Your dog needs more than just physical exercise; they also need mental enrichment to be happy and healthy. I use the term enrichment because it's about adding fun and purposeful moments to your dog's day and life. Do you ever wonder why your dog is still active after their walk? Why they seem to be getting into everything even though you just let them run around outside? It's because you only met their physical enrichment needs, not their mental enrichment needs.
Dogs were not designed to sit around all day and enjoy the couch potato life style (well some actually were but still), they were designed to be active and help us with all sorts of tasks. Over the past century, we've started to forget about all of these jobs that our dogs were bred for and are now more focused on the companionship dogs offer. This isn't entirely bad, dogs do need loving and caring homes, however we can't simply erase thousands of years worth of breeding in a couple years. Our dogs crave work. It makes them happy!
There are plenty of ways in which you can start to fulfill your dog's mental enrichment needs:
Ditching the Bowl
This is probably one of the easiest yet most effective ways of providing mental enrichment for your dog. Ditching the bowl is simply not feeding your dog out of the food bowl and instead finding more creative ways to provide your dog their meal. Here's some ideas:
Scatter feeding - tossing their meal around the living room or entire home
Puzzle toys - specially designed toys to slow down eating and encourage play
Treat dispensers - these provide fun and training at the same time
Pet Tutor is my recommended dispenser. It releases the treat within 3 seconds and is extremely programmable to your unique training needs. It can also be used when not in the home. The link provided is an affiliated link and a purchase made through this link will result in the writer receiving a commission.
Find it - hiding their meal throughout the home and having them search for it
Training - use their meal for training throughout the day versus just giving it to them
Likimats - spread nutritious wet foods like plain yogurt on a mat to slow down eating
snuffle mat - this is a mat designed to have food hide under fleece fabric
Combination - combine the above ideas for even more mental enrichment
Example: My own dog, Ranger, has not eating out of a bowl for years. Some meals I scatter feed, some I hide, some I use puzzle toys for, and sometimes I combine it all together for extra work. Often times I use two or more different puzzle toys to feed him his meal (see picture below). I then hid these toys around the house for him to find. I also scattered some of his meal too.
Ditching the bowl allows your dog to use their sense of smell and locate the food by scavenging. Dog's are natural scavengers and love being able to utilize their nose. When they do this, their brain gives off little bits of dopamine which makes them happier. When a dog ditches the bowl, their consumption time goes up drastically taking anywhere from 5-30 minutes or more to eat a meal versus them quickly eating the food from a bowl. This helps aid in proper digestion because the stomach isn't being overwhelmed with so much food at once, and it also lowers the risks of bloat and stomach flipping in larger breed dogs. When you ditch the bowl, your dog has to use a lot of brain work to eat which tires them out faster too.
As mentioned above, when you only provide your dog with physical stimulation they generally don't get tired like you would expect. Some breeds even get more energy from the physical activity. Think of it this way, when you go to work out there's a point where you start to get a bit of a rush and you feel like you have more energy. Most people go to the gym before they go to work, and they're still able to go the entire day without problem. Now think about what you would feel if I decided to give you a calculus test out of nowhere. Your energy level would be fine at first, however as the test went on and you had to continually process information in your brain, you would start to feel tired. Once you finished that test, you probably wouldn't be up for much else. This is because using your brain continuously for long periods of time is a lot of work on the body. Your dog is effected the same way. Science has proven that your dog will tire faster from mental stimulation than physical activity. When they go around looking for their food, they are using a large portion of their brain, which means lots of mental enrichment and a much more tired dog in the end.
Other Forms of Mental Enrichment
You don't have to stop at ditching the bowl to provide your dog with mental enrichment. There are plenty of games, tasks, training, and other ways to keep your dog's brain happy. We are lucky to have so many products and ideas at our disposal. It would be a waste not to use them.
Here are a few ideas:
Doing what your dog was bred to do - this might seem obvious, but many people don't get dogs based off of what the breed was meant for. However if you can provide them with this, you should. For example: If you have a Chesapeake Bay retriever, consider swimming with them. If you have a Grey Hound, consider running with them.
Flirt pole - this is a toy attached to a string that you control with a handle. Similar to the toys we use to play with cats. If your dog has a big prey drive/chase drive a flirt pole would do your dog wonders in providing both physical and mental enrichment.
Training - yet another obvious one. You shouldn't get a dog unless you plan on training them and training them right. If you use science-based methods while training your dog, you're providing your dog with social enrichment by bonding with you, and physical and mental enrichment because you are teaching them new things such as walking on the leash, stay, park it, and so many other useful cues.
Sports - dock diving, agility, nose-work, and other classes can also provide your dog with as much mental enrichment as it does physical. You have to take the time to train your dog, bond with them, encourage them to do better, and more while doing sport work.
Socializing - if your dog is social (be sure you actually know they are as not all dogs are) then having them play with a few of their dog friends can be full of mental enrichment. Socializing should always be done properly and when it is, your dog can be much happier because of it. Please read my previous blog on dog parks and day cares before taking your dog to one.
As you can see there are plenty of ways in which you can enrich your dogs life mentally. It's time we remove the old school thought that dogs need to eat out of bowls and go on long walks every day. Yes physical activity is an important part of your dog's well being and walks are important and you should be providing your dog with time outside, but don't be afraid to do more mental activities with your dog. You and your dog will be much happier because of it!