You probably already know how important physical exercise is to a dog's health, longevity, emotional well-being and behavior. But mental exercise is just as important, especially when it comes to helping your pet age gracefully. A 2005 study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, showed that an antioxidant-rich diet and mental stimulation worked more effectively in combination than by themselves in a group of aging beagles (ages 7-11) who were tasked with solving increasingly complex problems over the two-year study.|
And a 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, explored the importance of developing mental wellness programs for animals in zoos and shelters. Besides explaining that a lack of mental challenges can lead to negative behaviors, it also stressed that bored house pets might sleep more than they should or engage in self-harm like excessive licking or biting. The study suggests that one way to provide mental stimulation is to make pets "work" for their food rather than offer it to them freely.
To a dog, "working" for dinner equals play time. There are lots of ways to use food and treats to challenge your pet's brain, from very simple DIY options to dog games you can buy at the pet store. Here are five fun strategies to try with your pet:
Plan an "Egg" Hunt
Just like you would hide small plastic eggs filled with candy for children to find, you can hide small piles of dog food around your house or yard for your pet to discover. In the wild, dogs had to forage and hunt for their food. If they didn't find something to eat on the first try, they kept searching until they were successful. (Just remember where you placed each pile so you can point them out to your pooch and avoid attracting rodents or insects.)
Make a Frozen Dinner
A common enrichment activity at zoos is to freeze chunks of food in blocks of ice for animals for to lick out. You can do the same thing for your dog, even using chicken broth instead of water to make it extra enticing. You'll probably want to have him enjoy his frozen treat outside because it will likely become a melty mess before he's finished with it.
Have a Ball
The popular treat ball the Kong is a great choice for challenging your pet to lick out soft treats like peanut butter. But if you want to turn meal time into play time, there are other feeder balls that will actually hold and slowly dispense kibble in an interactive way. For example, the Tug-a-Jug combines a bottle, a ball and a rope to intermittently block and release pieces of food as the dog plays. The Buster Food Cube dispenses food as it rolls but includes an adjustable central cylinder that allows you modify the difficulty level for your pet. And the Waggle, which is shaped like a small dumbbell, allows dogs to work treats out of a small hole on either end.