Ways to Give Your Dog More Mental Stimulation

Dogs require both physical and mental exercise to be happy and healthy. This article explores ways to give your dog more mental stimulation to improve her quality of life. Suggestions are provided to improve mental stimulation.

Keep in Mind your Dog’s Breed

Dogs have been bred to excel at certain tasks based on their specific skills and natural abilities. All herding breeds share the ability to control the movement of other animals. Whereas the sporting breeds were first developed to work closely with hunters to locate and/or retrieve quarries. Breed-specific games and activities are an attempt to gear a dog’s mental stimulation toward her natural, instinctive abilities.

This training is also relevant for mixed-breed dogs. Consider what types of activities your breed-mix enjoys and if there is a dominant breed that is obvious to you, follow the suggestions for that breed group. Some mixed-breeds may not display any specific dominant play tendencies. For these dogs, you can try some activities suggested for any of the dog breed groups to determine what she enjoys.

Breed-Group Specific Games — Give Your Dog More Mental Stimulation

Here are a few breed group-specific, mentally challenging games for you to try with your dog based on some 7 AKC dog breed groups.

The Hound Group

All the breeds in the hound group have at least one thing in common—their gifted sense of smell. Scent Hounds were bred to follow a scent, whereas sighthounds were bred to chase prey.

All these dog breeds, despite their differences still have in common their extremely powerful sense of smell. What is needed here for this group is to find safe ways to simulate hunting games.

The hound group is quite diverse and includes breeds ranging from the basset hound at one end of the extreme and greyhounds at the other. The hounds have 2 sub-groupings that are based upon their strongest sense which is the sense they rely on when chasing the game. The sighthounds rely on their sight to hunt prey, whereas the scent hounds rely on their sense of smell to track the game.

In the case of the sighthounds, which includes the sleek, extremely fast thin dogs such as greyhounds, Salukis, and whippets. Even though the Italian greyhound is part of the toy group, they have the same instincts as full-sized greyhounds and as such enjoy the same types of games.

Flirt poles are also used to help dogs prepare for lure coursing. Enjoyable games for these dogs include flirt poles, lure coursing, and Fast Cat.

Scent work will be very popular for many dogs, but especially the scent hounds. Scent Work is a positive, challenging activity that provides dogs the opportunity to use their strongest sense in a fun, engaging way that builds and strengthens a foundation of trust between you and your dog.

Foraging toys like a snuffle mat are an easy solution for any size of home. For a more interactive experience, you can hide treats, pieces of kibble, or toys and encourage your dog to use her nose to track them down. Have your dog wait in another room while you hide the goods, then release them to search!

Dachshund with snuzzle mat a puzzle to give your dog mental stimulation
Dachshund with a snuffle mat

DIY snuffle mats are a cost-saving fun way to create something enjoyable for your dog.

Training your dog for AKC Scent Work from home can be a very rewarding activity. You can purchase all of the required items for this activity or find them around your house.

The Herding Group

The Herding Group breeds were bred for their ability to move and gather animals such as sheep, cattle, and many others.

The herding breeds are all high-energy, extremely intelligent dogs. We would like to channel that energy and intelligence in a positive direction. You definitely don’t want a bored herding dog!

There are some great ways to channel this energy. Flirt poles can be used to some extent. All these breeds excel at agility so that is again a great choice.

Treibball is a sport in which dogs herd large inflatable balls through an obstacle course.

Treibball is relatively new having only been around for about 10 years and isn’t as popular as some traditional dog sports, but it is increasing in popularity. Although the herding breeds really excel at this sport, Treibball is suitable for dogs of all breeds and ages, including any mixed-breed dog. Teach your dog Treibball at home. You can make your own obstacle course and train your dog Treibball at home.

Dog on Treibball obstacle course another great way to give your dog mental stimulation
Dog on Treibball obstacle course

Herding dogs need to learn new commands and tricks continually to keep them interested. Be sure to always use positive reinforcement and keep learning enjoyable for your dog.

For those who really want to expose their herding dog to what she does naturally, there are places that offer training in herding for both you and your dog. Here is an example of a place that does offer herding training for you and your dog, so you will both learn your roles in this fun sport. Here is a link to a location where herding is taught in southern California.

The Sporting Group

Dogs in the sporting group were bred for the purpose of helping hunters capture and retrieve fowl. Some of these breeds include various spaniels, retrievers, and pointers. The pointers get into a pointing position when they detect the presence of fowl, while the others retrieve fowl and other prey from land and water.

Many of these dogs love water so this opens up a lot of ideas for breed-oriented games. Here you can also make use of a wading pool, this time filled with water if you do not have access to other bodies of water. Also, depending upon the size of the body of water it would be more difficult to hide floating toys and treats in it without them floating away too far.

golden retriever retrieving pheasant at field trials.Gives your dog mental stimulation.
golden retriever retrieving pheasant at field trials

Place some floating toys and treats in the water and encourage your dog to retrieve these treats and toys. Add variety by training your dog to stay while you throw a floating toy into the water then release her to fetch the toy and bring it to you. These games should be over a short duration with rests in between.

More breed-specific sports that you and your dog could really enjoy include dock diving and retriever field trials.

The Terrier Group

This group consists mostly of small, feisty little dogs with big personalities. Terriers were bred to hunt vermin by digging underground. This instinct makes them predisposed to digging. One way of providing a safe outlet for this tendency is to create a digging pit.

Digging pits can be created by filling a large container such as a wading pool, with loose soil or pet-safe play sand. Then bury your dog’s favorite treats in various locations throughout the digging pit and have your dog locate them by digging them up.

To make the game more challenging for your dog, fill small boxes with a few treats along with something easily shredded such as a toilet paper roll, or something similar. Cover the boxes back up and bury them so your dog will have an enjoyable and stimulating time digging into these treasures.

Barn Hunt and Earth Dog are two other activities that are particularly suited to terriers. Barn Hunt is a great sport for Terriers as Barn Dog is about finding rats in tubes buried in hay bales and this is what terriers were bred for.

The Toy Group

The toy group is unique as they have been bred specifically to be companions. This is another very diverse group of dogs. Other than being small and bred for companionship, there are a lot of different dogs with varying energy levels within this group.

Being companion dogs, social enrichment, including quality one-on-one time with their family, is very important for these little dogs. The toys need a lot of attention and companionship and will thrive on the extra attention they receive from you when teaching them tricks.


Vary the Locations Where you Walk your Dog

Has your dog’s walk become a walk in the same place taking the same route for every walk? Try varying the locations and routes for your walks. Also allow your dog to do plenty of sniffing around. Sniffing is much more mentally stimulating than just walking. Your dog gets a lot out of sniffing along the way, especially if you vary your walks your dog will have a lot of new and interesting smells for her to process.

Cognitive Enrichment Games for Dogs

Start including some games for your dog to give her brain a workout. Teach your dog a game by using toys and treats to motivate and reward her. Try hiding treats (or toys) first in places easy to find so she will have some success and stay interested.

You can play this game for a while, increasing the difficulty of the hiding place for the treat. Be sure to praise her and give her positive reinforcement for her success in this game.

Teach Your Dog New Commands

One clear way of stimulating your dog’s mind is by having her learn more commands. Learning will definitely exercise her brain and there are so many commands you can teach your dog. If you are just now starting to train your dog, start with basic commands such as ‘Sit’, ‘Stay’, and ‘Down’. This would be a great time to enroll in an obedience training course.

Start training your dog in basic agility once she has completed her obedience training. If you are just now starting to train your dog, start with basic commands such as ‘Sit’, ‘Stay’, and ‘Down’. This would be a great time to enroll in an obedience training course. Agility is excellent for both physical and mental stimulation and is also a great exercise for you as well!

Training helps to build your dog’s confidence and strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Learning more commands increases your dog’s focus and impulse control, which will improve her behavior.

Introducing your Dog to Puzzle Toys — Great Way to give Your Dog Mental Stimulation

If your dog has never experienced a puzzle toy start introducing her to puzzle toys, trying different ones for variation. She may not particularly be excited about a puzzle toy, but keep trying until you find some that she enjoys.

By getting your dog focused on a puzzle, you will be adding mental stimulation to her day. Providing your dog with more mental stimulation will have very positive behavior outcomes that you will enjoy.

Create your own puzzle toy by placing tennis balls in an old muffin tin. Place a treat under one of the balls while your dog is watching. Your dog will see the treat beneath the ball where you placed it. Once you are certain that your dog understands the behavior then give it a name, such as ‘Find the treat’. Your dog will most likely solve this stimulating puzzle very quickly. This will also provide her with valuable mental stimulation.

Have your Dog do Nose Work

dog doing nose work.
dog doing nose work

Nose Work refers to the act of having your dog use their nose to find treats you have hidden.

Doing nose work provides dogs with a way to use their preexisting abilities. When your dog is first learning this game, start with a treat having a strong order she will recognize. This way it will be easy for her to find it and this will set her up for success.

Be sure to praise her heavily so she will feel good about this game and want to do more. It might take several attempts before your dog fully understands the behavior so be patient with her.

Speed up Training by Shaping your Dog’s Behavior

Use a clicker and treats to reinforce each of the smaller steps that make up the behavior. This is shaping. This enables your dog to quickly learn the full behavior. Assign the behavior a verbal cue when your dog fully understands it.

What’s so great about shaping is that your dog can learn more behaviors faster. Using shaping and positive reinforcement, she will enjoy learning more and look forward to her training sessions.

This is an excellent method to use for agility training. Agility will be such a great experience for you and your dog! 

dog agility weave poles. Dog agility is an excellent way to give your dog mental stimulation
Border Collie performing the weave poles in dog agility

Final Thoughts

These are just a few of the many activities and games that will provide your dog with mental stimulation. These activities give you both a lot of fun and strengthen the bond between you and your dog.

Please feel free to add your own suggestions for fun brain-stimulating games for your dog that you have discovered. Also, feel free to ask questions or make helpful comments on this article.

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2 thoughts on “Ways to Give Your Dog More Mental Stimulation”

  1. I loved reading this fascinating post on ways to give your dog more mental stimulation. I have owned dogs for the better part of 25 years, but I had never really considered that the breed of the dog will influence the type of training and games one would select to stimulate them. 

    We have an Italian sheepdog and a golden Labrador and I can now see that they fall into two different groups. Are there any training and games that I can use that would involve both breeds? Or would it be better to just do one at a time? Thank you. 

    • Hi LineCrowley,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I’m so happy to hear that you got something out of it.  the sport of Treibball is great for dogs of any breed, but your Italian sheepdog will especially love it as it is geared toward the Herding Group of breeds.

      My post has an outbound link to a site that really describes it well.  However, the goal of this game is for dogs to herd serval large balls by pushing them one at a time into a goal area. It is a competitive sport but it also be done at home at your own speed for fun.  Here is the link to a site that describes it well:


      thanks again so much for your comment!



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