Like all working breeds, German Shepherds have both physical and mental capacities that need stimulation. Otherwise, they find their own ways to put their faculties to work.
People with German Shepherds are generally familiar with how to meet the breed’s nutritional and exercise requirements. Owners know to take them on walks and engage them in tons of physical exercise. However, GSDs also need mental exercise in order to be a happy, well-mannered dog.
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What are Mental Exercises for Dogs?
Mental exercises for dogs are any activity that stimulates their brains. For German Shepherds, such activities are especially important because they were bred to have incredible intelligence and other abilities that sometimes aren’t able to put to good use as household pets.
Engaging in brain games and learning new things is an excellent way to hone their instincts as intelligent working dogs. It is also essential to keep them mentally fit.
Benefits of Doing Mental Exercises with Your German Shepherd
Engaging your German Shepherd’s mental faculties is helpful to both you and your dog. Even just a few minutes of mental exercises each day will allow you to enjoy the following benefits:
It allows them to be dogs
It is in all dogs’ nature to perform some function or to use their abilities to work. For German Shepherds specifically, the best mental exercises will allow them to use not only their intelligence but also their other abilities like scenting, herding, guarding, and retrieving.
It encourages good behavior
Mental exercises involve not only your dog’s mind but a variety of functions all at once. They are stimulating as well as exhausting, in a good way. A tired dog is helpful to having a well-mannered pup.
Dogs with ample mental stimulation don’t just keep out of trouble while they’re at work. They also have more opportunities to master essential behaviors like obedience and impulse control.
It improves your connection
Training or playing interactive games with your German Shepherd allows you to observe how they think, how they solve problems, the best ways for them to learn, and what motivates them.
All of this will help you get to know your dog better and, consequently, be better able to meet their intellectual needs. Additionally, it enhances your connection and allows you to communicate with each other more effectively.
It strengthens your handler status
Practically all mental exercises are training opportunities. If you engage in them regularly, you consistently reinforce your handler status.
Your dog’s respect for you will continue to strengthen and they will be even more loyal to you as well as devoted to earning your praise (and treats!).
It allows you to bond
Mental exercises allow you to spend lots of time with your German Shepherd. Having structured learning sessions, meeting learning goals, and simply being completely focused on one another strengthens your bond and helps you build a unique relationship.
Difference Between Mental and Physical Exercises
Physical exercises stimulate your dog’s body, including their cardiovascular and muscular strength. On the other hand, mental exercises stimulate your dog’s brain, strengthen their capacity to think and put their other abilities to work.
To some degree, you can also make physical exercise mentally stimulating. During walks, let your German Shepherd sniff around so they can navigate the world around them.
Also walks can be a great training time. Sometimes on walks I randomly stop and request a command. This reminds Allie to pay attention to me even when she is excited.
You can also include some structured training when playing fetch.
This might include running after the ball only when you’ve commanded them to “fetch” or placing the ball in a specified location once they’ve retrieved it. No matter what type of exercise you do with your GSD, try to find ways to keep them guessing or keep them learning.
Nevertheless, dogs like German Shepherds were bred to work. Having a job to do is natural to them. As companion dogs, they might not have the same opportunities to work. In the absence of a job, they need activities that stimulate their brains.
Mental Exercises for German Shepherds
Although German Shepherds are incredibly smart, you don’t really need complicated activities to keep them engaged. Often, they just need a few minutes each day learning something new, engaging in interactive play, or performing a certain function.
If you have a GSD that’s gotten bored with just walking or playing fetch, here are a few ideas that might inspire you:
1) Learning new tricks
German Shepherds love learning new things and the best part is that they’re incredibly easy to train. You can start by teaching them practical commands like sit, stay, and down. But once they’ve mastered those, you can teach them anything you like.
No matter what trick you decide on, the best way to teach GSDs is to break the tricks down into simple steps and train them slowly. Allow them to master one step before moving on to the next. And, don’t forget to give them tons of treats and praise along the way to help reinforce the lessons.
2) Playing with puzzle toys.
Puzzle toys are playthings specifically designed to stimulate your dog’s brain and senses. Some of the best puzzle toys for German Shepherds are interactive toys that give them the opportunity to work hard for some treats.
Among the most popular puzzle toys are treat dispensers that your dog has to nudge and paw to access all the treats inside. Others are actually puzzles with pieces they need to uncover the reveal the hidden treats.
Puzzle toys are really meant for independent play with supervision. As you might already know, German Shepherds are powerful chewers. If they end up destroying the toy, it’s best that you’re there to remove the pieces and keep them from harm.
3) Playing hide & seek
Playing hide-and-seek works best with another human companion. But, you can teach them how to play it even when you’re on your own.
Start by commanding your dog to stay and then finding an obvious place to hide while they watch you. Then, command them to “seek.”
Your dog’s natural tendency is to go where you are. As soon as they find you, praise them enthusiastically and reward them with some treats or some playtime, depending on what they’re motivated by.
Very quickly, your dog will begin to understand the game. As that happens, you can make it harder for them to find you.
Hide in places further away from where they are and, when you think they’re ready, hide in places that are out of their sight. Keep commanding them to “seek” and reward them every time they find you.
Eventually, you can ask a friend to command them to find you. Or, you can ask your friend to hide and you can be the one to command your dog to find your friend. That way, they’ll understand that the “seek” command isn’t just about finding you but searching for whoever is involved in the game.
4) Going on scavenger hunts
Scavenger hunts are similar to hide-and-seek, but involve things rather than people. Training them to play this game works best if you start with one of their favorite toys.
Place the toy somewhere in plain sight, hold your hand out, and command your GSD to “find.” When they take the toy to you, reward them with praises and treats. If they’re play-driven, you can throw the toy across the room for a quick game of fetch.
Repeat the same steps but try going further and further away from your dog’s starting point. When you’re confident in their understanding of the “find” command, you can make the task increasingly difficult by using some obstacles or hiding it in another room.
Make sure you reward them generously whenever they’re successful. At first, your dog might lose their way or become distracted. But as you keep practicing, their focus and scenting abilities sharpen and they become better and better at it.
Eventually, you can try this with other toys to transfer the command to anything you might want to use during your scavenger hunt.
5) Retrieving specific items
One way of enhancing your scavenger hunts is to train your German Shepherd to retrieve specific items. To do this, you’ll first need to teach them what the items are called. Start with something they might already be familiar with, like their ball.
Place the ball in front of them, hold out your hand, and command them to “get your ball!” When they take the ball to you, reward them so they know they got it right.
Repeat this step as many times as you can with the ball located in different parts of the house each time. When they can give you the ball every time you ask for it, you’re ready to add another item.
Start by introducing your second item first. For example, place a tug of war toy in front of your dog, hold out your hand, and ask them to “get your rope!”
Once they consistently get it right, try alternating between the ball and the rope. Don’t worry if they get it wrong. Just say “no” and repeat your command. When they get it right, reward them generously so that they remember.
Every time they’ve mastered a new item, you can introduce a different one to expand their vocabulary. Just make sure you keep shuffling between the items they already know so they don’t forget.
6) Playing the shell game
The shell game is something that can keep your dog engaged for long periods and it doesn’t require a lot of space. All you need is a bag of treats and 3 identical things to use as shells.
For German Shepherds, I recommend using something sturdier than paper or plastic cups, but not as fragile as ceramic or glass. Something like a clay pot works best because they’re pretty sturdy. Also, plant pots have holes at the bottom which helps your German Shepherd sharpen their scenting abilities.
To start, sit on the floor and get your GSD to sit across you. Then, place the “shells” upside down on the floor.
Keep them in a row so your dog has a good view of all three. Place a treat on the floor and cover it with one of the cups.
Then, command your dog to find the treat. Something like “get it” or “find it” works just fine. Turn over the first shell your dog noses or paws. If the treat isn’t there, say “no” and encourage them to keep looking.
When they get the right one, praise them enthusiastically and let them take the treat. Keep playing so they get enough practice and master the game.
7) Playing the muffin tin game
Similar to the shell game, the objective of the muffin tin game is to uncover hidden treats. To play this, you need some treats, a muffin tin, and enough tennis balls to cover each well.
To start, place a treat in each of the wells and cover each one up with a tennis ball. Present the entire muffin tin to your dog and watch them try to uncover how to get to the treats.
It might take them some time to discover that they should lift each one to get a treat. But, stick around to keep encouraging them and guide them through the right way to interact with the homemade toy.
Once they get the hang of it, you can make it harder by putting treats in only some of the wells. This is definitely an inexpensive game your dog will enjoy playing for a long time.
8) Playing red light/green light
Red light/green light is an excellent game to teach impulse control. It’s basically just a fun way to reinforce your dog’s obedience.
If your German Shepherd has already mastered their stationary commands (e.g., sit, down, stay) as well as their release command (e.g., free), this game will be a breeze to learn.
The best way to play this is with a tug toy, rope toy, or flirt pole. Play with them as energetically as you can.
Then, say “red light,” stop playing, and command them to sit. Pause for about 2 seconds and say “green light,” give them their release command, and start playing again.
The goal of the game is to make sure they follow their commands even when they’re stimulated by play. As your GSD improves, lengthen the time between your red light and your green light.
Eventually, they’ll know exactly what to do when it’s red light and green light, and you won’t need to give them their specific commands.
9) Brain Training for German Shepherds
If you are interested in learning more mental exercises for your German Shepherd, check out Brain Training for Dogs.
Brain Training for Dogs is an online program that teaches you how to mentally stimulate your GSD and helps to improve their obedience as well as keep them entertained.
It provides a step by step guide on how to teach your German Shepherd many of the exercises in this article as well as a bunch of other tricks I didn’t list here such as play dead, take a bow, and shaking hands (or paws).
This course is a great option for both puppies and older dogs because there are mental exercises at varying levels of difficulty. Therefore, you are sure to find exercises your dog doesn’t know, and you will always have an all in one resource to reference to keep your dog busy.
10) Tidying up
When you have a dog at home, part of your daily life is putting toys away. But did you ever consider that your GSD is actually smart enough to take on this task themselves?
If they already know the commands “take” and “drop,” it won’t take them too long to learn this. Start by having a designated bin or area for their toys.
To teach your dog how to put their toys away, place all their toys outside the bin, point to one, and command them to “take” it. When they hold it in their mouth, praise them, take a treat in your hand, and use it to guide their head over the bin.
Then, command them to “drop” it. When the toy is in the bin, reward them generously and praise them enthusiastically. Repeat this task with all the other toys and keep practicing until your dog has mastered it and they can tidy up their toys from anywhere in the house.
If you’ve taught your German Shepherd the names of their toys, you can make this even more fun by getting them to pick up and put away specific items at a time.
11) Learning chores
German Shepherds can contribute to the household and would absolutely love taking on some chores. Apart from tidying up their own toys, you can teach them several other things that can help lighten your load.
Here are some examples of happy helpers:
Chevy has the unique task of waking up her siblings in the morning. She doesn’t just jump on their beds to wake them up but relentlessly barks until they get up.
Dugan, on the other hand, loves helping his dad fetch firewood.
And, here’s Baron loading the washing machine for his family.
No matter the task you choose, your GSD will definitely be willing to lend a paw. It doesn’t matter how critical the chores are. All they really want is to have a job and be involved.
Part of your responsibility as a parent to a German Shepherd is to hone their intelligence and give them enough mental stimulation to ensure that they develop into a mentally stable and satisfied dog. Regularly engaging them in mental exercises allows them to keep sharp as well as improve their relationship with you.
When you’re able to meet not only their nutritional and physical requirements but also their mental needs, you meet the basic requirements to keep them happy and are more likely to enjoy a well-behaved and well-mannered German Shepherd.
What mental exercises do you with your German Shepherd? Let me know in the comments!