We often hear that mental stimulation is just as important, if not more, than physical exercise. This is especially true for rescue dogs who are still getting used to being outside and building their confidence in the outdoors. Mental enrichment is something we always strongly encourage for all dogs, regardless of age, breed, or personality.
What is “Mental Enrichment”?
Mental enrichment is allowing your pup to use their natural instincts (such as digging and scavenging) to problem solve. This could be as simple as allowing them to work for their food like they would in the wild, or hiding a treat and asking them to find it. Allowing your dog to engage in daily enrichment exercises will help build their confidence and alleviate boredom. We know all too well how a bored pup can get themselves into mischief.
Have you ever felt so bored you felt like you needed something big and exciting to make up for the dull mood? Keeping your dog occupied keeps them out of trouble. Alternatively, have you ever felt like you could conquer the world after finally figuring out a difficult math problem? The same logic applies to building confidence when your pup successfully completes a task. When they triumphantly figure out how to get their food out of the toy, their self-esteem increases, which then helps with overall confidence in other areas.
We are huge believers in working your pup mentally in several ways throughout the day so they learn to keep calm, build confidence, and work off anxiety. Mental enrichment is often more “tiring” for a dog than physical activity and has many benefits, including:
- combatting anxiety
- building confidence
- entertainment and combatting boredom
Mental Enrichment Activities We Love
Slow Feeder Bowl: A modified food bowl with raised pieces or a “puzzle” built inside designed to deliberately obstruct access to the contents inside the bowl. They are not only useful to slow down “food inhalers”, but are also a basic form of mental enrichment as it challenges the dog to use their brain power to figure out how to effectively get the food out of the bowl. As mentioned earlier, make your pup work for their food.
You can also use simple tricks like putting a tennis ball into their bowl or hiding food in muffin tins and covering them with tennis balls.
Lick Mats: Has the same idea as a slow feeder bowl, but encourages the act of licking rather than chewing. They are usually made from silicon with different textures and patterns.
Lick mats have many benefits, including mental stimulation (especially for limited mobility dogs), and stress alleviation (the act of licking releases pleasure endorphins in your dog’s brain). The licking motion naturally helps your pup calm down, encouraging slower eating habits, and as a distraction and/or positive reinforcement tool (such as using it during a nail trim to distract your dog and form a positive association with the activity). The great thing about them is that many have suction cups to allow you to affix them vertically, which comes in very useful when using them for nail trims. Great when used with foods like banana, peanut butter, yogurt, and raw ground meat just to name a few.
Lick mats are one of our favorite enrichment tools as they work wonders for anxious dogs. We often recommend bananas (if your pup likes the taste) and putting the mat with bananas and other favorite food in the freezer for a short time. Banana is very calming for a dog and freezing allows for more licking if it takes your pup longer to finish the food. This combination is great for keeping your pups’ anxiety down.
Snuffle Mats/Snuffle Balls: A large fabric mat, usually made of felt, with many pockets and grooves designed to hide treats and other food items.
Snuffle mats help a dog decompress by allowing them to indulge in their natural foraging instincts. These are great for more timid dogs who may be intimidated by the look, sounds, or movements of plastic puzzle toys. They can also be used as a slow feeder. This is another one of our favorite tools for helping your pup stay calm and burn some brain energy. We recommend feeding your pup at least once per day in the snuffle mat.
Treat dispensing toys: Any toy that encourages a dog to “work” for their treats/rewards will help with their mental enrichment. The most commonly treat dispensing toy is the “Kong”. It is designed with more simplicity than a puzzle toy (see #5 below) and is usually constructed in a way where treats can be stuffed or filled in the toy, and the dog needs to roll, chew, paw, or shake the toy in order for the reward to fall out. Start with making it easy for your pup to get the reward and then you can add items such as banana, peanut butter, or plain pumpkin to promote licking. Freezing will add a higher degree of difficulty, and of course, licking will help keep your pup calm and help alleviate anxiety.
Puzzle Toys: Designed to stimulate a dog’s problem-solving skills. They often consist of several components that require a dog to push, pull, open, and/or lift a compartment where treats are hidden in order to access the reward. These are great for feeding your pup as well. You can hide the kibble in the components and allow your pup to once again work for their food! They are also a great confidence builder as you can see how proud your pup is after they’ve figured it out.
Shop Small Business Options
Mental enrichment is a simple concept, but there are endless ways of achieving it. There are so many ways to stimulate your dog’s senses through a variety of sounds, textures, and smells. Having different options is great, and having small business options is even better!
OUMO Pet Shop
Oumo Pet Shop is a Toronto-based, woman-owned small business that specializes in unique and quality pet products. They have a variety of great nose work toys in their inventory that will engage your dog’s nose and mind in many ways, from needing to unravel, “pluck”, or nuzzle.
Our Haru is another woman-owned small business based in Toronto. Located in the city’s Stackt Market or online, it specializes in top quality, 100% Korean-made, and branded pet products.
They offer a variety of nose work toys of varying difficulty, all representing real-life signature Korean products.
“A tired dog is a happy dog”, and that doesn’t always mean a 10k run! Physical exercise is important, but mental stimulation is equally so. Integrate these tips into your daily play or feeding routine and see the difference in your pup(s)!
Be sure to check out our full list of mental enrichment, puzzle, and nose work toys as recommended and loved by members of our community.
Co-written by Madhvi Chona
About the author: Madhvi is a rescue dog mom of 2 (including Benji, whom she adopted from Free Korean Dogs in 2018) and a professional dog trainer focused on fear-free approaches. Working extensively with FKD alumni and local level 5+ shelter dogs at the Oakville-Milton Humane Society, Madhvi has a fundamental understanding of using behavior modification techniques to help dogs make the correct choices through positive reinforcement training. Based in Oakville, she is available for in-person consultations/services in the GTA, as well as phone and video consultations/services everywhere else. She can be reached at (905) 617-6751 or by email at [email protected]
Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links from Amazon through the Amazon Associates program. While FKD earns a small commission when a qualifying purchase is made through these links, we are not affiliated with the brands mentioned. All opinions are our own. We do not receive any commission or compensation from Our Haru or Oumo Pet Shop.
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