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Why is Mental Enrichment Important for Dogs?

Published date: 29 February 2024

Mental stimulation plays a vital role in pet ownership. This helps to release natural endorphins and makes dogs feel happier and calmer.

Some owners can be guilty of considering their dogs physical needs more than their mental needs. Did you know a 10-15 mental stimulation session is often more tiring than a 50 minute walk?

According to the 2023 PDSA Paw Report one of the leading welfare concerns for dogs is unwanted behaviour. Ultimately dogs that aren’t mentally enriched, end up feeling bored! Boredom often leads to stress and can result in more destructive behaviours.

Two things to consider with mental stimulation: the breed and age of the dog. Tap into the natural instincts for different breeds and consider that younger or older dogs might need different levels of intensity.

So, to help you keep your pooches’ brain and body feeling good, here is a guide on providing mental enrichment.

What is Mental Enrichment?

Before we can dig into the how, it’s important to understand what mental enrichment really is. Mental Enrichment is about encouraging your dog to use their brain (and senses) to solve puzzles. Essentially it is about testing your dog’s ability to think, learn and remember.

Mental enrichment allows dogs to perform stimulating natural behaviours and should be used alongside physical exercise to promote wellbeing and happiness.

A 2008 research paper on Canine Mental Enrichment discovered that kennel dogs that were exposed to enrichment toys had; a better appetite, showed less depression, wanted to play more and had a lower frequency of barking.

Although this study requires further and bigger research, it did show some truly positive links to increased mental stimulation in dogs.

So, now we understand mental enrichment better, how can we achieve this with our furry friends?

5 Easy Mental Enrichment Games

Often owners will worry it will be difficult or time consuming to include mental enrichment in their daily games with their dog. The truth is mental enrichment is easy to achieve and doesn’t have to take hours and hours.

Mental stimulation is important at all times of the year, however, can be extremely beneficial during the heat of summer. When the weather is too warm to walk, mental enrichment at home prevents boredom!

Pssst. For more help with dogs in the summer, read our blog on Keeping Pets Cool.

To get you started, here are 5 mentally stimulating games to try with your beloved canine companion.

1) Simply Scatter Feeding

The key to mental enrichment is utilising your dog’s powerful nose. Sometimes simply feeding their delicious dinner in a different way can create a wonderful enriching experience.

Try scattering your dog’s food or treats in the garden or during your daily walks. Take a few minutes and throw handfuls of food in a safe area (keep an eye out for anything dangerous e.g. toxic plants on the ground).

This simple yet effective method of mental enrichment allows dogs to use their noses to snuffle out exciting, tasty things. Remember using their noses is tiring to our dogs, so this works wonderfully for getting rid of that excess energy.

2) Try Clicker Training!

Clicker training is a wonderful tool for preventing boredom and mentally stimulating your dog.

Alongside being mentally stimulating (and fun!), clicker training can enhance the bond between dog and owner. This form of training can also be valuable for day-to-day life with your dog. Imagine how much easier clipping nails would be if your dog willingly gives you a paw?

Discover how easy it is to clicker train with our handy Clicker Guide.

3) Use a Food Based Interactive Toy

A true tried and tested method of mentally and physically stimulating your dog.

Using interactive feeding toys such as the Frogg range can bring excitement both at home and on walks. Each Frogg toy can be stuffed with food, smeared with paste, or pet safe peanut butter.

Ideal for a quick 15-minute mental enrichment exercise or to be used to add more excitement to a walk.

4) Create a Sensory Garden!

So admittedly this one takes a bit more time and effort, however still a very worthwhile project in the long run.

Safe plants and flowers can either be planted directly in garden soil or placed in pots. If you don’t have access to a garden, you can still provide sensory enrichment inside with potted plants.

Sensory gardens provide dogs with interesting sights, scents, and textures. A lovely way to stimulate all their senses and keep them more mentally active.

This also has the bonus benefit of aiding wildlife, in particular essential pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

Gather up your dog friendly plants and herbs:

  • Lavender, chamomile, and rosemary. These are naturally calming and soothing botanicals, plus are hardy plants that grow all year around.
  • Mint and Lemon Balm. These can be chewed upon to aid digestion and energise dogs. Better to be grown in clumps but avoid one species (English Pennyroyal Mint) as this is toxic.
  • Pansies are bright flowers that dogs can see easily (dogs see a different colour spectrum to us) and provide a bit of colour enrichment. Be warned though, pansies can easily be destroyed by more excitable dogs!
  • Wheatgrass is extremely easy to grow, requires little maintenance and aids digestion.

5) Use Cardboard!

Enrichment doesn’t have to cost the earth, a brilliant and sustainable way to provide fun is to utilise some cardboard boxes/ tubes.

One simple game to play involves 5 cardboard boxes and some tasty treats. The goal is for your dog to use their nose to discover which box contains the goodies.

With your dog out of the room, place some treats (or at a more advanced level simply rub the treat scent) on the inside of the box. Then let your dog back into the room and let them find the treat box.

This is a brilliant game that can be adapted to any level. The trick is to start off easier and slowly progress to more boxes and more distractions.

Another cute and clever game involving cardboard is the Memory Game. Lay out cardboard boxes in a semi-circle, have your dog sit and watch as you place a treat in one of the boxes.

Next, hold up a sheet or blanket for around 30 seconds. When you drop the blanket, see if your dog remembers which box the treat was placed into. Remember this can start off easier (with less boxes) and become more difficult as they get better.

I hope you enjoy creating exciting and interesting mental enrichment games with your pooch!

Written by Lucy Marcham

Lucy teaches all aspects of the Pets Corner curriculum and specialises in animal nutrition, ensuring that our staff have the right knowledge and understanding of pet diets to assist customers with confidence and care.