8 Mental Enrichment Ideas for Dogs (Science-Based)

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Looking for mental enrichment ideas for dogs?

Why is it so hard to find ways to mentally enrich our dog’s lives?

Or is it?

Well, it turns out finding mental enrichment ideas for your dog is not as complicated or confusing as you might think.

All you have to do look to science for the answers.

In this article, I’ll share 8 science-based mental enrichment ideas for dogs. And the best part is, they are so simple you can take action on any or all of them today.

If you want to learn how to support your pooch mentally and physically and enrich your dog no matter what their age, all you have to do is read on.

8 Mental Enrichment Ideas for Dogs - Backed by Science

Before we get to all the great science behind enrichment, let’s look at why enriching your dog’s life is so important…

Same-old, Same-old Equals Boring

Even pooch parents with the best of intentions can and do slip up on keeping things interesting for their dogs. And although dogs and humans are different species, just like us, dogs can get bored too.

In fact, for both species, constant boredom can negatively impact neural, cognitive, and behavioral flexibility.

And many studies are pointing to the fact that boredom leads to behavioral patterns that are problematic such as laying inactive, repetitive behaviors and self-grooming.

Although the study of animal boredom is a relatively new field, scientists are finding new ways to assess boredom in captive mammals through observation.

But from the information already out there, and what I’ll share with you today, you’ll learn that finding mental enrichment ideas for dogs is beneficial on levels you hadn’t thought of.

8 Mental Enrichment Ideas for Dogs

#1 – Olfactory Stimulation

Mental enrichment Ideas for Dogs - Olfactory Stimulation

Your dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than yours.

To paraphrase the dog-cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz…

You might notice a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee. While your pooch can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a body of water the size of two Olympic-sized swimming pools!

Simulating your dog’s natural drive to use their nose and forage is a direct way to improve their welfare. And this study found that nose work can make dogs more optimistic.

In fact, your dog’s sense of smell is so powerful you can even use scents to influence their mood and behaviors.

In this study on shelter dogs, for example, sents like Ginger, Valerian, Coconut, and Vanilla resulted in less vocalization and movement. The Coconut and ginger sents also promoted sleeping.

It suggests that the welfare of sheltered dogs may be enhanced through exposure to appropriate forms of olfactory stimulation.

And this study of 55 shelter dogs found that scents like Lavender and Chamomile resulted in the dogs exhibiting more relaxed behaviors.

#2 – Human Contact Stimulation

Human contact as Mental Stimulation

Our dogs are social animals, and it’s one of the reasons we chose them to evolve alongside us for thousands of years. And our relationship with dogs has been likened to the relationship between a parent and child. It boils down to the “love hormone” Oxytocin.

Jumping to another hormone, cortisol, which is a biological marker for stress, the following studies on canine-human contact are impressive, to say the least.

In this study, shelter dogs were exposed to 45 minutes of human contact.  And they showed lower cortisol levels than the dogs without human contact, which is a clear sign of reduced stress.

In another study on shelter dogs, a 25-minute session of human contact and exercise lowered the stress hormone in dogs. And they scored better on behavior tests.

In both these studies, human contact involved things like exercise, playing, grooming, petting, and basic training.

Which goes to show that our dogs are satisfied with the simple things in life. As long as it includes us, happiness and stress reduction occurs naturally.

Overall, human contact is vital for dogs. It significantly reduces stress, and it’s an excellent avenue to build a deep bond with your dog.

#3 – Auditory Stimulation

Mentally Stimulate your Dog with Music

Your dog’s second most potent sense is their hearing. So if you’re wondering if music can mentally stimulate your pooch, the answer from science is yes!

This study on a group of shelter dogs found that classical music resulted in dogs spending more time in resting behaviors like sitting or lying down. And when the dogs were exposed to classical music they also spent less time standing and barking.

The research also notes changes in the dog’s heart rate variability (HVR), which is a sign of reduced stress.

Interestingly, male dogs responded more positively to classical music than female dogs did.

And in another study, shelter dogs were exposed to 5 different genres of music with some fascinating results…

Compared to classical, mow town, and pop music, soft rock, and reggae music resulted in a significant increase in HVR, which is a clear sign of stress reduction.

The research found that the music did not reduce barking behavior, but notes that the dogs were more inclined to bark when the music stopped playing.

Even although there were varying responses to the genres, the research notes that auditory stimulation causes positive behavioral and physiological changes in dogs.

And this study found that audiobooks improved the welfare of kenneled dogs. The dogs listening to audiobooks exhibited more relaxed behaviors and spent less time sitting, standing, or being “vigilant.”

#4 – Dog Toys

Dog Toys that are easy to chew provide excellent mental stimulation

Appropriate toys for dogs are the primary way that most pooch parents offer stimulation for their dogs.

And if you’re anything like me, your dog has a range of fun and exciting toys.

In fact, I’ll go as far as admitting that I spend more money on dog toys than most women spend on shoes!

But, for a dog toy to provide enrichment, it first has to spark interest in a dog.

And there have been times when my dogs have shown no interest in a new toy.

Seems strange, right?

But this study on a group of shelter dogs revealed some intriguing results on the type of toys dogs find interesting…

Its findings suggest that dogs prefer toys that are easy to chew. Or toys that make a noise (like squeaking). In my opinion, these types of toys interest dogs because it stimulates their drive to chew. These toys also spark their prey drive.

And this study on 32 shelter dogs found that the dogs spent more time moving and less time standing when they were exposed to a Nylabone chew, a squeaky ball, and even a non-squeaky ball.

The study also found that rotating toys encourage dogs to explore toys and reduce the chance of them becoming bored with a toy.

If you’re looking for durable chew toys for your dog, look no further. Check out these best chew toys. And if you’re looking for toys for power chewers, you’ve got to check out these!

#5 – Food Enrichment Toys

Mental Enrichment Ideas for Dogs - Food Enrichment Toys

Food enrichment toys are one of my personal favorite ways to mentally enrich my dogs.

And science has some interesting things to say about the effects of food enrichment toys…

In this study 8 Toy-breed laboratory dogs were offered a food-stuffed Kong toy. The researchers note that food enrichment toys promote an increase in activity levels (exercise). And also stimulated the dog’s appetites.

But those weren’t the only positive results…

The research also shows that exposure to food enrichment toys reduced the amount of barking from the dogs.

This study on environmental enrichment for shelter dogs used a mix of food enrichment and cage-behavior training.

The results reveal dogs in the experimental group exhibited more desirable behaviors like sitting or lying down. The dogs were also quieter, and compared to the control group, there was a decrease in jumping behavior.

The study found that enrichment programs enhanced positive behaviors and reduced unwanted ones. And overall enrichment programs improved the welfare of the dogs.

My dogs and I have tried and tested loads of food enrichment toys. This article brings you reviews of the best puzzle toy for dogs (with some cool videos of my dogs in action).

#6 – Canine Contact Stimulation

Canine Contact Stimulation will stimulate your dog and teach them social skills

Your dog is a descendant of wolves. And wolves are known as pack animals. And you already know that your pooch is highly sociable. They enjoy having human and canine company.

Science has revealed that solitary dogs are less happy than dogs who have the chance to interact socially.

In this study, solitary dogs were inactive for 72 to 85 percent of the time, compared to group-housed dogs at 54 to 62 percent of the time. Lone dogs also spent more time performing repetitive behaviors such as circling.

Dogs playing with other dogs is an opportunity to establish relationships. And this study reveals some in-depth information on how dogs learn from playing

Dogs are so smart; they can learn social cues from watching”third parties” play. This is helpful for them later in life to understand the canine social structure.

In fact, a 2008 study found that playing is so essential that males dogs will often “self-handicap” or muzzle-lick during play with female dogs. Pointing to the fact the act of playing is more important than winning for male dogs.

#7 – Playing Games

Playing Games is mentally and physically enriching

Two of the many things I love about dogs is their tendency towards optimism and their playful characters.

Their playful character is one selective trait humans have used over thousands of years to domesticate our canine friends.

Not surprisingly, studies suggest that their natural playfulness is what makes dogs so highly trainable.

Playing games with your dog is a powerful way to build a deep bond with your dog. But dog-owner game-playing has a strong link to canine mental enrichment.

In a study on the effects of body-contact play on the dog-human relationship, there were some impressive results…

Dogs who played rough-and-tumble games with their owners scored higher for amenability. An amenable dog is one who is more willing to act, open to influence, and overall highly trainable. These dogs also scored lower on separation-related behaviors.

The dogs in the study who engaged in tug-of-war or fetch games scored high in confidence. Winning or losing the games had no consistent effect on the test scores.

Although if the dogs were allowed to initiate most of the games, they tended to be less amenable and likely to exhibit aggression. This supports the theory that only you should initiate games.

And another study suggests that game playing with your dog is also a great way to develop their motor skills and to build social connectedness as this study suggests.

If you’re looking new games to play with your dog, check out this article for fun games to play with your dog outside.

My dogs love a game of tug. If you’re keen on playing tug with your dog to build their confidence, check out the best tug of war toys for dogs right here.

#8 – Physical Exercise

Physical Exercise for dogs has mental and physical benefits

No matter what breed of dog you have, you can bet that they were initially bred for some sort of physical work. So even if your pooch is not “working” in their field, they need physical exercise.

Physical exercise can be anything from jogging, hiking, or swimming to skijoring, walking, and even physical games like tug-of-war or fetch.

No matter what physical exercise you do with your dog, the goal is to build and maintain their fitness over their lifetime.

One study evaluated the effects of an endurance training program on a group of dogs using a treadmill. And the results showed an improvement in the dog’s aerobic capacity compared to a group of sedentary dogs.

Proving that endurance training is as beneficial to your pooch as it is for you.

Exercise is also beneficial for memory and learning as this study found. Although the subjects were mice, the same benefits will apply to your dog.

After a 3-week running period in the study, the mice showed an improvement in memory.

And there was a significant boost in BDNF directly after exercise. This is meaningful because Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) has some powerful effects on the brain, such as…

  • Growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons.
  • Prevents cell death.
  • Increases cognitive function and mood.
  • Decreases neurodegenerative diseases.

Besides all the beneficial effects physical exercise has for your dog, it’s also an essential tool to stave off boredom and unwanted separation-related behaviors.

Conclusion to Mentally Enriching Your Dog’s Life

Hopefully, this article has set you on the path to finding mental enrichment ideas for your dog.

Your pooch is a curious creature which makes finding ways to mentally enrich them easy.

My dogs and I have our favorites…

  • Food enrichment toys.
  • Chew toys.
  • Playing games like tug-of-war and rough-and-tumble.
  • Playing games of fetch on the beach.
  • Physical exercise like swimming.
  • And we’ve recently started experimenting with music.

Now over to you…

What mental enrichment ideas for dogs do you have?

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About the author: Gabriella is a certified professional dog trainer with the Victoria Stilwell Academy. She has a special passion for teaching GSD guardians to train their dogs with kindness and clarity using positive reinforcement methods without force, pain, or fear. Join “Dog Speak” for free dog training tips and advice from a professional dog trainer.

  • Aileen

    Hi Gabriella

    We have a beautiful 8mth long haired German Shepherd. She has the most wonderful nature and is so loving, kind and gentle. We have a son with physical and cognitive disabilities and his brother is ASD and she is wonderful with them and I would ultimately love her to be a support dog. The issue I have is recall, no matter what high value treat we have on offer, she just doesn’t see it more enticing than her environment. I have been taking her to a secure field to practice her training off lead, but the minute I do let her loose it’s like she turns off. There are times where if I throw a ball or toy, she will run get them and play with them, however won’t return to me with them. If I do manage to entice her with a tug toy, she will play for a minute or two and then she’s gone again. Any advice will be greatly received and thank you for your posts, they have become my Holy Grail.
    Many thanks Aileen

    • Gabriella

      Hi Aileen,

      Thank you for your comment and for reaching out to me here! 🙂

      It’s lovely to hear that your girl is so supportive of your sons. The GSD does have a natural tendency towards service and it’s clearly strong in your girl. You might have already read the article on German Shepherds as Service Dogs, but if not, do check it out since it might be of help to you as you look into developing her as a support animal.

      In terms of her recall training, I think the criteria might be too high when working in the secure field right now. That’s why the environment is winning her attention.

      What I suggest is training her in recall in a low distraction area until she’s fluid, and then move into more distracting areas practicing until fluency in each area. And only then taking things into a highly distracting area like the field.

      I’ll use how I train from low distraction to high distraction areas, but you can adjust this as it suits you and the areas that make the most sense in your situation. Training room > Kitchen > Back Portch > Back Yard > Side Walk > Field.

      Also, I recommend picking one recall cue that you only use when training this recall and a word that you have not used before and that is not used often. Many folks (me included) say their dog’s names a lot and if you do this too, then using her name is not a good cue to use for recall.

      Playing proximity games is also a good way to teach her to check in with you regularly, which ties in nicely with a recall. You can start this kind of concept training by tossing treats not far from you and then waiting for her to look at you then tossing another one. Once she’s reliably looking at you for the next treat to come, you can raise the criteria and only offer a treat from your hand when she comes back to you. Try not to toss the treats too far from you because you’re wanting to teach the concept of closeness to you.

      Once she’s reliable in this you can switch up the treats for a quick game of tug when she checks in with you. Letting her win the game of tug by either letting her win the toy or alternatively throwing it for her to catch. In the long run, this may help her learn the concept of bringing back the toy for another round of play. If not, I can guide you to find ways she’ll learn this more readily. But for now, I think your recall training takes priority.

      Feel free to reach out to me as you’re implementing the recall training steps, I’m always around via email and happy to help.

      Hope this helps to get you started!
      Chat soon!

  • Trudy ONeill

    My beautiful Belgium Alsatian is nearly a year old. Male. Gets plenty of exercise on beech and in woods. Good nutrition. Loves coming in car.

    My problem is that he has started howling during the night and is naturally upsetting neighbours. I love this dog but what can I do about the howling? At night he is in a large comfortable warn house in garden.

    • Hi Trudy,

      Thanks for your question.

      Have you tried to determine what or why the howling is sparked? If it’s a new behavior, there might be a reason for it. Like perhaps something is disturbing him.

      You could set up a wireless camera for a few nights to observe what triggers the howling. Once you know it’ll make it much easier to find a solution. 🙂

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