9 Cost-Effective Ways To Keep Your Dog Mentally Stimulated

Brittany Grenus, DVM
By Brittany Grenus, DVM on May 18, 2023
woman kneeling on the ground and high-fiving a golden retriever

When people think about caring for a dog, they often think about the pet’s physical needs—such as food, exercise, and grooming. But they might overlook the need for mental stimulation, which is also crucial for a dog’s well-being.

Key Takeaways

  • Mental stimulation is just as important for dogs as physical exercise.
  • Signs that a dog is bored include tail-chasing, excessive barking, pacing, and digging.
  • There are many different—and affordable—ways pet parents can keep their dog mentally stimulated.

Why Is Mental Stimulation Important for Dogs?

Dogs are incredibly smart animals, so mental stimulation is just as important for them as physical exercise. Mental exercises can actually make dogs even more tired than physical exercise.

This is especially important for high-energy working dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Australian Cattle Dogs. In fact, many destructive behaviors in dogs can be resolved simply by implementing mental exercises every day.

Some of the many benefits of mental stimulation are:

  • Improving mental health

  • Improving cognitive function

  • Building confidence

  • Releasing stress

  • Helping to eliminate destructive behaviors

  • Decreasing hyperactivity

  • Tiring a dog out

  • Improving brain development in puppies

  • Keeping dogs happy

  • Strengthening our bond with them

Is Your Dog Bored?

Dogs are pack animals who were originally bred to perform jobs. But now, most of them don’t have a job to do (even if they want one!) and they spend a lot of time alone when their human parents are gone. It’s only natural that they would get bored.

Signs your dog may be experiencing boredom include:

Some of these signs can also be associated with separation anxiety or other behaviors or disorders. Talk to your veterinarian to help determine the root cause of your pet’s behaviors.

How To Keep Your Dog Engaged

While it’s stressful to worry that your pup may be bored, there are countless ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated and happy. The best part? Many of them are free (or very inexpensive).

1. Play Hide-and-Seek

Just like people, dogs can find hide-and-seek to be great fun. This is easiest to do if your dog knows “stay” or if you have a friend who can help keep the dog in one room while you hide. Once you’re hidden, call your pup to come find you.

Playing hide-and-seek requires two things from your dog: critical thinking skills and a good nose. In a home setting, dogs don’t need to use these skills as often, and having the opportunity to use them is lots of fun for them.

2. Go “Find It”

“Find it” is a great alternative to hide-and-seek. First, put your dog in another room or a crate. While he’s confined, hide toys or treats (whichever your dog prefers) around the house.

When you go back to release your dog, allow him to smell your hand for the scent of what you hid, and tell him to go “find it.” Start easy with the treat/toy in an obvious place. As he starts to understand the game, you can progressively make it harder. This provides the same benefits as hide-and-seek, but it can be easier to play alone with your pup.

3. Take a Scent Walk

Set aside specific walks where you allow your dog to take his time, explore wherever he’d like to go, and sniff all the smells. Sniffing has been shown to not only decrease a dog’s heart rate (decreasing their stress), but it also releases dopamine, the “happy” brain chemical.

These walks are less about the distance or time and more about quality, allowing them to take their time and explore the area they’re in. Some of the best settings for these walks have lots of grass, bushes, and trees. 

4. Try a New Route

Have you ever gotten bored doing the same thing over and over again? Dogs do too. This is why changing up your walking route can be very stimulating for them.

Walking somewhere new allows them to see and smell new things. Regularly changing your route helps keep things exciting for your dog—which is mentally stimulating.

5. Play With Puzzles and Interactive Toys

Puzzle toys and other interactive toys typically have compartments where you can hide food, and your dog has to figure out how to access those tasty treats. There are countless puzzle toys, all with varying degrees of complexity.

Similar to hide-and-seek and “find it,” interactive toys require critical thinking skills. They’re great for keeping your pup occupied for an extended time, distracting him from things that make him anxious, and mentally exhausting him. Dogs also receive a food reward when they play, leading to a dopamine release. As a bonus, puzzle toys are a great way to slow down dogs that eat their food too fast.

6. Munch on Frozen Treats

Frozen treats are perfect for keeping your pup mentally stimulated year-round—but especially in summer. There are all sorts of pupsicle recipes you can make for your dog, and you can also give them plain frozen fruits and veggies (such as carrots) as a treat.

Frozen treats give your dog something yummy to eat, but they also take a bit of work (hence why they’re mentally stimulating). Because the food is frozen, dogs usually end up licking it until it melts. This provides them a fair amount of entertainment while they’re trying to eat.

7. Scatter Feeding

Scatter feeding is where you take portions of your pet’s dry food and hide them around the house. Put your dog in one room, hide the food in small piles around the house or yard, then release him to go find it all. Like other feeding exercises and games, this requires mentally stimulating nose work.

Snuffle mats are similar to scatter feeding, but the food is all kept on one mat that has ruffles and pockets that hide the food. Your dog will then have to use his nose to sniff out the food between the fabric. 

8. Practice Training

Training is a phenomenal way to mentally stimulate and exhaust your dog. It also teaches him all sorts of new tricks. Dogs like to know the rules of a household, and training not only bonds them with you, but also makes them feel more secure at home.

Even just 5–15 minutes of training exercises a day can be exhausting for your dog. Compare it to whenever you’ve tried to learn something new—it’s using new parts of your brain, which tires you out quickly. But when you do finally get it, you feel incredibly accomplished (thanks to a dopamine release). The same goes for our furry friends.

9. Rotate Toys

From a mental perspective, dogs are very similar to children. They love their toys, but they can get bored with them over time. An easy way to keep things interesting for your dog is to leave out only a few toys at a time and keep the rest hidden. Then, switch out and rotate the toys he has access to. This simple trick keeps your dog’s toys exciting and helps prevent boredom. Each week feels like he’s getting the toys for the first time.

While this list provides several examples of ways to keep your pup mentally stimulated, ultimately, anything you can think of that changes things up for your pup—or that requires their brain power—can be a great way to keep him mentally stimulated and happy. Use your creativity to make up your own games or mentally stimulating activities for you and your pup!

Featured Image: Adobe/Eva

Brittany Grenus, DVM


Brittany Grenus, DVM


Dr. Brittany Grenus graduated from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2018 with her doctorate in veterinary medicine and a...

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