I spent time working and attending private sessions with Matt from The Zen Dog in LA who works with people whose dogs often have pretty serious behavioral issues. One principle that he stresses is the importance of mental exercise and that “mental exhaustion trumps physical exhaustion every time”. While physical exercise is undeniably important, mental exercise and stimulation result in a dog with more mental and thus emotional self-control and discipline. Dogs that have substantial physical but limited or no mental exercise are like pro athletes… but that is insane.
There are a number of ways to keep dogs mentally stimulated. There are great puzzle games available where you place treats inside and the dog has to figure out how to open the various compartments. Teaching dog tricks can be another great way to challenge them mentally, especially if you use a technique called shaping. Shaping can be challenging at first because you essentially are waiting for the dog to perform certain actions and then marking or rewarding little steps towards the behavior that you want. For example, if you want your dog to open the fridge and get you a soda, you might tie a towel to the door so the dog can pull the door open. Then when the dog makes any movement towards the refrigerator you would mark that behavior with a word, like “good”, or a sound, like a clicker, and then follow the mark with a treat. It’s like a game and every move by the dog that takes it closer to the towel is rewarded with a marker and a treat. Dogs will generally learn after doing shaping a few times that they can just start offering movements, actions and behaviors until they hit on the right one, and then they continue to perform it and adding other behaviors.
Many dogs have been bred to perform specific tasks. If you can get them to use those traits in a mental as well as physical way, you will be way ahead of the game. For example, if you have a retriever, rather than playing fetch you can also add in games of hide and seek where you hide treats or toys and have them find and retrieve them. Just remember to keep it under control so that they don’t get obsessive about the game. If that is an issue, keep switching it up. Remember that you are in charge. Games are another form of reward and should be played when they are behaving.
Basic obedience training is another great form of mental exercise and has the added benefit of shaping a dog that is a pleasure to be with and easy to travel with. There are a number of different methods of training obedience that are effective. The main thing is to find one that works for you and your dog to create a common language so that you are able to communicate and keep them safe and happy. One trainer told me a quote by George Bernard Shaw that is amazingly relevant – “The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Obedience training is not only about teaching your dog discipline but also about creating a common language to better communicate and avoid confusion and the accompanying stress. It’s important to remember that we humans really need to find and teach our dogs a common language in order to communicate, just as we would teach a child oral and then written language.
Training also requires spending time one on one with your dog and is a powerful way to build and strengthen your bond. They are very intuitive and perceptive beings and are often very vigilant to our behavior, mood, and actions and looking to us to see what is next and if everything is ok. By creating that common language combined with strengthening our bond, they are able to relax much more and that makes life a lot more fun for everyone.