If you are at all in the dog “circle” you have unmistakably heard about mental stimulation. What I think sometimes trainers, like myself, forget to do is to explain to people a couple of important factors about mental stimulation.
First off, I would like to define mental stimulation.
It is any activity that your dog enjoys, can engage in, and that in some way or another satiates an innate (natural) canine need. Now, we must dive into what constitutes innate behaviors in dogs. The most scientific way I know how to do this is to consider who dogs are:
We know that dogs are predators. They acquire their preferred food (or at least they did when they were hunting since most present day dogs do not hunt for their food) by chasing down their prey, and they eat it by dissecting it. As hunters, they do not get a guaranteed meal either so we know that they are opportunistic feeders, as well as scavengers. There in itself, we have quite a few clues as to what sort of activities we might come up with that emulates behaviors all dogs engage in when they are hunting after a prey or feeding.
In delving into it more closely, we discover that dogs, like any other predator, are highly interested in movement because movement might mean an opportunity to eat. We also now know that they have powerful canine molars to grind and teeth to shred meat apart. Another important clue!
So here are some activities that can supply your dog the opportunity of species-specific behaviors: if we add less predictability to how we feed our dogs, we might just hit the jackpot!
Simply put, instead of serving your dog its meal from a ceramic bowl, make that food come alive.
Toss your dog’s high-quality kibble or dry treats up in the air, without much restrain, so that it spreads everywhere. Encourage your dog the first few times to find each and every one of the individual pieces of kibble as it uses it’s very powerful sense of smell. If you are feeding raw, you will not be able to do this, so please do not try this at home.
Alternatively, you can flick away each piece of kibble down a hallway while creating some really interesting motion for your dog. Now your dog has to run after every single one of them. Does this activity resembles a natural way of feeding for your dog? Think about it; it’s the same meal but different behaviors to acquire it: chasing to eat.
When it comes to dogs dissecting their protein for consumption, we can find a myriad of manners to feed our dogs so that they have to “work” with those powerful mouths for their food.
Replace then, the food bowl for a Kong filled with your dog’s daily chow, and not just a thin coat of peanut butter. Now you got your dog’s attention! It might take your dog 2 minutes or even longer to extract its daily food and that definitively beats spending only 30 seconds in one of the most salient activities of the day for most modern dogs: consuming food. If you choose to feed your dog in this manner, you will most likely need to serve more than one Kong. Wow! The fun just doubled. I strongly suggest feeding your dog like this at least once a day.
You can also add some spin to how your dog gets its meal. Some really clever food-dispensing toys require that the dog makes the toy spin in order for the kibble to come out. Remember how attractive movement is for our dogs? Again, if you feed raw, then find some acceptable non-raw item that could add some much needed entertainment to your dog’s day. It could be a boiled egg, sardines or perhaps your dog is into apples. I know of a very lucky dog that gets served daily an apple in a Kong.
While all dogs are predators and engage in one way or another in typical canine behaviors, each dog is also an individual. So spending a bit of time discovering which activities your dog enjoys will pay off. Some dogs might get scared if we attempt to throw up in the air a bunch of kibble, so perhaps for this type of dog, a much more low key toy or even tossing each piece of kibble gently (this does not take as long as you might think BTW) is more appropriate. Now, it goes without saying, not because our dogs are scavengers does it mean that we do not have to provide some guidance as to how to pull the food out of a food dispensing toy. So make sure to make things easy for your dog so that he is successful in getting the food out of the toy. Keep him in the game! Once he can do this with some effort but still gets to extract the food, make things a bit more challenging for your dog.
Of course, there are also games that provide both mental stimulation as well as physical opportunities for your dog, which don’t always involve eating. I will be exploring some of these activities in future posts. Stay tuned!