Have you ever had a dog who always seems to be chewing on all the wrong things, barking violently at every moving object that passes your window or pacing back and forth like they are waiting in the waiting room of a hospital? Perhaps you have even contacted a dog trainer concerned that they have a behavioral problem and have been told, “They might be bored…”
Recently, there has been increased emphasis on caring for one’s mental health in addition to physical health. Psychological well-being is consuming the spotlight as a vital component of one’s self-care regimen, leading to trends like journaling, ASMR, an increase in individuals receiving therapy or pursuing further education and even career changes. One topic matter which has been severely overlooked, however, is the mental health of our canine companions.
We all know the importance of taking our pup for regular walks or runs, and depending on the breed, letting them sprint around to expend energy – but physical activity is only half of the equation when it comes to prioritizing their health.
At this point you may be wondering, “But how am I supposed to mentally stimulate my dog? We don’t even speak the same language!” Luckily, there are numerous ways to make your dog’s brain work, most of which do not cost anything or require hours to conduct.
Physical Activity vs. Mental Activity
It has long been observed that physical activity is imperative for a dog’s health. Exercise and movement ensures that your dog remains limber, stays at a healthy weight and significantly lowers the risk of many medical problems in later life. But just as human beings cannot function optimally by focusing solely on their physical well-being, a dog cannot function optimally by simply going for a walk or running around the yard.
Providing a source of mental stimulation for your dog can be accomplished in many ways. Anything that forces your dog to think is a form of mental stimulation, and even something as simple as an obedience training session, trick training or providing them one of the many “puzzle” games developed specifically for this purpose will help fulfill this need. If you want to incorporate mental stimulation in your regular routine, even switching walking environments, allowing them to interact with other dogs and people on your outings or riding a bike with your dog will do.
So how can you tell if your dog is not receiving adequate mental stimulation? Boredom in a dog can manifest itself in numerous ways, ranging from barely noticeable behaviors to severely destructive or dangerous behaviors.
Five Signs Your Dog is Lacking Mental Stimulation
Do you find your dog exhibiting one or more of the behaviors listed below? These are all common symptoms of boredom and are excellent indicators that your dog is itching to use some of its brain power!
1. Your dog destroys household items. If your dog is frequently chewing on items around your home and is not teething – for example, chewing on furniture, blankets, shoes or shredding computer cords – it is usually because they are bored and chewing is a natural way to release endorphins.
2. Your dog is restless. Does your dog whine for no apparent reason, even after you have taken them outside five or six times in the past two hours? Does he or she pace back and forth around your home, or even become neurotic – running in circles or repeatedly leaping on and off furniture? Many breeds, especially those of the herding variety, not only require daily vigorous exercise but possess the innate ability to chase. If not provided an outlet, it can develop into what is sometimes referred to as the “zoomies.” In very bored, high energy dogs this will occur very frequently and can become neurotic and destructive.
3. Your dog won’t stop barking. If your dog is constantly barking at passing traffic, staring out the window and growling at slightest noise in your home, it may be a sign that your dog is bored and attempting to give itself a job.
4. Your dog sleeps too much. Most dogs are inherently active animals. If your pooch is spending the majority of its time lying asleep in its basket, they may need some activity and toys to help bring them to life.
5. Your dog excessively licks or chews its paws. If allergies are not an issue for your dog, you may find them grooming excessively or becoming self-destructive. In addition to chewing household items, some dogs will over-groom themselves if they are looking for something to do.
How to Engage Your Dog in Mental Stimulation
There are several simple ways you can engage any dog in mental stimulation, all of which will help to keep their mind active:
• Hide your dog’s treats inside a puzzle toy
• Teach your dog a new trick
• Join an obedience class
• Bike with your dog or teach them to swim
• Walk your dog in a new environment
• Engage your dog in social interaction with other dogs or people
• Build an agility course for your dog
• Join a dog sport or herding club
• Play fetch incorporating commands or making your dog search for its toys or treats
• Rotate your dog’s toys
Different Methods for Different Breeds
Many dog breeds were strategically bred to fulfill very specific jobs. Depending on the type of dog you have (herding, sporting, working, hunting, etc.), you may have to adjust the psychological activity accordingly. For example, a herding or working dog like a Border Collie, an Australian Shepherd or a German Shepherd will gain significant enjoyment from completing tasks for their handlers. A Golden Retriever or Labrador Retriever will likely be able to spend hours fetching a tennis ball or retrieving a frisbee. Hounds like Beagles and Foxhounds will be thrilled to participate in tracking games where items have been hidden around your home. Breeds have different drive forces (something that they just can’t get enough of and likely naturally excel at), and with a bit of creativity you will be able to find a form of mental stimulation which works well for you and your dog.
In this article, we have explored the importance of nurturing your dog’s mental health, as well as identifying the warning signs of a bored dog, and ways to help keep their minds active.
No matter your dog’s breed, upbringing or behavior, there is no doubt that keeping their mind active – as well as their body – is a vital part of their overall health and well-being. Your dog is not the only one who will benefit from a regular mental stimulation regimen – you and your family will likely experience a calmer, more focused dog. You may even find that some of its unusual or frustrating behaviors disappear all on their own.