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Dogs are happier and healthier if they receive mental stimulation on a daily basis. This can generally be provided as part of the dog's daily training and exercise. An elderly dog sometimes cannot be as active as he was earlier in life. Injury or illness might require exercise restrictions. If a dog can't exercise normally, using games and training to exercise his or her mind will help him/her stay sharp.
Stimulating the Senses
One great way to help a dog exercise his or her mind is to stimulate all five senses with new experiences. Remember that dogs have a keen sense of smell. Strong smells are not necessary in order to expose the dog to a new scent.
Stimulate the sense of smell by presenting a scent that the dog is not familiar with. Try getting a stick air freshener and taking its lid off in the same room as the dog. Bring it closer until your dog seems to notice the smell.
To stimulate your dog's sense of touch, try giving a gentle massage. Place your hand lightly on the dog's side and make small clockwise circles. Repeat this all over the dog's body, remaining gentle. Stop if you seem to be causing pain or discomfort. You can also try gently stroking and rubbing your dog's paws, tail, gums and ears. These areas are rarely touched in daily interaction.
Hearing can be stimulated with new and unusual sounds or simply by talking to your dog. Try buying a CD of whale songs or wolves howling. See how your dog reacts. Alternately, make time each day to talk to your dog for several minutes.
Dogs, contrary to popular belief, do see colors. However, they don't see the full range of colors that humans do. The color seen most keenly by dogs is the color blue. Try stimulating the sense of sight by showing your dog a bright blue object. Or, hang a bird feeder outside a window where your dog can look out and watch birds and squirrels.
Training as a Mind Exercise
Training games can help your dog exercise mentally. Instead of focusing on simple obedience, train behaviors that require the dog to make intelligent choices in order to get a reward.
For example, try the training game "101 Things to Do with A Box." Your dog will need to understand clicker training already in order to play this game. If he/she doesn't, start by introducing the clicker and training some simple behaviors using it. If the dog is already clicker-savvy, you can jump right into the game.
Get a box, preferably a fairly large one, and set it on the floor. Sit nearby with a clicker and treats. If your dog takes notice of the box in any way, click and give a treat. Any interaction with the box should earn a small treat. Give a big reward and lots of praise if the dog thinks of something particularly interesting to do with the box, like climbing into it or pushing it along the floor.
Once the dog understands that interacting with the box earns a reward, try clicking interaction with the box, but not clicking the same two actions twice in a row. Your dog will learn that it must do something different with the box each time it wants a reward. This can lead to some really innovative behaviors.
You can use the same basic steps to teach your dog to interact with various household objects. Any training game that requires the dog to make choices and learn a set of rules will be good mental exercise. You can try training scent discrimination (the dog must pick the object with your scent from a group of similar objects) or object differentiation (the dog learns the names of several objects).
Another fun training game involves clicking and rewarding whatever the dog does and then clicking and rewarding the next behavior only if it is different from the first. Like the advanced version of the box game, this encourages creativity from the dog.