The COVID-19 pandemic has altered day-to-day life everywhere, and your dog’s usual routine has probably been impacted too. They may be napping, eating, and walking at different times or spending more time indoors due to a local lockdown. These changes can cause stress and boredom, so it’s important to establish new routines and use mentally stimulating dog toys to keep them entertained and ease any anxiety they may feel.
Why does my dog need mental stimulation?Dogs were originally bred for jobs that made use of their intelligence, like herding or retrieving. Toys, games and training sessions help your dog to express these natural behaviours and exercise their brains by challenging their initiative. These mental workouts are just as important to your dog as physical activity and are similarly exhausting for them. They play a key role in your dog’s welfare, confidence, and happiness.
Signs your dog needs further mental stimulationA dog with insufficient mental stimulation will become frustrated and look for outlets to burn their energy, which can lead to perceived problem behaviours such as excessive barking, digging, jumping, restlessness, attention-seeking, and destruction.
If your dog displays one or more of these traits, it may be a sign that they’re bored and need more mental exercise.
How to keep your dog entertainedWhile the pandemic presents new challenges, there are still lots of entertainment activities you can play at home with your dog – everything from scent games and training sessions, to dog puzzle toys. These not only stimulate and tire out your dog but also strengthen the bond between you.
Give them a dog food puzzleDogs are motivated by food, so any activities that challenge them to work for meals or treats will be very satisfying for them.
An easy way to introduce food toys is with a dog food puzzle bowl. These encourage your dog to forage through ridges, shapes, and patterns and are particularly good at slowing down dogs that eat their meals too quickly or gulp at their food.
Once they’ve mastered the bowl, you can move onto more intricate dog food puzzle toys that require greater problem-solving skills.
Dog toys that you fill with food are another way of keeping them occupied for extended periods – just remember to increase the difficulty slowly as you don’t want your dog to become frustrated and give up.
Teach them a new skillTraining is certain to provide your dog with a mental challenge. Initially, you could work on simple commands and basic obedience lessons, before progressing on to more complex skills. Be sure to work to their level and keep your sessions brief – perhaps two or three five-minute sessions per day. If your dog finds the training too challenging, they may lose interest.
Regardless of how successful the training is, stay enthusiastic and reward them with their favourite toy or a small treat. Make sure any treats are taken out of their daily ration. Once they’ve learnt a new skill, you can ask your dog to use the trick in different ways to add variety to your sessions – like retrieving items from around the home.
Participate in dog sportsPlaying sports together is a useful and exciting way to build your partnership and strengthen the bond you share. Exercise is also one of the most efficient ways to help reduce the risks of obesity, respiratory problems and heart disease. While many of the usual outdoor sporting activities and dog training classes have been disrupted or closed during the pandemic, you can still play and practice at home.
A DIY dog agility course that challenges them to jump, crawl and weave through various household obstacles will be fun and mentally stimulating for your dog. Even something simple like playing a game of frisbee in the garden can be extremely rewarding. Make sure any potential hazards are removed before setting up a course, control the length and intensity of the sessions and always provide access to clean water to avoid pet exhaustion.
Play a scent gameA dog’s nose plays a fundamental role in their understanding of the world. They constantly use their sense of smell to gather up information about their surroundings and assess their food.
Nose work games play upon this by teaching dogs to show or tell you what they smell – which is incredibly stimulating for them. The simplest scent games for dogs involve scattering their food and encouraging them to forage around for it. You can play these games indoors on a hard, wipeable floor surface or outside in your yard or garden.
More complex activities may involve searching for hidden toys or concealing treats within paper bags or boxes and directing them to choose the right one. Make sure your dog does not ingest any of the objects used to hide treats.
A popular brain game for dogs is to take a muffin tin, put some treats in a few of the tin holes, and then place a tennis ball on top of each hole. The dog then moves the balls to solve the puzzle and find the treats within. Always remember any treats must be taken from your pets daily feeding ration to help prevent excess calorie intake.
Rotate their toysEven the best dog puzzle toys become less exciting over time, so try to swap them out frequently to keep your dog entertained. Even old toys will seem like new after a few days away.
Give them alone time tooKeeping your dog active and mentally stimulated is important, but they may also need time for themselves. If they’re not accustomed to you being at home all of the time, they may now require extra space away from you.
Your dog may take itself off to another room or become irritable when you’re near. Signs to watch out for are yawning, licking their lips, turning away, or growling.
If your dog displays these behaviours let them come to you for petting. We’d also suggest talking to your veterinarian in case there’s another underlying cause.
Stay activeDepending upon where you live, you may find there are coronavirus lockdown restrictions regarding where, how and when you walk your dog. We understand this can be difficult, but if possible, try to schedule set times for your outdoor activities and maintain a recognisable routine for your dog.
Every walk should be interesting, so allow your dog time to sniff around and find safe places where they can wander and run freely. This will help to keep their walks both physically and mentally stimulating. During the pandemic, you may want to restrain yourself from petting other dogs and the same for your dog being pet by others.
Whatever games, training, or activities you play with your dog, remember to supervise them at all times and stay positive. If you feel they’d benefit from more help, make sure you seek the advice of your veterinarian.