Environmental Enrichment and Mental Stimulation

Puppies and young dogs spend many of their waking hours, looking for ways to engage themselves physically and mentally. This is healthy and normal. Current animal science studies show that mental stimulation fatigues dogs faster than physical exercise.

Here are suggestions for keeping your dog brain-busy in “human-approved” activities. Please note that all of these activities should be supervised.   When they are alone, puppies and young dogs should be secured in a crate with a Kong toy for foraging and chewing.

Common household items may be transformed into doggy challenges.  An introduction to nose work is as simple as using a cardboard box or shopping bag.   Place several treats in the bottom and allow your dog to forage to find them.  You can use an empty toilet paper tube as a food dispensing toy.  Make three one-inch cuts in each end.  Fold up one end, overlapping the cuts.  Put a mix of kibble, treats, and a smear of peanut butter, cream cheese, chicken baby food, or liverwurst in the  tube. Close the other end by overlapping the cuts.  Allow your dog to figure out how to open the ends.  Supervise closely so you can remove the tube when the food is gone or if your dog is more interested in eating the tube instead of the food. 

Sniffing is a favorite activity for all dogs and is highly stimulating. Channel the power of the nose. Ask your dog to “sit and wait” or “stay” or place him in his crate where he can see you. Scatter kibble or treats around the room, and release him to “find it”. When he is proficient at this level, hide treats where he doesn’t see you place them.   Ask him to “find it”.

Try these two variations on the Shell game. Invert two or three plastic cups and place a treat under one of them. Start with one cup, if necessary.  It helps to poke holes in the bottom, so your dog can easily smell the treat.  You can also use a muffin tin. Place a treat in each cup and cover it with a tennis ball or other toy.

Make scent pots to teach targeting. Use three small containers (e.g. yogurt and cream cheese tubs) with lids. Poke holes in the lids to facilitate scent detection.   Place several treats in one of the scent pots. When your dog lingers over that pot, use a reward marker (a clicker or verbal marker “yes”).  Open the container and give him the treats. Switch the position of the scent pots and repeat. When your dog seems proficient here, increase the difficulty by tossing the reward a few feet away. When her back is turned, switch the position of the pots. This increases the requirement to use scenting ability to figure out where the treats are.

Use two small plastic bowls and nest them with treats in between.   Tell your dog to ”find it” and let him figure out how to separate the bowls to get the treats. Stainless steel bowls proved to be too heavy, so get the plastic ones. Styrofoam is likely to be too light and is dangerous should your dog ingest it.  Again, supervision is required.


Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA   2018
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC