Q&A: Keep your dog's brain stimulated
Your dog is pretty good at letting you know he's bored, and he doesn't always pick the most convenient times to do so. Physical exercise is one thing, but could your dog be a mental couch potato? How can you provide mental stimulation for your pooch to keep his brain challenged? We've asked Dr. Leslie, our in-house veterinarian, for the lowdown on how much stimulation your dog's brain needs.
Q: What happens when a dog doesn't get enough mental stimulation?
Dr. Leslie: It does appear that dogs suffer from insufficient mental stimulation and engagement. How they demonstrate boredom can be through several different behaviors, many of which can be destructive to their environments and to their own bodies.
Q: How much activity and mental stimulation should a dog get daily?
Dr. Leslie: Some dogs have high energy levels and require active engagement while others are content with cognitive engagement. How much boredom an individual pup can tolerate varies. Some dogs are content to monitor their surroundings — watching the activities going on around them — while others seem to need more direct social stimulation from other animals or humans.
Q: Does the amount or type of stimulation needed depend on factors like size, age or breed?
Dr. Leslie: Certainly, a dog's signalment — a veterinary term referring to an animal's medical history concerning age, sex and breed — plays a role in the amount and intensity of engagement a dog is satisfied with. Some breeds need jobs, like patrolling a yard or attending to a companion's needs, while others need longer rest periods with shorter intervals of high intensity activity.
Think of the herding dog in a neighborhood — patrolling children at play can be as engaging for that dog as spending a few hours on a farm herding goats. On the other hand, a sight hound may need 20 hours of rest with a few moments of sprinting around the yard to break up their cuddle-naps.
Keep in mind that as dogs age, their endurance may wane. This is a perfect time to institute a buddy-system. Veterinary behaviorists commonly recommend canine companions to help provide mental stimulation and engagement to pets as they age. It is remarkable — there are reports of renewed spirit in geriatric dogs with the introduction of a canine companion, as though having a new friend delays the mental and physical aging process.
Q: Do you have any advice for busy pet parents who find making time for interactive play a challenge?
Dr. Leslie: Find a dog that has the behavior characteristics for your lifestyle. If you live in a small space with limited ability to provide hours of activity and engagement, select a dog that would be content in that space, such as a toy or small breed — maybe consider two dogs so they can keep each other company. On the other hand, if you have a large open space, a dog that needs more space would enjoy the opportunity to be your fur-ever pet.
If you need help understanding how to read your pet's boredom cues or knowing how to deal with problematic behavior caused by lack of stimulation, check out the book Decoding Your Dog: Explaining Common Dog Behaviors and How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.