All dogs need physical as well as mental exercise to remain well-adjusted and content at home. And while high-drive dogs tend to need more of both of these, even the calmer family dogs can become bored and destructive if left alone for long periods of time without some sort of entertainment. So it is always a good idea to give your pooch a good mental and physical work-out before leaving him or her alone for any extended period of time.
The good news is that this need not be particularly time-consuming. For many dogs, a 15-minute walk, preceded and followed by 5 or 10 minutes of obedience exercises, is sufficient to help them relax when left alone. (Note: if your dog has separation anxiety, please seek professional help first!) Although you may be tempted to skip the obedience part to give your active dog a longer walk, this is not necessarily the best option for smarter dogs, which require plenty of mental as well as physical exercise.
In addition to the basic sits/downs/stays, games can combine the mental with the physical exercise and make the entire process more interesting for everyone.
This is an obvious one, particularly for anyone with a retrieving breed. To make it more fun and mentally challenging, I recommend making the dog work for each throw. Before throwing the ball, cue your dog for a behavior, such as sit or down or paw shake. This will stimulate his brain as well as his body throughout the game, while making the game into a training session. Double bonus!
While older literature may advise against this game, recent research suggests that it is actually a great bonding exercise. Before playing this game, teach your dog the “drop it” command, exchanging the toy for a treat each time. When playing, periodically ask the dog to “drop it”, then make him sit or do some sort of trick before vigorously resuming the game. This is another great combined form of physical and mental exercise with the bonus opportunity to do some training. For more details on a proper game of tug, see the blog post on tugging.
To teach this, start by visibly tossing a treat to the ground and telling the dog to “find it”. Once the dog understands the concept, you can toss treats where the dog doesn’t easily see them and then give the cue. Next, hide treats for him to “find”, and then work up to pairing the treat with a small toy. When he finds the toy, praise profusely and trade him the toy for more treats. An expansion of the find it game is Canine Scent Work, also known as Nose Work, which can really tire a dog mentally.
Find a person
Tell the dog to “find mom”, then have mom call him. When he gets there, mom gives him a treat then tells him to “find” the next family member. To engage the whole family, you can attach notes to his collar and make it a fun messenger game for the kids. As he learns each person’s name, the person he is “finding” will not even have to call him, but he will search to find them. This is not only a great thinking game, but a good way to practice recalls with a young or newly rescued dog as well.
As you can see, keeping your dog engaged and mentally stimulated does not have to be a chore. By adding games, you’ll find that working with your dog is not only fun for him, but for the whole family. And the best part will be your well adjusted dog, thanks to all the mental and physical stimulation that he’ll be getting.