Are You Up For the Challenge?


By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP

In Partnership With Dogs



I cannot over-emphasize the power and the value of mentally challenging activities for dogs.  Every single dog I meet, either during one of my group classes or in a private training session, would benefit from more mental stimulation.  Physical exercise is important, but only the addition of mentally stimulating activities can result in a truly content pup.

Mental challenges should be:

  • incorporated into any behaviour modification program;
  • incorporated into any puppy rearing program by both breeders and puppy owners;
  • provided as part of introducing a newly adopted dog to your home;
  • increased as your dog ages and becomes less mobile;
  • creatively added as part of any injury or illness rehabilitation;
  • should ideally be added into any shelter or rescue facility’s daily activities; and
  • part of every dog’s daily activities.

All of my clients get to hear my spiel on adding mentally challenging activities into their dog’s day!  Some recent client examples have included:

  1. An elderly dog who had started exhibiting anxiety and restlessness.  In the absence of any medical reason, we can’t know why this is, but I’ve seen the same thing happen to my aging dogs over the years.  It may be as a result of the stress of adjusting to hearing loss, eyesight fading or mobility issues – that certainly occurs with humans, why not dogs.  
  2. A reactive dog who, during his behaviour rehabilitation, needs to participate in activities that keep his dog reactivity to a minimum.  If you live in a busy area, this rules out long walks through town and visits to the dog park so you need alternative ideas.
  3. A young puppy with more energy than her family had planned for who shouldn’t be running and playing hard yet due to her developmental stage.
  4. A newly adopted dog with way more energy and drive than the dog she was adopted to be a companion for.
  5. A group obedience class of young dogs all with different levels of confidence and impulse control.

The lives of all of these dogs would be enhanced with the addition of more mentally stimulating activities, and their families will see a positive difference in their dogs.jack-treat-hunting-fernie

The primary value of mental stimulation is building confidence.  If you are provided with a challenge that is intriguing and solvable for you (and that’s different for every individual), there is a reinforcing feeling of accomplishment when you’re done.  

There is nothing better for confidence than accomplishing something on your own, maybe getting something good for it as well and even praise on top of it all – think job challenge, bonus pay and some kudos from the boss and co-workers.  There is nothing better than that feeling of accomplishment.  If you get enough of that on a regular basis, you’re starting to feel pretty good about yourself and you start to feel like you can tackle even greater challenges.  If you’re a dog you begin to start feeling the confidence to try a different behaviour in situations that may have previously been too overwhelming or scary to do more than react to in some way.  Dogs will start to use their thinking brains more and their reacting brains less.

A lot of people are simply focused on getting the dog out for his daily walk or walks. No question – physical exercise is important for dogs. However, what if your dog can’t do much physical exercise for some reason (health, age or behaviour)?  Or what if you can’t physically exercise your dog very much and can’t afford to have someone else do it for you, or what if it’s not appropriate for your dog to be walked by others?

Physical exercise can be mentally stimulating too – exploring and sniffing around new streets or trails is part mental and part physical and your dog can explore at his leisure.  Even routine walks are different every day to some extent – what animals have passed by since we were last here?  However, there are some really good ways to up that mental challenge and reap the benefits of a uniquely tired and satisfied dog.


Adding Mental Challenges to Your Dog’s Life

The easiest way to add mental challenges to your dog’s day is to make use of the vast array of treat dispensing toys currently on the market.  This has become a pretty big retail category for pets – not just dogs, but all small companion animals are benefitting. Even larger animals like horses, cow, pigs, etc. have options available for mental stimulation.  My own horses eat out of hay nets designed to challenge them and make meals last longer. 

I put treat-dispensing toys into 3 categories:  

  1. slow feeder bowls or puzzle toys – stationary items; 
  2. toys that move – roll, wobble or need to be pulled or shaken; and 
  3. toys that you need to chew or change the shape of in order to get the food out.

Slow feeder bowls or puzzle toys are designed to hold your dog’s full meal.  The idea is that the bowls or toys slow your dog’s food consumption down which is great for dogs who gulp their food too quickly.  They also require your dog to put a bit of thought into how to get their food out which they can see and smell but can’t just gulp up easily without changing their usual behaviour in some way.  I highly recommend that all people make use of these types of things, at the very least, as a way to feed their dogs on a daily basis.  It’s easy, you can use them with dry, wet or raw food and it takes very little time on your part.  

I think of it as the beginning stage of getting your dog “into” mentally challenging activities.  For dogs who aren’t particularly food motivated and may even just pick at their meals, it increases interest.  For other dogs who are happy to quickly gulp down their meals, it starts to build a work ethic – now we’re asking you to work, just a bit, to get your food.  The challenge of most of these bowls and toys isn’t so hard as to be defeating.  Once dogs figure them out, they aren’t hard but still take time and still require more effort than a regular dog bowl.

Once your dog is happily consuming meals this way, an easy next step is to use toys for entertainment.  I like to use filled chew toys like Kongs or rolling toys like balls with kibble or other dry treats in them in this next step.  

Benefits of using Entertainment toys:

  • useful for teaching puppies or newly adopted dogs to be content when left alone. 
  • gives your dog something to do when you’re not home or are too busy to play.
  • beneficial as a way to re-direct the adrenaline of physical exercise which tends to amp dogs up for a short time after a walk or run.
  • comes in enough variety that you can find something to accommodate almost any injury or illness rehab.
  • can be very easy or really difficult and you can help your dog work up in difficulty by how you fill them.

(Important note:  be sure to initially monitor any dog with toys you intend to ultimately leave them alone with to make sure they play with them safely.)

Making use of the toys available on the market is an easy thing to add into your dog’s day.  Christmas is coming – here are a few of my favorite entertainment toys (well tested!) to tuck into your dog’s stocking this year:dante-green

  • Green – a slow feeder by Northmate
  • Fun Feeders by Outward Hound
  • Snoop treat dispensing ball by Planet Dog
  • Kong Genius Leo by Kong
  • The Wobbler by Kong
  • Tricky Treat Ball – a classic by Omega

If you’re creative, you can also find some great DIY ideas on the internet.  Here are a couple of ideas that caught my attention:

Train the Brain

Being a practitioner and passionate advocate of the science of positive reinforcement training – of course I need to include a plug for training as way to mentally challenge your dog!  Shaping, in particular, is something that can be easy, fun and really challenging for your dog – it’s also great for increasing your own observation and training skills.  Shaping simply means breaking down a behavior into tiny increments, and reinforcing the dog at each incremental step until you’ve achieved the full behavior. 

Shaping allows you to create behavior from scratch without physical control or corrections, but rather by drawing on your animal’s natural ability to learn.  The benefit of shaping is helping your dog learn how to offer behaviors, try new things, and think creatively in order to solve problems. Try this fun and easy free-shaping game – 101 Things To Do With a Box, from Karen Pryor’s website,

The Nose Knows


Perhaps the best way to mentally challenge your dog is to make use of their very talented nose.

An quick and easy way to encourage your dog to use his nose is to scatter treats in the grass and teach your dog to use their nose to look for them by giving them a cue, “Find It” and pointing out each treat until they begin to respond to their cue by searching and sniffing around on their own.  The longer the grass or wilder the terrain, the longer the search takes.  You can use the same kind of training to teach your dog to find a treasured toy or even a family member hiding somewhere in the house.

Nose Work

A more formal way to challenge your dog’s nose is to participate in a dog sport called Nose Work.  The training of professional scent detection canines inspired this fun canine sport.  It’s open to all dogs including dog-reactive or fearful dogs, as there is only one dog in the search area at a time. It’s appropriate for any dog – young or old, injured or even disabled dogs. No previous experience or training is necessary to get started – for the dog or the handler.  It’s a really fun way to spend time with your dog and tire them out mentally and even physically.  Best of all, you can practice it at home with minimal equipment needed.

Nose Work is an activity that uses real-world environments and can be done almost anywhere. Every search has the potential to be a dramatically different just by changing hide placement, or searching under different weather conditions. Participating in Nose Work gives your dog the freedom to express and refine his natural talents, and he’s giving you a glimpse into how he “sees” the world.

In Nose Work, dogs learn how to search for a specific odor or odors and find the source. Dogs start by searching for their favorite food or toy reward (soon paired with various odors) hidden in a variety of environments, increasing the challenges and adding new search skills as the dog progresses.  Odors dogs are taught to search for include birch, anise, and clove.  As you progress in your training, dogs are introduced to four different search elements: container, interior, exterior, and vehicles. Dogs build their hunt drive and learn foundational search skills in all four elements. 

Throughout the training, the emphasis will always be on creating learning experiences for the dog and supporting his independent problem solving, not commanding him to perform a series of tasks in a predetermined manner. Nose Work is all about the dogs and all about celebrating their amazing abilities.  All the training is positive supportive for both dog and handler.  No corrections or aversives are used in any part of the training.

If you’re interested in trying Nose Work, check out this site for classes in your area:

 So – I challenge you to up the challenge for your dog! Make a New Year’s resolution to give your dog some more mentally stimulating activities to occupy his brain this coming year.  As always, keep it positive!