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Exercising Your Pet’s Brain

Written by: Shireen Haynes

All animals have a need to learn. Some behaviors are innate and do not have to be taught. For example,  dogs will scent mark to let other dogs know that this is their territory.  Cats have an instinctual need to bury their urine and feces. Birds will hatch themselves out of the eggshell.  Information such as this is passed down generation to generation through the animal’s genetic code.

Other behaviors need to be learned over time.  How many people have had to switch to a manual can opener because Fifi or Fido go nuts when they hear the can opener?  How many of you are trained by your cat or dog to give them table scraps when they give you “The Look”?  How many dog owners let their dog in and out twenty times a night because of barking?  Your animals have you well-trained and you are not alone.

Just like humans, cats and dogs need to have their brains stimulated to avoid boredom.  Boredom, unfortunately can equal destructiveness.  Exercising an animal’s brain can be just as exhausting as physical exercise.  Additionally, exercising the brain will help your pet maintain his or her cognitive capabilities as they age.  Older dogs can be diagnosed with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome which is similar to Alzheimer’s Disease in humans.  In fact, researchers at the University of California at Davis studied 139 elderly dogs.  Brain autopsies of these dogs showed that they also had nerve-damaging plaques similar to those found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Here are some simple brain games that you can try with your dog to keep them stimulated.

  • “Find It” – throw handfuls of kibble around the yard and let your dog use his nose to find them.
  • “The Shell Game” – This the same game as on “The Price is Right.”  Take two plastic or opaque cups and turn them over.  Make sure your dog is watching while you place a treat under one.  Give your dog the cue to turn over the cup and get the treat.  Do this 8-10 times to really let your dog understand the game.  Then alternate the cup under which you place the treat.  When your dog selects the right cup, let him have the treat.  If he doesn’t select the right cup, show him the treat under the correct cup but don’t let him have it.  Keep him watching while you place the treats so that he can guess the right cup.  It might sound easy but this requires some serious brainwork!
  • “Feeding from a Frozen Kong” – Instead of letting your dog graze throughout the day, feed a portion of his food to him in a frozen Kong. Mix your dog’s food with cream cheese, string cheese, mashed potatoes, or soak with chicken broth.  Cap off the end with peanut butter and stick it in the freezer overnight.  In the morning, give it to your dog and let him work for his breakfast throughout the day.  This is especially helpful for dogs who are crated while you are at work.   **Multiple dog households should use caution and only do this for meal times when owners are home.  Separating dogs while they eat is always your best bet. **

Don’t own a dog?  Cats have a need for brain stimulation too.  Most cats will respond really well to a fishing pole toy – you can make your own using a yard stick, some string and a toy mouse – or a laser pointer or flashlight.  Move the toy in an erratic pattern to entice your cat but do allow them to “catch” the prey at times so that they do not become frustrated.  Another great idea is to build a “Paper Bag Playground.”  Lay several paper bags on the floor with the tops open.  Scratch the outside of the bag with your fingers.  When your cat jumps in, do the same thing on the other bag and have your cat jump from bag to bag.

Playing games with your pet will increase the bond between pet and owner.  Success at these games can also boost an animal’s confidence.  A happy pet is a pet that is both mentally and physically healthy.  For more information or other ideas on games, simply google “brain games for pets.”
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