Your dog’s mental well-being is as important as his physical health. Stimulating his brain will help him learn faster, feel happier, and can even prevent behavioral problems.
Ever wonder why your dog goes crazy when you say “Want to go outside?” or “Want to play?” It’s because the three things he loves to do most are taking in the sights, sounds and smells of his outside environment, playing anything from fetch to tug-o-war, and basically just hanging with his best two-legged buddy. These activities are great for exercise and building a stronger bond between you. But they also improve your dog’s mental health!
1. Limit his alone time
If you were to ask your dog what the worst thing you could do to him might be, he would answer that it’s leaving him home alone all day. Dogs are pack animals and require companionship of some sort, whether from you or another dog. It is considered inhumane to leave your dog alone for long stretches of time, especially if he’s crated or tied up in the backyard. Companionship not only staves off loneliness, but keeps dogs mentally stimulated as well. A dog that spends long days alone is more likely to become bored, have accidents inside the house, or engage in destructive behaviors, although animal behaviorist Dr. Suzanne Hetts notes that the latter can result from other causes besides boredom or loneliness. “Destructive behaviors can have lots of different motivations, because the dog is looking for something to do,” she says. “It can be a separation anxiety problem. It can be because he’s trying to escape from someplace, or trying to get someplace. And that can be related to noise phobias and other sorts of fearful behaviors.” These are all good reasons to avoid leaving your dog alone all day long.
2. Get outside
Thanks to our busy hectic lives, most of us are lucky if we can take an hour out of the day to take the dog for a walk. But a stroll around the block won’t adequately fulfill your dog’s daily requirements for exercise, and it also falls woefully short in meeting his mental and emotional needs. It’s not enough to take him for a brisk walk around the neighborhood, or let him out to do his business in the yard before quickly calling him back inside. Most dogs need a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily. Exercise produces serotonin in your dog’s brain, and being outside creates a feeling of well being and mental stability.
“Sniffing tells dogs a lot about their world,” says Dr. Hetts. “For a dog, an area with a lot of different odors is perhaps as attractive to him as a landscape is visually attractive to us. In general, things are changing outside a lot more than they are in the house. So every time the dog goes on a walk, everything is a little different.”
3. Start young
To make sure your dog stays both physically and mentally stimulated, he needs to be exposed to new smells, sights and sounds as often as possible, which means starting from as early an age as possible. Dr. Hetts says people should make sure their puppies grow up in an environment that is appropriate for them, where they have sufficient things to occupy their time. What these activities and objects are will be specific to the puppy’s age, his overall personality, and perhaps even his breed.
“We should enrich a puppy’s environment so he has exposure to a lot of different environmental experiences – people, sounds, surfaces, types of environments – outdoors, indoors, stairs, and other things he is going to be encountering as an adult dog that we want him to accept and be comfortable with,” says Dr. Hetts. “There is some evidence to indicate that the earlier dogs are exposed to training and problem-solving tasks, the better they are at it as adults, because it does influence how their brains develop.”
4. Play with him
It may not surprise you to learn that your dog has the mentality of a child between the ages of three and five. Explains a lot, doesn’t it? Especially his insatiable need for play. Both play and exercise are necessary for a dog’s mental well being. You can often enrich the time you spend with your dog by combining exercise and playtime. Games of fetch and tug-o-war can be considered both play and exercise, and so can activities such as agility or giving your dog specific tasks, like retrieving the newspaper.
5. Give him challenging toys
No matter what the activity, your dog will be happy just to be spending quality time with you. But the quantity of time spent together is just as important as the quality of time – in other words, leaving the dog alone with an abundance of toys does not mean he will occupy himself while you are away. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t supply your dog with toys he can play with by himself because you obviously can’t devote every waking moment to your dog, toys help keep him occupied and mentally stimulated. but along with giving him balls and ropes, which require an interactive approach, try adding some brain teaser toys that challenge your dog to figure out how to retrieve food or a treat.
When you walk in the door to find your dog staring up at you with big eyes, take some time to play or exercise with him before going to your next task. When you walk him, let him stop and smell the roses, or the bushes, grass and tree trunks – whatever it may be that interests him. Making time to do things that stimulate and challenge his brain is time well spent, because he’ll be happier, more contented and better behaved all round.