Most dog owners are familiar with the importance of good nutrition and exercise when it comes to keeping a dog happy and healthy. But did you know that exercise means more than just the physical? A dog needs mental exercise, too. Giving your dog’s mind a workout has many benefits for your dog, as well as for you, and is easier and more fun than you might think.
The Science of Dog Minds
The first step in keeping your dog’s mind sharp is understanding how it works. The science of canine cognition is the study of how dogs think and how they solve problems, and it can shed a fascinating light on what is going on inside the mind of your dog and help you better meet your dog’s intellectual needs. Dr. Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and the founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, explains that the way a dog thinks translates into the way a dog acts. According to Dr. Hare, cognition “is all about trying to understand the unobservable properties of a dog’s brain or mind that then cause a behavior that we enjoy or want to understand better.”
And those unobservable properties can be pretty complex. Historically, based on our desire to have our dogs master basic obedience skills, there was a focus on learning and speed of learning. But science now embraces the idea that there are many types of cognition. Some examples of different canine cognitive abilities include how your dog communicates, how he remembers things, what he can infer (in other words, spontaneously solving novel problems that he has never been seen before), and how he responds to the emotions of others.
This means there is definitely a lot going on in your dog’s mind. Even more amazing, these different cognitive abilities can vary independently. That means your dog can be a genius in one area, but struggle in another. Perhaps she is fantastic at remembering where her toys are hidden, but has a hard time understanding when you try to communicate with her. As Dr. Hare says, “You could be really good at math and not so good at English, and it’s exactly the same for your dog.”
To learn more about how dogs think, visit DogSmarts, a series of podcasts where Dr. Hare peeks into the inner workings of the dog's mind. The podcasts are a mixture of stories and interviews with leading researchers, veterinarians, and dog owners that cover topics such as navigation, memory, empathy, nutrition, and even love.
Appreciating the complexity of canine cognition is key to keeping your dog’s mind in tip-top condition, something that is extremely important according to trainer, breeder, and the American Kennel Club’s GoodDog! Helpline Program Manager Penny Leigh, CPDT-KA. “We tell our clients that it is just as important to keep your dog mentally stimulated as it is to keep your dog physically active ... Dogs that are engaged and have 'jobs' tend to be healthier and happier, just like people who are busy and involved in activities that they like.” Dr. Hare reminds us that our dog’s mind is what we’re really in love with. After all, their mind is what drives their personality, so keeping their mind healthy will keep that personality with you longer.
And longevity is an important consideration. As your dog ages, his physical condition will change. Leigh points out that physical exercise routines may have to be modified, for example taking a walk instead of going for a hike. But cognition can change with age, as well. Owners might notice behavioral changes, says Leigh, such as sleeping more or loss of knowledge, such as housebreaking. Dr. Hare’s research also supports the idea that cognitive abilities can decline with age. For example, eye contact, a key source of bonding between dogs and their owners, as well as short-term memory, can begin to decline in older dogs. So keeping your dog’s mind sharp may be particularly valuable as he ages.
Ways to Keep Your Dog’s Mind Sharp
But how do you provide your dog with mental exercise? Leigh reminds dog owners to “keep your dog in shape physically and feed him a good diet with food like Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind, because overall good health contributes to mental soundness.” On top of those basics, however, both Leigh and Dr. Hare agree that old dogs most certainly can learn new tricks. In fact, Dr. Hare says, “an old dog needs to learn a new trick if you want to mentally stimulate them and keep their mind and body healthy.” He further explains that anything that is novel or challenging will stimulate a dog’s cognitive ability and will help give him mental exercise.
Training, toys, and games can all be used to give your dog’s brain a regular workout. Leigh suggests teaching your dog new behaviors through a dog sport, such as agility. Or if running and jumping are too much for your older dog, she recommends something less strenuous like rally, where dog and owner work together to navigate a course of obedience stations. K9 Nose Work is also a good option, as it puts a dog’s amazing nose to the test. “Older dogs can learn new training skills, and they really enjoy working and bonding with you,” she says. Trick training is another fun way to keep a dog of any age learning.
Beyond training, simply playing with your dog can be enough to stimulate his brain. Hide and seek is a great game that stretches your dog’s cognitive abilities, such as memory. Leigh says, “Instead of putting your dog’s dinner down in a bowl, divide it up and hide it in different places around the house and let your dog hunt for his dinner.” Or she advocates hiding a favorite toy around the house and encouraging the dog to hunt for it. But to ensure your dog enjoys the game, she suggests you start with very easy hiding places and work up to trickier ones, as well as making a big deal when your dog succeeds.
“Another good exercise is naming your dog’s toys,” according to Leigh. “Give each a specific name, always use that name whenever the dog is playing with that toy, and then start asking the dog to choose between toys based on name.”
Of course, not all dogs have great memories. Your dog might be better at communication games than memory games, for example. Dr. Hare advises you to adapt your choice of games to your dog. Having an understanding of how your dog thinks, and how she might not think, allows you to modify your interactions. Just as you would with a child, you might give your dog more chances to demonstrate the skills she’s good at, but then you might help her get better at things you think will be important for her to improve.
Besides observing your dog, how else can you learn more about his strengths and weaknesses, or his cognitive style? Dognition, a program founded by Dr. Hare and Vanessa Woods in 2012, may be just the tool you need. Dognition is a series of science-based games that will help you uncover your dog’s unique genius by outlining which cognitive skills your dog relies on to navigate his world and which ones are areas for improvement. After completing the initial sequence of cognitive games, you will receive a personalized profile of your dog’s thinking style that you can use to deepen your understanding of your companion and tailor your training, games, and play.
Dognition is also all about providing your dog with new experiences, exactly what he needs for mental stimulation. Dr. Hare explains that through the whole experience there are 22 different games. And although they may be similar to problems your dog faces daily, they are all designed to present your dog with things he has never seen before in a situation he has never solved a problem in before. “And so Dognition helps you see how your dog thinks, but it also helps you stimulate your dog’s mind in the way we’ve been talking about,” says Dr. Hare.
There is still one other element to consider. You know that good nutrition plays an important part in your dog’s health, but can it also affect his mental abilities? According to research conducted by Purina Pro Plan, nutrition can have a positive impact on cognition. As a dog’s brain ages, it has a reduced ability to use glucose as an energy source. The research scientists at Purina discovered that medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s) from coconut oil and palm kernel oil provide excellent alternative energy sources for aging brain cells. An independent research study found that MCT’s seem to help an older dog’s cognitive abilities, like memory and attention, function better. These findings led to the development of Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult, containing a blend of brain-supporting nutrients, and Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind 7+, containing the same blend of brain-supporting nutrients, plus MCT’s.
Dr. Hare, who feeds his dog Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind 7+, is excited about the opportunity to maintain a dog’s youthful brain health through food. Like most people with dogs over the age of seven, he had noticed changes in his dog’s behavior. One of the most concerning was a decrease in his dog’s cuddliness. The results of switching his dog to Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind 7+ were wonderful. “He’s like Mr. Snuggles again, so it’s great,” he says.
There are so many ways to ensure your dog’s mind stays sharp for as long as possible. When Dr. Hare thinks about his beloved childhood dog, he realizes that if he had known there were things he could have done to keep that dog and his personality healthier for longer, he would have jumped at the chance. He reminds us that there are more things to do now than ever for our dog’s cognitive well-being. “We know through exercise, nutrition, keeping your dog’s mind stimulated by playing games like what we have through Dognition, that you can keep that personality that you love healthy for longer. And how exciting is that!”