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Dogs Need Cognitive Stimulation To Stay Healthy — These 5 Activities Can Help

For a healthy pup, exploration is key.


Dogs, like people, require stimulation to keep their brains engaged and ensure they remain active, alert, and healthy throughout their lives. Below are five vet-approved ways to engage with your pup in a way that improves their cognitive skills, whether two or 10 years old.

1. Foster a sense of agency.

To truly enrich your dogs, you must know them as individuals and allow them to have a sense of control over their own lives. That means giving your dog choices. It can be profoundly limiting if a dog’s entire life is spent hanging around waiting for us to decide when she goes for a walk; when she goes to the bathroom; when she eats; when she can interact with other dogs. Let the dog tell you when to go on a walk and where she wants to walk. Let your dog choose.

2. Communicate with dogspeak.

Using baby talk may not be great for a toddler mastering English, but a form of it could be helpful for your dog. In short, what you say should engage your dog through your tone of voice or inflection as well as the literal content of the words, according to University of York psychologists Alex Benjamin and Katie Slocombe. “We found that it’s not only the way you talk — higher pitch and larger changes in pitch, similar to infant-directed speech — but also the content of what you are saying that were important to drive these effects,” Slocombe explains. “Dog-relevant content” focused on things such as play, food, and going out, said in a dog-directed tone of voice, are especially effective at capturing dogs’ attention.

3. Unleash your pet.

Find a protected outdoor spot to unleash your dog. Do not force your dog to be tethered to you every moment of the day and in every single situation. Instead, take your dog someplace where he can wander but still know where you are. If possible, let your dog roll and chase something, smell the environment, and run free.

4. Create opportunities so they can use their sense of smell.

Because the part of a dog’s brain allotted to the sense of smell is about 40 times greater than ours, exercising their nose gives dogs a real workout. Scent work can be anything from allowing a dog to spend as much time as they want sniffing the environment on their daily walks to using structured scent games. These can include food puzzles, snuffle mats, and games in which the dog has to find hidden treats or a person who is playing hide-and-seek.

5. Remember that you can teach your old dog new tricks — and many other things.

The truth is that training helps form a bond between dog and human, and older dogs have as much need in that department as younger ones. Teaching your older dog new things will help your pal feel alive and secure. Just be sure to keep training sessions short, to compensate for exhaustion, and give your friend delicious rewards for doing things right. Caveat: An older dog can sometimes have dementia, and you should be on the lookout for that, along with deficits in vision or hearing.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind, in 2022.

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