If you’ve ever been to one of my classes, had a private lesson with me or even read one of my other blog entries, you know that I LOVE talking about mental stimulation.
Mental stimulation is simply working out your dog’s brain with training or other activities. This is a very important piece of the puzzle when talking about hyperactivity and boredom, but a piece that is almost always missing.
While training all day, every day is not a feasible option for anyone, I recommend some sort of toy or activity to help get this brain work done. Here are my top 8 toys:
You know that red beehive looking thing that you remember buying but can’t remember where you last saw it? Maybe in the backyard or the bottom of the toy basket? You may not know it, but you’re sitting on gold. When researching some other top mental stimulating toys, I found that Kongs made it to 9 out of 10 lists. This toy is priceless (well not really, there is a price) but you probably aren’t using it to its potential. I recommend getting three or four of these babies – one that will be in current use, one that will be getting washed, and one in the freezer waiting to be rotated in. Kong also sells fillers to put in these toys, but I don’t recommend those. Instead, use things you already have in your kitchen, things you already know your dog loves. You don’t have to get fancy, but keep it interesting. Try carrots, strawberries, green beans, whatever! Fill the majority of the hollowed center (the hollow center is smaller than you think, so buy one size bigger) then top it off with a spoonful of peanut butter (NOT sugar free), plain yogurt, or cottage cheese at the end of the big hole and freeze it. When your dog gets a little too rambunctious and needs a babysitter, pull one out of the freezer, ask for a sit and let him have at it! If your pup has a sensitive stomach, try moistening his everyday kibble with water or stuffing with canned food and freeze.
Nina Ottosson Puzzles
This lady must have been a dog in her past life because she has got some amazing food puzzle designs and they’re all very durable. She has many different kinds of puzzles, all ranging in difficulty. They are all excellent, but my favorite has to be the Brick. When you first introduce a new design, you want to make the puzzle as easy as possible. Don’t close the drawers or tiles all the way, and make any piece that has to be pulled out easy for your dog to get. He has to learn how to work the puzzles, so you want the first attempts to be positive and rewarding. At first, you may also want to add a few pieces of yummy smelling treats with the kibble, but fade these out once your pup gets the hang of it. You should feed your dog entire meals (or as much as you can fit) out of these toys. That’s right, throw away your bowl! Make him work, work, work for that food.
These toys have a similar concept as the Kong in the sense you stuff and freeze, but these pieces can be connected in different ways allowing you to make new and different patterns every time! Talk about a game changer!
Another brand offering very cool designs that mixes a variety of techniques in the same puzzle. Your dog may have to pull out a cone, open a drawer, and slide a tile all in the same puzzle. Your dog will definitely exercise his problem-solving muscles with these. Another great replacement for the bowl.
This one ties with the Kong as my most favorite toy. This toy has a big chamber so you can most likely fit your pup’s entire meal. It even has an adjustable door and top chamber to make the puzzle a little more difficult once your pup starts to master it. The only complaint I have about this toy is that it is a little difficult to clean. I typically let it soak in some soapy water and take a baby bottle brush to it then set it upside down with the door open to dry.
You may find this with the other balls or non-food toys at the store, but there is more to this toy than meets the eye. Cut up an old t-shirt into strips, or get a few old socks, roll some treats in them then shove into the ball. Your dog will then have to pull and unstuff the ball to get to the yum-yums. Please note that you will want to supervise your dog to make sure he only eats the treats, and not the t-shirt!
This toy lets you get in on the fun too and adds lots of physical exercise as well. It’s pretty much a big, more durable cat toy. (But don’t tell your dog that!) When you make the tethered toy fly like a bird and scurry like a critter, it really engages your dog’s prey drive. But you can also use the toy to practice some impulse control (ask for a sit or down-stay while the toy moves around then release him), leave-it skills (after a few tugs, ask your dog to leave or drop the toy) or calming down into a sit or down from a hyped-up state.
Hide and seek treat game
This is more of an activity, not necessarily a toy. Take some of your pup’s favorite treats and hide them around a small area of a room. At first, make the finds easy by hiding the treats in plain sight. As your dog starts to understand how to use his sniffer, make the game harder by hiding behind or under furniture or other things on the ground or behind corners. If you’re like me and order lots of things online, save the small boxes and use these too. Note: Always use the same box as the food box. Set the boxes around in a maze around the room and let your dog smell out his prize. Get creative with the placement of the boxes.
Some other helpful tips to keep in mind with all of these toys: when they are not in use, PUT THEM AWAY! After the bob-a-lot or Nina puzzle is empty, pick it up and put it away. When the Kong or Connectables are licked clean, wash it, refill it and put it back in the freezer. Don’t let any of these toys just sit out in the living room. Dogs are like kids on Christmas, everything is exciting when it’s new. The longer it sits out, the more boring it becomes.
Don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different activities and toys! The more ways you engage your dog’s brain, the better!