By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
As pet parents, keeping up with our dog's seemingly endless energy (and sometimes seemingly nonexistent attention span) can be a daunting task. One of the many things we have in common with our canine companions is the need for mental stimulation. While humans can turn to crosswords and number puzzles to keep our brains sharp, our pups can only get by with a little help from their two-legged friends.
In this post, we'll talk about what a brain game should involve and provide some inspiration for your pup's next mentally engaging playtime sesh.
What Constitutes a Brain Game for Dogs?
A brain game is a mental exercise or enrichment activity that requires thought and promotes mental well-being in your dog. These activities should have your dog using problem-solving skills, engaging in decision-making, and playing with other interactive games and dog toys to obtain a positive outcome. Enrichment activities can be as simple as enjoying a stuffed Kong or as complex as an obstacle course.
Barking out the window at that squirrel in the backyard can only provide your dog with so much mental stimulation. Below, you'll find a few of our favorite brain games for dogs and instructions for setting your pup up for success. We recommend incorporating at least three brain training ideas into your pup's daily routine.
Build an In-Home Obstacle Course
Agility helps keep dogs mentally stimulated while getting in a good workout. When the weather is nice, you can take them to an empty park for that stimulation and use the equipment as a confidence-boosting physical exercise.
However, when the weather outside is frightful, or the dog park is way too crowded to get a good exercise session in, it can put a damper on your agility training goals. So here's how to bring the agility course indoors by building an obstacle course inside.
Here are some easy ways to make your very own homemade agility course for your pup:
- Grab toilet or paper towel rolls and stack them to form a soft wall for your dog to jump over. You can adjust the width of the jump by using rolls to make the sides of the jump and a broom laid across them for your dog to jump over or crawl under.
- Use a nonslip step stool to work your dog up and over, using just two paws at a time. First, have your pup put their front two feet on the stool, then the back two, so all four are now on. Then have them step off the stool with their front two paws, followed by the back two paws.
- Line chairs up in a row next to a wall to create a chair tunnel. Encourage your dog to pass through the tunnel one chair at a time with positive reinforcement. Gradually increase the number of chairs in the tunnel, working your pup up to completing the whole chair tunnel to get a treat or toy.
Advance your pup's obstacle course skills by mixing multiple activities and having your dog complete the combined obstacles. At the end of your DIY obstacle course, set up a special reward for them to discover, like a long-lasting chew or a chew toy. What's more fun than an agility course and treasure hunt all rolled into one rewarding body and brain game?
"Find It" - AKA the Shell Game
"Find it" is a fun way for your dog to use their sense of smell and can be tailored for indoor or outdoor play. Many dogs enjoy honing their nose work skills - usually because what they're smelling is a yummy treat.
Here's how to play "Find It:"
- Place three solo cups upside down on the floor in front of your pup.
- Start by showing your dog which cup you place the treat under and have them wait in anticipation for a moment.
- Motion your dog toward the cup the treat is under and say, "Find it!"
- When your dog touches or bumps the cup, praise them for finding the treat, turn the cup over to reveal the reward, and let them have it.
- After a few rounds, once your dog understands the game, you can start the "real" shell game and move the cups around before instructing your dog to find the reward.
It's okay if your dog doesn't select the right cup at first - let them keep trying! Once they get really good, offer a higher value reward on top of what's under the cup to encourage them only to pick the cup the treat is under rather than trying to get under all of them every round.
Hide and Seek
This is one of the easiest games to teach your furry friend. You can play with just the two of you or invite friends or family members to join in. Hide and seek also helps with memory and recall (the "come" cue), allowing your dog to practice having fun every time they come to you!
To play with just the two of you, start by asking your dog to stay. Your first hiding place should be somewhere your dog will find you quickly. This will help teach him how to play. Once you are hidden, call your dog to you. When your dog finds you, celebrate with high-energy praise and a yummy treat. Advance the game by finding more concealed places to hide.
If you are playing with friends or family, have your dog stay with you until the other person hides. Once the other participant has hidden, have that person call your dog. While your dog seeks them out, find your next hiding spot. Your dog might get excited about accidentally finding other people along the way, but to win the game - offer the prize only when he successfully finds the person calling him.
The Name Game
You might be surprised how many different names of objects dogs can learn. Dogs do not actually understand definitions of words as humans do; instead, they build associations of sounds with objects or actions with repetition and reinforcement. For this reason, it helps to use names that do not sound too alike when teaching your dog which objects go with which sound association (name).
Here's how to teach your dog the name game:
- Start with a soft toy that is easy for your dog to grab and offer it to your dog while using the name you want your dog to associate with that item.
- Ask your dog to "drop it" (or say "out") to have them release the object. Reward your pup for doing this. If your dog doesn't know the "out" cue, offer them a high-value treat as a trade for the object.
- Offer the toy again while continuing to say the name. Practice the "drop it" command, and repeat this phase until your pup has it down pat.
- While using the object's name, place the toy on the ground and point to it (dogs read gestures quite well). Praise your dog for grabbing it. Repeat several times.
- Increase your distance from the object as you point and use the name, then slowly start removing your hand gesture.
- Once your dog knows the name of that toy, incorporate a second toy into the game and repeat the same process to teach your dog the name of the new object.
- Once your dog knows both dog toys by name and reliably grabs the objects when asked, bring the two toys together, and ask your dog to grab one of the toys (referring to it by name).
- Repeat this process, alternating which toy you ask for, and reward your dog each time they grab the correct object.
The name game is an excellent mental exercise because you can continue advancing the activity and building complexity until your dog can pull a single object from a pile of toys just by knowing the name (sound) associated with that item. This is also a pretty impressive party trick to pull out the next time your friends and family are visiting.
Fetch (with a Twist)
Have you ever tried to wear your dog out through physical activity, only to find that it gets harder and harder to wear them out over time?
Focusing on the physical aspect alone will strengthen only physical muscles and build stamina. Furthermore, repetitive behaviors can lead to fixative, impulsive, and even obsessive behaviors in some dogs. Adding brain training to your standard game of fetch can help your pup practice impulse control. All you have to do is ask your dog to perform a series of unpredictable cues or tricks, the reward for which will be you launching the ball (or stick or frisbee) for them to fetch.
Here are a couple of tips to make this work:
- Make sure your dog knows the "drop it" or "out" command so that when they return with the ball, they release it quickly.
- Place the ball behind your back so it's less distracting and easier for your dog to focus on you rather than fixate on the ball.
- Start with one cue, such as "sit" or "down." If your dog successfully responds without multiple requests from you, launch the ball immediately with a happy "yes!"
- If following one command seems too easy for your pup, scale it up to two. If your dog cannot complete the actions, move to reset your dog, then ask again. Once your dog completes both tasks successfully on the first ask, launch the ball immediately with a "yes!"
- Start adding in an unpredictable series of asks such as "sit," "heel," "down, "high-five," and expect each of those actions to be completed on the first try collectively.
Adding a brain training or obedience element to fetch can significantly improve your dog's listening skills and help them learn to rely on you more for direction rather than making impulsive decisions. Turning fetch into a genuinely interactive game rather than being a human ball launcher is a real brain game win for you both.
If your dog doesn't know more than one or two cues, consider working with a dog trainer. A reputable dog trainer will use positive reinforcement to teach you (and your pup) new skills, advanced cues, and even new tricks. You might also find our list of easy dog tricks as a helpful starting point for upping your dog's trick game.
DIY Brain Games You Can Make at Home
The Towel Enrichment Game
This is an excellent option for pet parents seeking mental stimulation on the fly, as it requires very little prep.
Lay a towel open on the floor. Sprinkle in part of your pup's breakfast or dinner, and add a few surprise dog treats along the way. Roll the towel up and fold it into itself. Let your dog at it! You can advance this game by tying the towel into a knot after rolling it up.
Muffin Tin Hide and Seek
To play this game, have your dog wait by your side as you sprinkle kibble, treats, or fresh food into each muffin tin cup. Then, cover the treats with tennis balls, small toys, crinkled paper, or other objects your dog will have to nose around to access their reward.
For smaller dogs, try using an egg carton and covering the treats with ping pong balls instead of a muffin tin. You can also use frozen treats to increase the longevity of this food puzzle.
Remember that food puzzles don't have to be complicated to be fun and get the job done!
Convenient Brain Games for Dogs You Can Purchase
There's an endless variety of stimulating dog puzzle toys and interactive dog toys available. These can be excellent boredom busters when dog owners are away from home and cannot interact directly with their dogs
Here are some of our favorite ready-to-go brain games:
- Puzzle Feeding Bowls and Feeding Toys: Mealtime is the perfect time to add fun brain games, especially when you need a good dog activity in a limited time.
- Puzzle Treat Balls: Combine physical activity with mental stimulation during playtime with your dog.
- Puzzle Toys: These range from beginner to advanced, and with a bit of engagement to get your dog started, a good puzzle game can scratch that mental itch.
- Snuffle Mat: A dog's own hide-and-seek kibble or treat game. If you like to DIY, these are surprisingly easy to make at home.
- Interactive food dispensing toys like the Cheerable Wicked Interactive Ball and the Edi Moran treat dispenser.
- Interactive ball toys such as the Outward Hound Tennis Maze Craze game. Outward Hound is one of the most popular dog puzzle toy makers, with many fun and engaging choices.
- Classic Kong Toys: These are the OG enrichment pieces; there are so many fun recipes and ways to share these with your dog. I recommend freezing your Kongs and other enrichment toys to make them last longer.
Most pet stores carry puzzle toys, so if your dog likes going for a car ride, try picking out a new brain game together!
The Bottom Line on Brain Games for Dogs
Dogs are just like humans in that they require positive mental stimulation. While physical training might come naturally to most pet parents, brain training is just as necessary, if not more. Playing games with your dog is a fun and healthy way to create a strong bond while mentally stimulating your furry friend.
Whether you need something quick to keep your pup occupied while you hop on a Zoom call or want something more engaging, like an in-home obstacle course, brain games can provide all the mental stimulation your dog needs. Additionally, playing games together is a meaningful way to build a positive relationship between you and your pup, and nothing shows your dog how much you care like bonding time (and treats)!
For more tips on dog training and pet nutrition, check out the Native Pet blog.