Mental stimulation in dogs causes positive physiological and behavioral reactions, which are able, to some extent, to improve their quality of life.
Play-induced mental stimulation in dogs generates a wide range of positive emotions. Some scientific reports state that when the game is played regularly and in a rewarding environment, it is capable of triggering a series of responses at the central nervous system level.
In turn, these stimuli cause physiological and behavioral reactions rich in benefits for the animal. In the following lines we will talk about how play activities cause this mental stimulation in dogs. We must not forget, in fact, that, after all, they are animals with instincts that they must satisfy.
The importance of the game
Nowadays, it is a universally accepted fact that animals feel pain and are capable of suffering. We also understand that “animal welfare” is not only the absence of pain and fear, but also involves the presence of a stimulating environment .
It is important to remember that pleasure is generally evaluated in the context of temporary sensory stimulation, such as that related to the sense of taste. However, expressions such as “well-being” or “quality of life” refer to a more prolonged inner state associated with mental stimulation.
Play is important because it gives pets the opportunity to exercise their bodies while exploring their surroundings and learning new skills.
What Happens When a Dog Doesn’t Play?
Due to their living conditions, pets and those kept in captivity are generally passive recipients of stimulation. This means that they cannot choose or control their own experiences and possibilities of behavior . For this reason, some social living beings, forced into confinement and loneliness, can end up suffering from boredom.
Some of these boredom-related behaviors have occurred in dogs lacking physical and mental stimulation. The signs of boredom are varied, but usually include increased sleepiness and episodes of restlessness, as well as avoidance and sensation-seeking behaviors, which, sadly, their guardians perceive as misconduct.
Thus, a lack of sensory or cognitive stimulation occurs when the animal does not have opportunities to practice, explore and / or learn. There is evidence that animals lacking appropriate mental stimulation suffer from a weakening of several neurons: in fact, their brains become smaller .
Why is play important in mental stimulation in dogs?
Undoubtedly, it is difficult to measure an animal’s degree of well-being. Nonetheless, evidence from recent studies indicates that animals benefit from creating situations that enrich their experiences. Such situations include:
- The anticipation of positive rewards.
- The opportunities offered to animals to gather information, as in the case of problem solving experiences .
- Positive emotional experiences that persist over time or are repeated regularly.
How does mental stimulation work in dogs?
According to some scientific studies, problem solving experiences are intrinsically motivating . During stimulation in dogs, dopamine , a chemical mediator associated with learning and memory consolidation , is released .
Researchers report that dopamine (an autonomic neurotransmitter) acts on the physiological response to rewards. These responses are essential for controlling behavior motivated by past experiences.
This is how dopamine is associated with positive reinforcement in the presence of rewarding stimuli.
Is there an age at which the dog does not need to play?
During the first years of life, dogs naturally manifest a distinct propensity for play and exploration. However, as the aging process consolidates, it is normal for vitality to decrease .
At the same time, the supply of mental and physical stimulation for pets inside the home can decrease. Guardians often think that the predisposition to play is reduced in older dogs .
However, the need for mental stimulation in dogs persists throughout life . There is scientific evidence that limiting these activities could lead to accelerated aging in dogs.
Consequently, the lack of stimulating activities can result in a lowering of the quality of life of the animal and affect the weakening of the bond between the dog and its owner. In addition, there is evidence that constant stimulation throughout life is associated with the maintenance of cognitive function in older dogs.
Games designed for mental stimulation in dogs
Once the importance of games in the life of the dog has been established, we present some very easy to perform:
- Snack Search : Takes practice and is an easy and fun way to test your sense of smell. It gives your dog the opportunity to use some of his natural instincts by using food.
- Food Dispenser Toys : Objects that try to encourage your dog to work to find out how to get the food you have placed inside them.
- Puzzles for dogs : Puzzles for dogs come in different shapes and sizes and can be found on sale in most pet supply stores. Some of them are quite challenging, while others, aimed at beginners, much simpler.
- Hand Guess : This is a very simple way to stimulate your dog’s brain; all you need are some snacks. The game consists of grabbing some snacks in one of your hands and having the dog guess which one they are in. Easy and fast.
- Guess the Cup : This is another simple mind game for dogs. Three cups are used: you have to hide a snack under one of them (while the animal is watching) and then they mix. This game will offer your pet the opportunity to practice their problem-solving skills.
- Hide and Seek : This is a fun and challenging interactive game. Have your dog sit in a quiet position, find a hiding place, call the pet and congratulate him when he finds you. This game allows your pet to use some of its natural odor tracking skills.
- Put the toys away : Use a container and teach your dog how to put his toys away. Dogs enjoy learning new skills.
Nowadays, there are several associations that are committed to ensuring that animals can enjoy a “beautiful” life, without having to settle for an existence that “is not so bad” . This trend is increasingly present and the need to offer stimulating experiences to pets is gaining in popularity .
In general, these practices are aimed at enhancing long-term emotional states and maintaining good cognitive functioning in animals. This school of thought even manifests aspects of scientific interest, since also deepening the knowledge of the physiological mechanisms underlying the process of mental stimulation of dogs is a fascinating activity.