Posted by: lizcatalano | August 29, 2009

Think About It!

A student recently asked me to explain precisely what I meant when I suggested mental stimulation as a way to tire her very energetic dog.  It seems her exercise program was inadequate and she really was stretched to the limit in trying to meet his needs.  The result was an over-active and destructive dog.

The very best mental stimulation encourages your dog to use his brain to solve some sort of a problem.  Dogs love problem solving. Problems to dogs usually are ones that involve how to get something they want.  Unfortunately, their idea of problem solving is our idea of a PROBLEM!  Examples:  dog sees something he wants, dog digs under fence to get to it; dog smells food on counter, dog figures out how to jump up; dog is bored, dog finds his own giant chew toy (can you spell sofa?); etc.

So how do we create good problems for dogs to solve?  Food puzzle toys like, Kongs, stuffed bones, Buster Cubes, are the easiest to use.  There are so many to choose from, I can’t even mention them all.  All of these toys involve some type of food item being stashed inside while your dog chews, licks and plays his way to success – and sleepiness.  You can increase the difficulty of these toys by packing the food in tighter, freezing them and then maybe even hiding them around the house for your dog to find.  These toys are great because they can be recycled and a different one used each day so your dog is never bored of it.  These toys can very successfully take the place of the food bowl and make your dog’s dining experience something special that isn’t over in 30 seconds!

Training challenges are very mentally stimulating and a great way to increase your dog’s brainpower. In fact, the more your dog learns, the better he will be at learning.  Challenge: I will hold your favorite toy just out of your reach, what must you do to get it?  Answer: look me in the eye, sit, lay down, or anything else that you can think of.  The key to this game is that you do NOT give the dog the answer! They must figure it out for themselves and ‘offer’ the behavior.  You remain quiet and patient.  Most dogs know ‘sit’ so that might be the first behavior you get. As soon as he does it, YES!  Give him the toy! When he’s good at that, let him sit there awhile until he wonders why you aren’t giving him the toy as usual, he may then look in your eyes.  When he’s good at that, move onto the next behavior.  Translate this to going out the door.  If your dog wants to go outside, see what behavior he’ll offer you to get you to open the door. You can make a challenge/training game out of almost anything.

I love to shape behaviors using a clicker.  This is kind of like playing the childhood game of ‘hot and cold’ with your dog. You can get your dog to perform some impressive behaviors this way.  You do nothing except click and reward your dog for offering some small behavior. I like to start out with targeting, (getting the dog to move to and touch with nose or paw an object that you have chosen). Over time, you will shape that behavior into something useful or fun.  I taught my dog how to limp on command while interacting only with the sound of a click and the delivery of a treat. There are some great books and videos out there to get your started, check out Karen’ Pryor’s “Getting Started, Clicker Training for Dogs”, and “Click for Joy” by Melissa Alexander.

One of my favorite ways to mentally stimulate my dogs is to teach them to do tricks.  Tricks can be as elaborate or complex as you want.  Trick behaviors are very often the basis for the complex tasks that service dogs perform: turn off the lights, close the door, pick-up the laundry!  A great book for learning tricks is “101 Dog Tricks” by Kyra Sundance.  The book offers clear instruction and great illustrations to guide you.  You will start with the easier, basic behaviors and gradually work to more advanced skills. Whatever you do, do more with your dog.  Their brains will thank you!



  1. Great topic and a great explanation! I don’t think I would survive 2 Border Collies without Kongs!

  2. Liz, this was a great read! wonderful tips that I will put into practice with my very very active and high-spirited pit bull who is otherwise the most loving dog I have ever had….can u believe more than Timmy??????? I’ll keep you posted about my success with Jake. Thanks!

  3. I couldn’t agree more! I had a rhodesian ridgeback rescue with a HUGE energy tank. The more we exercised, the more fit he became and the more energy he had. We got into trick training as a way to drain his energy tank. 5-10 minutes of trick training was all it took to drain his tank. In one session I could free-shape him to stand in the corner or get him to put his head under the bar stool. Anything new and challenging he loved. He learned some interesting behaviors including dusting the coffee table, blowing bubbles and putting his toys away. Tricks were a great no pressure way for me to understand how dogs learn. Then, I could apply that to other, more usual behaviors (stay, come). I encourage other owners to try a few simple tricks. Once you understand how dogs learn, then teaching a recall or a stay at the front door is a piece of cake!

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