Last month we discussed healthy physical exercise for your pets. Equally important – if not more so – is healthy mental exertion. While cats and dogs are arguably the most domesticated of all animals, they are still descended from wild animals that engage in hunting, mating, foraging, roaming and social activities. The average family pet of today has most of those activities provided for him and does not have to use his brain to survive. That translates to a lack of everyday mental stimulation, which can lead to boredom, stress and, ultimately, behavior problems.

Benefits of Mental Stimulation

Exercise that can tire out a pet is more than just physical exercise. Giving a cat or dog a mental problem to tackle can be just as tiring as chasing a ball or flirt pole for 20 minutes. In addition to putting that brain to work, most problem-solving activities also require some physical exertion, so those activities can actually be more tiring than purely physical activities. Pets often gain confidence and a greater ability to cope in unusual situations when they regularly solve problems and are rewarded with food or play. Many mental exercises also help keep those basic instincts such as predatory behaviors well-tuned and satisfied. So if your dog or cat doesn’t have to satisfy predatory instincts with other pets or your personal belongings, you’ll have greater harmony in the home. Finally, when their brains are engaged in productive activities, it reduces boredom and stress and the potentially destructive behaviors that result.

Types of Mental Exercises

Today’s family pets have a world of mental challenges available to them. There is a vast assortment of food-dispensing toys and puzzle games on the market. The best toys are those that give you the ability to scale the degree of difficulty so you can continue to challenge your pet over time with the same toy. Nina Ottosson and Outward Hound have some of the best puzzle games around and you only need to Google “treat-dispensing toys” to come up with dozens of other devices. If you like crafting, make your pet a “snuffle mat” — a foraging device you can make from a sink mat and fleece fabric. Use your pet’s daily ration of kibble as the contents of the toys and you’ll keep him a healthy weight and mentally well-exercised.

You don’t have to buy toys to challenge your pet’s mind, though. There are many games you can engage in with your pet that will also provide mental stimulation. Hide and seek with family members is a great problem solving game and is fun for both pets and humans, while reinforcing that all-important recall. Teach your dog the names of his toys so he can discriminate among them and go find the one you ask for. Set up boxes and containers with hidden treats so your pet can use their natural foraging instincts to find where that yummy smell is coming from. Teach your dog or cat some tricks. Tricks aren’t just to wow your visitors. They are outstanding problem solving exercises. Use a clicker to shape the trick and you will have one seriously focused and engaged pet as they work to figure out how to earn the click and treat. Such games also deepen the relationship between you and your pets as you play together.

Organized dog sports are also great exercise and not just of the physical variety. Agility, Freestyle Dancing, Nose Work, Barn Hunt, Rally Obedience and Treibball are a few of the available dog sports that tax your dog’s mind as well as provide physical exercise.

With the long winter months ahead of us, it’s time to plan a variety of mental challenges for your pet to keep everyone happy and healthy.

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Carol Peter is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Cold Nose Companions, LLC Dog Training. She offers private training and group classes for people and their dogs throughout Geauga County. Carol focuses on resolving problem behaviors and teaching good household manners using positive reinforcement training and behavior modification methods. She can be reached at


©2012, Carol Peter, Cold Nose Companions, LLC