Walks and outdoor training sessions are great for your dog’s physical and mental health, as they are for yours, but they aren’t the only answer to keeping your dog healthy and happy. Nor are they the only way to relieve boredom and tire your dogs out. Challenging your dog mentally is a great addition or alternative to a walk, especially during periods of hot weather such as we are currently experiencing. Just 10 -15 minutes of mental stimulation will tire out a dog as much as a 30 - 40 minute walk.
Here are some ways to get your dog to use their brain and improve their relationship with you at the same time.
Use mealtimes as a training opportunity
Mealtimes are always a great opportunity for practicing the basics as well as introducing new commands/cues or exercises and can be used for both puppies and older dogs. If you live in a multi-dog household, teach each dog to wait for their name before they can go to their dish – just the act of sitting and waiting patiently for their turn requires a lot of concentration and steadiness. You can really test steadiness by placing down the food bowl and walking out of the room – will your dog wait for you to return, or will it dive straight in as soon as you are out of sight? Alternatively, before you put the dish on the floor, practice heel work and recall or walk the dog away from their dish and send them away to it.
Play a waiting game
Build up patience and steadiness by practicing sit and wait. Use a place board or a doormat if your dog tends to ‘creep’ when you ask for a sit. This can be done either inside or outside and you can build in distractions and make it harder for the dog by extending the time they are asked to sit for. Always ensure there is a reward at the end of the exercise, be it their meal, a retrieve or some play – this will serve you well in the future and builds up trust between you and your dog.
Help around the house
A retrieve is a retrieve – so is a hold. It doesn’t matter if it’s done with a dummy or with a sock, at least, not in our house. My spaniel loves to help load the washing machine; in fact, he gets a bit miffed if you do it without him. It started when, as puppies do, he picked a sock up off the floor & looked up at me. Instead of immediately trying to take it off him, I praised him, let him carry it for a couple of minutes and then gently asked him to release it, followed by more praise. He looked very pleased with himself, and rightly so, he’d executed a retrieve and delivered it to hand. Good boy. He now loves to retrieve items of clothing when I’m loading the washer & has become a bit of an expert – gently placing each item inside before going to find the next. He takes his job very seriously and it has had the added bonus that he has never played ‘chase me’ or tried to eat a stolen item of clothing, remote control, pair of glasses (delete as applicable).
Whether your dog lives in the house or a kennel, manners are a useful thing to teach them. Not least because a dog who rudely barges through a door may one day do that when you are carrying something hot & cause you to spill it down yourself (or down the dog). Teaching a dog to wait to be invited through a door can then be translated to a crate, a car boot or a field gate. Again, if you have multiple dogs, teach them to wait until you invite them by name. Start by asking the dog to sit and then quietly but firmly shutting the door if the dog tries to go through before you have invited them. It may take several goes at this, but they will soon learn to sit and wait in order to be allowed to follow you through.
It's all about the hunt
Again, an exercise that can be done inside or out, so great for extreme whether days, all you need is a tennis ball or a small dummy. Ask the dog to sit while you hide the item, then send the dog to find it. You can gradually make this exercise more difficult by placing the item up higher or really hiding it well. Use the opportunity to pair your hunt command/cue or whistle with the exercise too. If you don’t already, build this into your daily exercise too, all you need is some long grass.
Most people have got a hallway or some space big enough to practice heelwork, both on and off lead. Just a few minutes regularly can help tighten this up. It also helps with dogs who get excited every time you go to grab their lead – they soon learn that it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going out for a walk.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but hopefully it will give you some ideas to try at home or when next out on a walk. If you have any great brain challenging exercises that you do with your dog, please add them to the blog comments so that others can give them a try too.