The key to your dog’s health and wellbeing is exercise, healthy nutrition and mentally stimulating activities. Mentally stimulating activities, also called enrichment activities, are crucial for a healthy emotional and mental state. It encourages problem solving skills through their senses, helps build confidence and gives enjoyment. Enrichment for dogs is similar to the activities we humans do to enrich our own lives. Without these activities we are at risk of being bored, frustrated, anxious and depressed. The recent lockdowns have given us a glimpse of how detrimental it can be to our mental and emotional health if we cannot engage in our normal activities that give us enjoyment. Dogs can feel similarly bored, frustrated, anxious and depressed if they do not engage in mentally stimulating activities. It can lead to behavioural issues such as digging, barking, anxiety, reactivity, and even self harm and chronic health problems. Even if your dog does not exhibit any of the above behaviours, enrichment is a crucial part of their wellbeing and should be incorporated into their daily routine in addition to walks and play.
What does the science say?
Mentally stimulating activities allow your dog to engage in innate behaviours such as sniffing, digging, chewing, scenting and licking which can be incredibly satisfying for your dog. Sniffing and scenting in particular are activities dogs are wired for. Depending on the breed, dogs have up to 100 million or more scent receptors in their nose (humans have 5-6 million and Bloodhounds have 300 million!). Not only is the ‘smelling section’ of your dogs brain 40 times larger than ours but one-eights of your dog’s brain alone is devoted to analysing smells. They can smell 10000 to 100000 better than us and are able to detect a single particle among 1 trillion particles. This is mind blowing and something we will never be able to experience ourselves. Not allowing our dogs to sniff when on their walks is like prohibiting humans to see. Dogs use their sense of smell as their primary sense for understanding the world, not their sight as we humans do.
Sniffing and scenting in particular lowers the heart rate, releases dopamine (the feel good hormone) and reduces cortisol in the body (the stress hormone). Dopamine released during the act of sniffing and scenting increases your dog’s attention, motivation and reward system. The mere act of sniffing is a self soothing activity and will make your dog feel good. The added benefit is that it can also lower anxiety as the dopamine D1 and D2 receptors are crucial for managing anxiety. When we add a reward element into the activity, for example, sniffing out a treat and then being rewarded by being able to eat the treat, we stimulate the Seeking System which also reinforces the learning process. Overall, sniffing can be a powerful therapeutic activity that feels good, lowers anxiety and increases motivation and learning.
Let’s have a look at 4 easy to implement mentally stimulating activities that involve sniffing and scenting.
1. Cheese Challenge
This is a game we have introduced to our dog’s life a few years ago. Chito absolutely loves cheese and a few years back we started hiding a few pieces here and there for him to find. Today it has morphed into a proper challenge – a cheese challenge! We cut tiny bits of cheese and hide them across the house behind the couch, on chairs, in his bed, under cushions and toys.. wherever you like really. Chito knows exactly what is going to happen and watches us intently and patiently whilst we distribute about 20 pieces of tiny cheese bits across the house (or the backyard in summer). Once we give him the command to seek, his “sniffler” goes into overdrive and we see how his other senses (particularly his sight) are put into standby mode. He gets this sort of vacant look on his face and literally doesn’t see some of the cheese pieces that are right in front of him. His nose, however, always leads him to them. Very amusing! It’s fun to watch and he has an absolute ball.
We always place a few easy bits for him to find quickly and then a few really hard bits so he is occupied for a while. It usually takes him around 10-15 minutes to find all the cheese pieces and he then walks and sniffs around for another 5-10min just in case he missed one. We do a final walk around together at the end to make double sure he found them all (it’s a pretty cool bonding experience especially if he missed one after all and I point it out to him). All in all he is busy for about 30 min whilst dopamine (the feel good hormone) is being released, his heart rate lowered and cortisol levels (stress hormone) decreased. Brilliant! He is visibly happier and more satisfied after the game. We love it!
2. The Kong Wobbler
The Kong Wobbler Food Dispenser is a great invention as it is weighted on one side and thus always returns to an upright position after your dog has pushed it with their paw or nose. It dispenses food through a hole as it wobbles, rolls and spins. Due to the weighted end, its movements are unpredictable and the task can become quite challenging. However, depending on the size of the food pieces you fill the Kong with, the activity can be quick and easy (small pieces that fall out easily) or long and challenging (bigger pieces).
We mixed it up with smaller and bigger pieces so that Chito gets rewarded early on but then has to work a bit harder to get the bigger pieces out. Chito usually spends 15-20 min pushing and pawing the Kong whilst his nose also works hard smelling out the pieces that have fallen out. If you watch closely, it is his nose that finds the pieces, rarely his eyes. He sometimes takes a break for a few minutes and then returns back to the activity if there are still food pieces in the Kong. It is not only a workout for his mind and nose, but also for his body. He shifts weight between his legs when pawing the Kong, has to bend down when pushing the Kong with his nose, and has to turn and move out of the way when the Kong moves in an unexpected direction. It involves great front end and core engagement; movements your dog might not engage in at all if his main activity is going for walks. Especially older dogs can benefit greatly from this activity as fetching the ball or play-fighting in the dog park might not be suitable anymore as there is a high likelihood that it leads to pain, stiffness and arthritis flare-ups.
3. Toy or Treat under Blanket
Compared to the first two activities, this game requires you to be a bit more involved but is a great way to bond with your dog. Show your dog one of their favourite toys and let them sniff it, lick it and bite it. Lure them to play with you and the toy, and then hide the toy under a blanket. Make sure you play this game on non-slippery surface as your dog will most likely get very excited when sniffing out and trying to get to the toy under the blanket. We want to avoid them slipping and sliding on tiles or floorboards so this game is best played on carpet or on the couch or bed (or outside on grass). If you rough up the blanket and use a smallish toy, it is harder for your dog to find and they have to use their nose to detect it. Some dogs are not big on toys and in this case you can also use a treat. Before hiding the treat under the blanket, let your dogs sniff it in your hand so they know what they are looking (sniffing) for.
If you want to make it even more challenging you can wrap the blanket around the toy or treat so your dog has to unwrap his reward which is rather difficult if you do not have disposable thumbs like we humans do. Once your dog has achieved the task and found the toy or treat, you repeat the same activity again, and again. It’s fun to watch your dog engage their problem solving skills and use their nose to guide them in the right direction. You will be surprised how quick time passes when playing this game.
4. Sniff Walks
We have learnt at the beginning of this blog how amazing a dog’s sense of smell is and how important sniffing can be in regulating emotions and well-being. One of the most satisfying activities for your dog is being allowed to sniff on their walks. Rather than wanting to achieve our goal (i.e. walking a certain distance or a certain amount of time), we let our dog’s nose be our guide. This is a very different style of walking and might take you some time to get used to but once mastered it can be rather satisfying to watch your dog engaging in their ultimate doggy hobby – sniffing.
At least one of our daily walks is a sniff walk which means when Chito wants to stop to smell something, I stop and let him smell it. I do not get impatient and tell him to move on (or even drag him along) but instead, I wait patiently until he is ready to move on. We sometimes even go back to a spot we just passed if he decides he wants to take another sniff. These walks are very slow and are not meant to physically exercise your dog. They are meant to mentally stimulate your dog and allow your dog to gather information about their environment and neighbourhood. Dr Marty Becker calls it ‘pee-mail’ and ‘Piss-ta-gram’ where dogs catch up on all their friends’ news using one single platform – their environment (usually a tree, a pole, a fire hydrant or a signpost). It’s the social media platform for doggies and I am sure you understand how important it is to connect with friends and leave them messages.