Mental stimulation and enrichment are crucial for all dogs. There are many benefits and gains to be had from providing enrichment for your older dog. There are also consequences of not stimulating your dog.
The benefits of dog enrichment include –
- prevent boredom that may result in behavior issues such as destructive behavior, nuisance barking, or even escaping.
- stimulate and assists in brain growth.
- improves your dog’s problem-solving skills.
- builds confidence and social skills.
- allows your dog to be a dog engaging in natural and instinctive behaviors.
- allows for a more balanced and happy dog. Lack of stimulation and enrichment can lead to depression.
For a senior dog keeping their brains active can also keep them younger and even live longer. Physical exercise is also important for an older dog to keep their muscles and joints moving and to manage weight. For a guide to exercise for a senior dog see here.
Do old dogs get dementia?
Yes, older dogs do develop signs of what we would refer to as dementia. This is known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). This is the name dog behaviorists have given to the severe mental decline that happens in many dogs as they get up into their geriatric years.
Signs of CDS are things like disorientation, restlessness, and increased agitation. Other signs and symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome can include –
- Aimless wandering around the house
- Personality changes generally due to anxiety and confusion
- Toileting inside even if they are well potty trained. This also may be due to a health problem so check with your vet.
- Changes in sleep patterns. Sleeping more and at odd times they normally wouldn’t
- New aggression often due to them not recognizing you.
- Losing direction out on walks even on the route they know well.
- Loss of interest in play. This also can be due to physical pain so consult your vet.
- Pacing and whining.
- Starring out into space or a spot on the wall.
The good news is that by providing your older dog with mental stimulation can help to make them feel better and stave of it becoming worse.
Other changes in an older dog’s brain
MRI scans of a dog’s brain have shown that they are very similar to a human’s brain as they age. Cortical atrophy (brain shrinkage) and ventricular widening occur with a lack of use. It is also thought that a dog’s brain is particularly susceptible to damage caused by free radicals produced by their own metabolism. The mechanisms that balance the production of free radicals begin to fail as a dog ages.
It is thought that increasing the intake of antioxidants such as Vitamin E and C can help a part in protecting the brain and nervous system from free-radicals. In addition, exercise, both physical and mental can also help slow the aging process.
Types of enrichment for dogs
Enrichment for a dog can be categorized into six types.
- social enrichment
- cognitive enrichment
- environmental enrichment (see here for ideas)
- sensory enrichment
- feeding enrichment (see here for ideas)
An enrichment activity you provide for your dog can be classified in more than one of the types of enrichment. For example, a treat or food stuffed toy can be considered both toy enrichment and food enrichment. To learn more about the 6 types of enrichment for dogs see here.
It is helpful for a dog owner to be aware of the six categories of enrichment and mental stimulation to aid in finding creative and simple ideas for your puppy.
Ways to provide mental stimulation and enrichment for an old dog
Going for walks
The daily walk is more than just giving your dog exercise. It allows them the opportunity to stimulate the mind with the sights, sounds, and smells they come across. Going for walks also provides social enrichment by meeting other dogs and people. It is best for an older dog to stick to routes that they are familiar with.
Ideally, taking them to the park where they can walk off-leash or even on a long line or retractable lead. This allows them to sniff around and explore at their own pace. This is known as decompression walking as it allows a dog to decompress and destress.
Environmental enrichment, also known as behavioral enrichment, is the process of making your dog’s living space more engaging and interesting. Studies have shown that animals that live in a more engaging and complex environment are happier.
For more on environmental enrichment see here.
Chew toys for senior dogs
Chewing is a natural behavior for dogs. It not only helps to keep them occupied. When a dog chews they release endorphins to their brains giving them a calming and feel-good effect. It is important to select chew toys for a senior dog that are not too hard and suitable for them. Older dog’s teeth are generally worn and may even be rotten or broken.
The Kong is more than just a chew toy for dogs. It is also a food stuffing puzzle for them too. For older dogs, you should select the purple Senior Kong. These are softer more forgiving rubber so they don’t harm an older dog’s teeth, gum or jaw.
When choosing the right size Kong for your senior dog I suggest finding the one that you think is right for their size and get the next size up. These don’t hold as much as you think.
Puzzle toys for senior dogs
Puzzle toys are one of the best ways to provide a mental challenge for your dog. Most of these types of involving your dog working out how to get a treat from the toy. Choose puzzle toys for your senior dog that provide a challenge, but are not too difficult that they become frustrated.
Here are a couple of suggestions for your senior dog. For more ideas see top puzzle toys for dogs here.
The Tornado puzzle has three layers that spin with four compartments on each level. It also comes with bone puzzle pieces you can place over the treats to add an extra level of difficulty.
The constant movement and spinning action keep your dog engaged. This puzzle is also great to feed your dog their dry kibble to slow them down. Especially if they are fast eaters or to make mealtime last longer if they are on a diet.
The Busy Buddy calming toys are more than just a treat-dispensing puzzle toy. : Made from soothing chamomile-scented rubber that helps reduce your dog’s anxiety. You also receive two toys so your dog gets variety.
View Busy Buddy Calming toys on Amazon
The concept of food enrichment is to have your dog work for their food. For an older dog that may have a reduced appetite, turning mealtimes into a game and engaging activity may encourage them to eat. It is best to measure out your dog’s food for the day to ensure they are eating the right amount. For more on food enrichment for dogs see here.
Here are some food enrichment ideas for your dog.
This one is great for a fun game or as a food-dispensing option. The Kong Wobbler holds a good volume of dog kibble or treats to occupy your dog for a reasonable amount of time. Because of its unique shape your dog can bat it with their paws or nose sending it off in all directions dispensing food. It is also ideal for dogs that gobble down their food too fast or are on a diet as it makes them work for their food.
View the Kong Wobbler on Amazon.
A Snuffe Mat is another great way to provide for your dog’s natural foraging instinct and to provide mental stimulation and relieve boredom. A Snuffe mat is a mat that is made of fleece and you can hide dry food or treats into it.
If you are someone that is good at crafts you can try to make one yourself or check out the range of Snuffle Mats at Amazon.
Scenting and nose games
The dogs’ sense of smell is one of their most powerful senses. It is often said that a dog’s nose rules the brain. Engage your senior dog in scenting games such as hiding treats around the home or splashing a little beef stock around the yard.
For scenting and nose game ideas see here.
They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This is not true. Try refreshing their obedience training or teach them a new trick or game. This is great for challenging a dog’s brain and strengthens their bond with you.
Play games with your senior dog
Play games with your dog such as fetch, hide and seek, or just play with them with their toys. Keep the sessions short so they don’t physically overdo it.
Summary – Mental stimulation for senior old dogs
Ensuring your older dog gets plenty of mental stimulation and enrichment will keep them younger and slow aging. They will be happier and may even live longer.