisting conditions that much worse. Everything about the digestive process can be problematic; no interest in taking it in and no control over letting it out,and stress can exacerbate those issues. . And while dogs might be destructive when they are bored, they can be even more dangerous when they are panicked.

As with boredom, context is critical in diagnosing anxiety. So that means a lot of patient observation of your dog to get a baseline on what is normal and what is out of character. Admittedly, you might not be able to trace the onset of symptoms to a particular event, especially if there is a degree of mystery to your pet’s past. But she can often provide clues through the way that she reacts to particular triggers. Does your placid pekingese get jumpy when doors are slammed or did your husky only stop being housebroken when you brokered a deal on a new home? That would indicate that their behavior is linked to environmental stress.

dog owner stress levels

Stress Solutions

Just as there is a lot of overlap between the symptoms of boredom and stress, there is a lot of overlap between some of the solutions in terms of spending more time and providing stimulating activities. But stress can also be about taking away something from the environment rather than just adding it. For example, your dog might be stressed because you are gone for a long time, but your presence can also contribute to his anxiety — studies have shown that dogs pick up on their owner’s stress levels. 

You want to vary up the routine to provide stimulation (remember boredom can also cause stress), but dogs are also unsettled by sudden changes to routine or environment, and they can be bewildered if you start changing the ground rules. So maybe take them on a walk down a different trail, but don’t surprise them with fireworks or inexplicably switch a different command for “sit.”

If you can’t remove the source of stress from the environment, it might be possible to gradually make them more comfortable through desensitization and counterconditioning. “Gradually” is the key word here, as is “might”;  there might be limitations on what they can ultimately handle. Continue to pay close attention to their body language and behavior and you will likely tally a lot more tail wagging. 

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Entice Your Pup With Some Treats

Mental Decline Symptoms

If your longtime pal is starting to look lost, even in terms of a bathroom routine, there’s a chance that he is suffering from mental decline. Some of that may be a normal part of aging, just like that stiffness in his hip, but it could be a sign of cognitive dysfunction, which veterinarians often check against the DISHA acronym: Disorientation. Interactions, Sleep-wake cycle, House soiling, Activity level changes.

check for DISHA

Mental Decline Solutions

Some parts of this mental decline are unavoidable, but mental stimulation can help stall its progress or even regain ground. Studies have shown that a dog’s ability to learn new tricks does decrease as they get older, but that doesn’t mean that it vanishes! And the earlier you catch signs of cognitive dysfunction in your dog, the better you are able to fight it. 

Work those mental muscles by rotating toys, playing memory games, and providing plenty of social interaction as well as individual attention. Make sure she is getting the right diet and exercise, even if that means adjusting the routine to account for her change in energy levels. 

It’s important to remember that your dog is unique and so is the relationship you have forged with them! Different breeds have different needs and temperaments, and your circumstances are unique too. The diversity in what they find stressful or stimulating is one of the reasons they can be such good complementary partners to complex creatures like humans. 

Lean into the relationship; rather than fretting about whether your dog is stressed because you haven’t given her the perfect environment, keep in mind that she might only be stressed because you are so worried. Learn to recognize the general signs of stress and boredom for dogs and study up on the particular ways that your dog reacts to his surroundings. Armed with that context, you can feel confident in interpreting your buddy’s signals and he will pick up on that confidence with the same alertness he shows for the rustling of that bag of treats. 


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