Dog Training 101: Mental Work

“Nothing will work unless you do.” -Maya Angelou



Dog with an enrichment toy

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Same story, different day. Someone finds out I'm a dog trainer, and they want the best piece of advice I can give them regarding working with their dog. And it's always the same:


The best advice about training your dog: don't do it. See? Simple.

But that doesn't mean your dog should run amok throughout your life and your house like a rhino on meth through a windchime shop. I said not to train, I didn't say anything about not guiding and answering their questions. You need a game plan; a new perspective.


Think of dog training as a diet: restrictive, over structured and prone to failure in the long run. I mean who has time for a 45 minute walk everyday with their new dog, along with 15 minutes twice a day for "training" (whatever that means).


That's why I developed the PAW Method so many years ago. It's not a diet, it's a life plan. A shift in focus and a reboot of ideas distilled into an easy-to-manage lifestyle.


people leash walking dog

The premise of the PAW Method is simple: it stand for Piloting (learn about it here and here), Activity (i.e., exercise your dog) and Work (or mental enrichment).


Now when I'm in a training session, and I start helping my clients put the pieces of the PAW Method together, they can always rattle off what they do (or should be doing) for physical activity with their dog. But I'd say only 15% of my clients have a grasp of a dog's need for mental work.


Dog's aren't just automated robots; they need problems to fix to keep their minds sharp and active.

In other words, keep your dog mentally engaged, or they will find a way to engage themselves, and it's never good.


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Let's break down some general guidelines to effectively getting your dog the mental work they require, as well as some do's and don'ts.


DO make sure it is an every day occurrence. You fed your dog yesterday, does that mean you have to do it again today? um....yeah.


dog enrichment feeding



DON'T get stuck in a rut. Your dog is designed to adapt and evolve to different situations, become better each time. There is a threshold that can be hit, so change it up frequently. Think about kindergarten, and how difficult was for you to learn the alphabet. Hopefully by now you've nailed it though (and to you flat-earther, anti-vax crowd, keep working at it).


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DO use time savers. An enrichment toy, feeder puzzle, etc., are all great examples of adding mental work to your dog's day without much effort from you.


DON'T devalue time spent with your dog on mental work. Yeah, you're not a stay-at-home dog parent; you've got a lot of things to tackle in your busy life. But join in on the mental work with your dog occasionally. You may find it helps refresh your mind as well.


DO look at mental work as unique. Some dogs love specific types of mental work, while others get bored. Find what works for you, which may be different than what works for a different dog. It's not one-size-fits-all.


DON'T spend a lot of money on enrichment gimmicks. Yes, that backyard agility set looks like So Much Fun, but you're only going to use it once or twice before you get bored with it. Stick with simple, basic things.


Now that we've set some simple guidelines for getting the most bang out of your enrichment buck, let's go on to the actual exercises and tools you can use to work your dog's mind.


Dog in class

Enrichment Feeders

By far my favorite (and easiest) way to work my dog's mind. There are so many out there! Here are some of my favorites:


Best All Around: Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound Dog Worker

If you've ever had a training session with me, you've probably seen this. It's my one-size-fits-all. Easy enough for any dog to use, but engaging enough to maintain the interest of my border collie, Arwen. Any sized dog can use it (I've had Chihuahuas and a Boxer use it in the same training session). So make sure you get the largest size (shown below) rather than the small size.


Bonus: Since it's one solid, round piece, it's very difficult to chew up, so perfect for Ellis.


Best for Uni-taskers and Herding Dogs: Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble Meal

My Sparta loved this toy. I loved that it was big enough to hold all of her food (at over 100lbs., she ate a lot!), so I didn't have to fill it over and over again. Sparta's food was a little bit too large to easily fit through the openings on the end; I easily rectified this by cutting out some of the plastic guards. Perfect.


Bonus: You can see how much food is left inside, as it's clear plastic.

Best for Senior Dogs/Dogs with Health Problems - Busy Buddy Twist 'n Treat Dispensing Toy

As my 5lb Papillion, Orion, got older, his teeth got worse, until finally we had to put him on a wet food regime. There are very few enrichment toys that work well with wet food, but this is one. By twisting the toy shut almost all the way, the wet food has a difficult time dumping out, making a perfect alternative to messy Kongs. Sparta had one as well, even though her teeth were fine. Hers was exclusively for peanut butter.


Bonus: Dishwasher safe (top rack).

Best for Noise Reduction - Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball, Large

I've been using this ball for years (my beloved Darwin had one over 20 years ago!) It's made of a softer plastic (read: not for destructive dogs) so the largest size can be appropriate for even a small dog. My 5 lb Orion and 100 lb Sparta used the same size.


Bonus: Since it's quieter, it's good for shy dogs.


Best for Rough & Tumble Dogs: Kong Wobbler


Not as mobile as some of the other ball-centric toys listed, this one is a glorified Weeble (if you're old enough to remember those #me!) This used to be the one I used for years with the destructive dogs, until I gave it to Ellis ("Well, you TOLD me to get the food out, Mom!"), so it's not 100%, but most of my more chaos prone dogs have problems destroying it.


Bonus: One of the easier toys to fill.


Double Bonus: Off all the toys listed, I feel this one provides the most physical activity in addition to the mental work.


Best for Over-Achievers: Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug

The unfortunately named "Tug-A-Jug" is hands down the hardest toy I've had the pleasure of subjecting my dogs to. Out of all the dogs I've had in my life (Darwin, Sparta, Orion, Ellis and Arwen), only Arwen was able to figure it out (see her in action below). However, I did bring it on a training session a few times, and a Jack Russell named Geronimo figured it out within 5 minutes.

She figured it out eventually.


Bonus: This one is exercise intensive, so if your dog can figure it out, it's a great work out!

Enrichment Feeding Mistakes


Giving up immediately. It's okay if your dog doesn't immediately take to the enrichment feeding. Offer the food in the enrichment toy during set times, but don't leave it out all the time. We want your dog to work up an appetite so they eat their meal in one fell swoop, rather than grazing throughout the day, so make sure you don't leave snacks out for them. If they skip a meal or two because they don't feel like working a toy, that's fine. If you're concerned about if they can work a toy, put a few of their favorite treats in the toy instead of their meal, and see if they can get those out. If they can get treats out, they can get their kibble out.


Dog stubborn



Mixing treats and food. They will pick through whatever comes out, leaving you with tons of kibble on the floor. A plate can hold spaghetti or chocolate cake, but not at the same time. Empty out your enrichment feeder before switching what's in there.


Confusing enrichment feeders with slow feeders. A slow feeder is designed to slow your dog down, but doesn't really give them any mental work. Think of it like a big bowl of rice: if I gave you a spoon to eat it with, you could probably eat it realllllly quickly.


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But what if I gave you a smaller spoon to eat it with? It does slow down how quickly you can eat, but it doesn't require any more mental work to eat with a smaller spoon. A slow feeder is just a smaller spoon.


However, what if I gave you chopsticks to eat the bowl of rice with? That requires skill. One that I don't have.


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So the enrichment feeder is more like trying to using chopsticks. Now obviously, the more you use them, the better you get at them which brings us to ...


Not changing up your feeders. See case above. My dogs each have roughly 3 different feeders they eat out of. Keep it fresh, folks


Not using one at all. An enrichment feeder is the easiest way by far to get some mental work out of your dog (with very little time/money investment from you). You have to feed your dog anyway, be efficient with their meals. Challenge them. They're still predators; let them predate!


While enrichment feeding is the easiest way to get your dog the mental work they need, there are indeed other ways to go about it. Check out some more ideas here:


Agility