By: Laura Hentges, CPDT-KA, CCS
A quick web search of “How much exercise does my dog need?” provides results filled with articles about how important it is to give your dog daily physical activity. When I ask my clients, “What kind of exercise does your dog get?” the answers are usually “We walk twice a day.” “We go to the dog park on weekends.” Or, “We play fetch every day.” All good answers, but what about the rest of the dog? Their brains need a workout too. Think about it. We routinely exercise our brains while at work, when we help our children with their homework, or by reading a good novel. As humans we enrich our lives with activities like getting together with friends, connecting on social media, watching a movie, or taking a nature walk.
Of course, it’s important for dogs to stay physically active. But physical exercise is only part of the equation for having a happy, healthy dog. Just like humans, dogs need to use their brains and engage in enrichment activities. Left to their own devices dogs will use their brains in ways we humans find quite annoying. A dog that chews on your shoes, steals laundry, takes food off the counter, knocks over the trash, shoves their nose in blackberry bushes or eats a chicken bone off the ground is giving themselves mental exercise and enrichment.
One of the easiest ways to exercise your dog’s brain is to ditch the bowl and have them work for their food. This is true for every dog no matter their age, size, breed or physical ability. Humans often have a negative association with the word “work,” but not our dogs! Working for food makes mealtime fun, slows down dogs who gulp their food, and exercises their brain. There are a variety of options for “work to eat” or puzzle feeders you can buy, and even more free or low-cost DIY options available no matter what type of food you feed your dog. Anything from stuffing a hollow toy with wet food, putting raw food in a muffin tin, adding kibble to a snuffle mat, to rolling kibble up in an old towel, allows dogs to use their brains to figure out how to find every last morsel.
Dogs primarily experience the world through their nose, possessing about 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to only about six million in humans. The part of their brain dedicated to analyzing smells is about 40 times greater than ours! In addition to feeding-time puzzles, another easy way to exercise your dog’s brain is to shift the focus of at least one of your daily walks from being about physical exercise to it being primarily about mental exercise. Don’t worry about how much time you spend or distance you cover, just let your dog sniff. For dogs a walk isn’t about how far you go, it’s about the journey—the scent journey!
Taking a sniff walk WITH your dog allows you to BOTH enjoy the walk. You get to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and flowers, while your dog gets to sniff all around those same flowers and figure out what other dogs may have been there or discover squirrels like to hang out there.
It’s ok to let your dog spend two minutes sniffing every leaf on a particular bush. It’s ok to let them plaster their nose to the ground more than half the time you’re out. It’s ok if they’re not walking perfectly by your side 100% of the time. Their noses and brains are working and expending mental energy which will tire them out more than 30 minutes walking in a perfect heel position will.
Mental exercise will help keep your dog’s brain sharp. If you were at ODH’s annual Walk for Old Dogs, you may have seen several people with their senior dogs in strollers or carts. This is a perfect example of giving a dog who can’t physically walk very far (or at all) mental exercise.
If you live in an urban environment, you can go to a park and use a long leash and let your dog sniff or get creative with nose games inside. Make it fun for both of you! Hide treats around your home and let your dog sniff them out, hide treats in a box of old rags and let your dog dig to find them, or throw treats in the grass and let your dog use their nose to find them. Start easy and gradually increase the difficulty so neither of you get bored. The possibilities are endless.