The perception of family dogs has changed a lot in the last decades. While many dogs used to spend their days outside and went to sleep in a dog house in the garden, most dogs are nowadays seen as full family members. They get a cosy place to sleep (or, let’s face it: several!), great food, toys and lots of snuggles. It has also led to more and more dog guardians to focus on what their beloved four-legged family members actually need - next to food and shelter.
Dogs are intelligent and want to use their brains. Lacking the chance to get the mental enrichment they need, they often resort to what we humans call “bad dog behaviour”. Which is often when dog ethologist, Charlotte Friis, is contacted for help. We talked to Charlotte about the importance of mental stimulation and the consequences it can have for dogs when they don’t get the much needed brain workout they crave.
If you're in a rush, or more of a listener rather than a reader, we compressed all the information in a quick video below.
And if you got this far without knowing who Charlotte is, have a look here.
Q: Why is mental stimulation important for dogs?
A: Scientific data shows that by providing dogs with mental stimulation you can decrease “problem behaviours”. And when you include mental stimulation in your dog’s life from the very start, you can even prevent many behaviours that we see as problematic to develop in the first place.
Mental stimulation is also great to keep your dog’s mind strong. It helps the development of the brain when your dog is a puppy, and is a great way of slowing down the ageing process of the brain when dogs enter their senior years.
On top of that, engaging with your dog in mental enrichment activities is a great way to create a strong bond with your dog. Your dog will see you as the source of something fun - and it can help insecure dogs to boost their confidence.
And let’s not forget that engaging in enrichment activities with your dog is also fun for you! So, having regular mental workout sessions with your dog is a win-win for both you and your dog.
Q: What happens if dogs don’t get the mental stimulation they need?
A: Not getting the mental stimulation dogs need can increase problem behaviours. Many dogs will find ways to get the brain stimulation they crave but these self-chosen “fun activities” will often be the ones we humans don’t appreciate too much. A chewed-up couch, pulled down curtains or a thorough digging session in your house plants is always a clear sign that your dog lacks stimulation.
A lack of mental stimulation can also surface in repetitive behaviours which we often see in zoo animals who repeat a certain behaviour over and over again. If you notice any repetitive behaviours (e.g. chasing up and down in the house for no reason), it’s time to act.
Another serious impact can be the decay of the brain. This is especially common in older dogs, when many dog guardians believe that their dogs want to sleep most of the day and prefer resting over playtime. It’s important to know that a senior dog’s brain deteriorates faster when it doesn’t get mental exercise. Therefore, keeping mental enrichment activities part of your senior dogs’ day is essential to keep their brains active and fit for longer.
Q: Which mental stimulation games do you recommend to your clients who want to include more enrichment to their dogs’ days?
A: An all-time favourite is the Kong. You can stuff them with different food and increase the difficulty for your dog to get to them, by simply putting them in the freezer before you give them to your dog. They are also very durable which is a plus for heavy-chewers.
I am also a huge fan of DIY games. Boxes, toilet paper rolls or empty bottles can easily be turned into fun games for dogs - and cost basically nothing (for DIY mental workout inspiration, click here).
Then, I am a huge fan of nose work for dogs. Sniffing has proven very beneficial when helping dogs with overcoming problem behaviours. Sniffing is a natural behaviour and will tire your dog out. So, give your dog’s nose a good workout before you cuddle up on the couch together.
Q: How often should dogs get a mental workout?
A: As a golden rule, I would say: At least once a day. But it depends on many different aspects, like: What kind of dog do you have? What kind of energy level does your dog have? How old is your dog?
Dogs need different kinds of mental stimulation as they go through the different stages of their lives - I will talk much more about this in our next blog post.
Q: What are misconceptions about mental stimulation?
A: I would say that the biggest misconception is that mental stimulation is optional and your dog doesn’t really need it to be happy and healthy. But from a scientific perspective, mental stimulation is a basic need for dogs. For a dog to develop properly and stay mentally and physically healthy, your dog needs to get a chance to use his/her brain on a daily basis.
So, instead of seeing mental workouts as optional, they should be regarded the same as a daily long walk: An essential part of your dog’s daily routine
We will dive deeper into the topic of mental stimulation in our next blog post. We will look at the different stages of a dog’s life and talk about the needs of each stage and which mental workouts are especially beneficial in each of them.
If you and your dog need help with a specific problem, you can always book a consultation with Charlotte directly.