1. Get out and experience the world!
Socialisation isn’t just for puppies. An athletic dog can run thirty miles in a day and still be buzzing… but take the same dog to a social event, in a new building, for a couple of hours, and watch how knackered they get. Every new smell, new face, new sound, new physical surface to walk on – new taste, even – is another piece of brain work, to process and accept. It’s another landmark, sketched onto their mental map of the world. Giving your dog new experiences is a surefire way of having a tired and satisfied dog at the end of the day.
2. Start doing sniffing walks
Walks can obviously fulfil all sorts of purposes. From exercise, to opportunities to go to the toilet, to pack migration, but there is a huge advantage to scheduling in “sniffing” walks. If we remember that dogs smell about 40 to 50 times better than we do, we might compare a sniff round the local park for them to… a cinema-showing of Lord of the Rings to us. They can smell the details of other dogs in paw prints and pee; they can smell the hierarchy of the packs who have passed through, by the layering of pee they have left; they can smell a hundred species of animal we can’t even see. It is a stimulating highlight of the day for them that takes a lot of mental energy.
3. Free shaping
“Free-shaping” is just a fancy behaviourist way of saying that our dogs are always learning from us, whether we’re training or not. So, when we actively free-shape, all we do is reward our dogs for naturally choosing a desirable behaviour. So, for example, if a dog who struggles with the “sit” command chooses to sit randomly, then we try to say “sit” as they do it, and then give them a treat or some praise. This is awesome mental stimulation for your dog because they start to work hard to figure out what you want, without relying on a command or lure. Not only is it brain work, it’s really fun, too – you can end up teaching things you never planned to!
4. Dogs are expert strategists
Smart dogs are natural problem-solvers. The only problem is that they’re more likely to solve their own problems than yours if you don’t engage them. Their problems might be how to access the treat jar on the kitchen side, or how to get free from their crates, rooms, or even houses – not to mention the “problem” of having nothing to do with their twitching jaws when the urge to chew strikes. So, we can set up problems that test their brains but not our patience, like small-scale tracking or scent work in the living room, stuffed toy liberation tasks, or even novel agility challenges – brain and body challenges all in one!
5. Obedience Training
Obedience training might only need to stop at the basics: sit, stay, down, heel and recall – with perhaps a “drop it” or “leave it” thrown in there. But, that doesn’t mean that the work is done. You might not NEED your dog to perform anything else on command, but there’s more to education than just the application of knowledge (as I always tell my students). The process of learning takes a lot of mental energy, especially when it’s a new skill – or indeed an old skill in a new location, for a longer time, over a greater distance, with less guarantee of a reward for success. Taking your obedience to the next level is a surefire way of getting your pup’s brain working.
6. Build their vocabulary
Chaser, the collie, might have been able to identify by name over 1,000 objects throughout her lifetime, but we can start a little smaller! The process is simple, to begin with. Get your dog’s favourite toy, and then pair an easy retrieve with the command “go get X”, with this toy’s name being X. Then, build it up, by putting a less desirable thing next to the favoured “X” toy and repeating the command. Then, proof it, by putting the toy with another, ideally less desirable toy and repeating the command. You can step it up further by putting it next to something of equal or even greater value and seeing whether they still obey the command. Then rinse and repeat and watch the cogs turning in your dog’s head as her vocabulary grows by the day.
7. Build an obstacle course
If you own a high-energy, high-intellect dog, you’ll probably already be familiar with the notion of a home obstacle course! These kinds of dogs will bound from sofa to floor to coffee table to windowsill to cat tower and back again in seconds, breaking records left-right-and-centre. If this is an undesirable behaviour, don’t step up the mental challenge indoors, but take it to the back yard or garage, perhaps. Setting up your own obstacle course to engage your dog’s brain is easy. Get some chairs, some picnic tables, and a couple of pallets together to build some ramps, and start guiding your clever pooch through them, before letting him figure it out himself!
8. Get them engaged
Incredibly easy, engaging, and portable, 'find-it' is perhaps the ultimate brain game to match a high-maintenance dog with a low-effort human! All you need is a treat pouch and some grass. Out on a walk with your dog, toss some treats into the grass and add the command “find it!” That’s it. No skill-training required, assuming the dog smelled or saw the treats go down – and you’ve got a fully engaged dog for the next few minutes, snuffling and searching and exerting their brains, having the time of their life! But, it gets better, because you don’t even need grass. You can do the same thing in the home (or even in the crate), with a good snuffle mat, or a shag-pile carpet, or even just a shallow cardboard box filled with shredded paper. Easy. Effective.
9. Invest in puzzle toys
Okay, so this one is an investment, but the market is saturated with all sorts of puzzle games designed for dogs, covering a range of difficulties, materials, and prices. The beauty of them, despite the financial output, is how they encourage independence as well as engaging the mind. Because they tend to be loadable with treats or kibble, they are self-motivating to all but the laziest dogs – with the smell of food incentivising them to persevere and work hard at decoding the puzzle. If you’ve got the cash to invest in them, and the release mechanism is challenging enough to provide long-term mental challenge to your dog, check them out!
10. Give the shell game a go!
Shells is a fun game to play with your dog because it is collaborative, but low maintenance. Just like grifters on street corners, you’re looking to have your punter – in this case, your dog – make a bet on where the treat is. You cover a treat with three cups (or “shells”) and then let the dog watch you swap the cups around repeatedly until she’s allowed to guess. If she guesses right, she gets the treat she’s unearthed; if she guesses wrong, she’ll focus harder next time. Because there’s no room for distractions, this high-engagement game is a mentally tiring game for your dog. And no, I don’t really encourage you to break your dog’s trust by conning them out of their treat.