5 Tips for Engaging Your Dog’s Impressive Mind

Does your smart dog get bored? Then keep him busy — and out of trouble — with fun activities such as nose work and simple play.

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Congratulations! You have a new furry friend in your home. Within a few days or weeks of your dog adjusting to his new life, you may start to notice that he seems bored, or at least that his big brain is being underutilized.

How smart is your new companion? Some scientists and canine researchers compare the dog’s mental developments as being in the same range as a toddler’s. Dogs’ mental abilities have been compared to those of a two-to-three-year-old child.

Dr. Stanley Coren, professor emeritus at University of British Columbia, said in an interview with Live Science that dogs’ “stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought.”

Coren discovered that average dogs can learn 165 words, including gestures and signals, and that dogs have a basic understanding of math and can count to four or five. Our smart canine companions show spatial problem-solving skills, and they display emotions such as happiness, anger, and disgust.

If we acknowledge that our furry friends are quite bright indeed, how to we keep their minds sharp? Here are some tips from my May 2016 book, The Midnight Dog Walkers (I-5 Publishing), about living with and training troubled dogs — these tips work with any dog:

1. Practice nose work

Dog nose by Shutterstock.
Dog nose by Shutterstock.

Dogs go through their lives nose first. Their noses are like our eyes. If we could see what they smell, we would be overwhelmed with stimuli. You can find “fun nose” videos on YouTube to get started. It’s simple!

One game is to tether your dog in a room (or have someone else hang on to her) and have her watch you hide tasty treats around the room. Then unhook the dog, and tell her “Find it!” and watch her zoom happily around the room nose first. If she looks confused, walk her over to a few of the finds. You progress this game to having the dog not see you make the hides.

You can also use cardboard boxes and put the treat in just one box, or do the same with overturned bowls. When I teach nose work sessions, we rarely go longer than 30 minutes with a dog because all of that sniffing wears a dog out

2. Play with your dog

Most dogs love to play, although they have to be relaxed enough in any space to play. You can teach your dog to tug on a toy, play with a flirt pole, play hide and seek, or chase each you around the kitchen.

You are only limited by your creativity and what your dog finds fun. See how much fun you can create for your dog at home. We say our homes are our castles; they should be castles of fun and happy happy joy joy for our dogs as well!

3. Utilize mind puzzles

I love giving a dog a mind puzzle. It is fascinating to see how each dog attacks the problem at hand, which is to get the treats out of something a bit tricky. Some dogs will work them for hours while others seem to get easily frustrated.

For those who do get frustrated, I help them by using my handy thumbs to open some of the pieces of the puzzle. Here’s my favorite place to order quality mind puzzles: nina-ottosson.com. Nina has created easy to complicated mind puzzles, as well as cat puzzles.

4. Teach fun obedience skills

Dog in training session by Shutterstock.
Dog in training session by Shutterstock.

No matter the dog in front of me, I make learning fun for the dog. Gone forever (I hope!) are the old and boring days where we shouted commands to our dogs and insisted on perfect and immediate compliance. I prefer that my dogs learn to love learning with me as their guide. I keep the sessions short and generally only work on one or two skills per session.

Some skills that are critical for dogs to learn include: eye contact with owner, head turn when named called, touch or hand targeting, sit, down, recall, and leave it.You can find countless free You Tube videos on how to teach these vital skills to your dog — just make sure you are watching videos created by force free trainers.

5. Try a Yard Sniff-a-Thon

Because sniffing/seeking is vital to your dog, try a Yard Sniff-a-Thon. What is that? Simply follow your dog around on leash or off in a secure yard or area, and every time she looks back at you on her own accord — you don’t say anything to her or call her name — you mark it with a YES! or a click! and a squirt of the mighty Cheese Whiz. Off you go, again and again and again.

You can elevate the game by tethering the dog and letting her watch you hide the treats and then releasing her to go “find it!” Once she understands the cue “find it,” you can leave her inside where she can’t watch you hide the items and then let her out to search to her nose’s content.

All of these games serve a massively important function: They strengthen the bond and add much-needed deposits into the trust savings account you and your dog.

Top photo: Courtesy nina-ottosson.com.

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Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA

Annie Phenix is a Colorado-based professional writer and dog trainer. She is the Trainer in Residence for Dogster.com and she writes a column for Dogster Magazine and other publications. She is the author of a Spring 2016 book, titled The Midnight Dog Walkers (I-5 Publishing).

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