Mental stimulation is often overlooked when it comes to our canine companions, with exercise being the focus of their time spent with people. In actual fact, exercising the mind is essential if you want a balanced, happy dog at home.
A dog that is offered the chance to run for miles, but never has to use their brain, may be left feeling unstimulated and bored. This, in time, can lead to unwanted and potentially even destructive behaviour, such as chewing or barking for attention.
How do you mentally tire a dog?
A dog’s intelligence is one of the things we love about them: dogs are responsive, able to learn quickly and respond to cues when asked of them. It’s what makes them one of the most popular companions on earth. With this, comes a duty to make sure they are mentally stimulated on a regular basis.
One of the best ways to achieve this is through the use of brain games, many of which can be introduced from the comfort of your own home. Mind games have been found to improve focus and strengthen the bond between owner and dog, as well as reducing the possibility of unwanted and destructive behaviours.
What are mentally stimulating games for dogs?
To be mentally stimulating for your dog, the brain game you choose should encourage learning, and challenge your dog to solve a problem. It’s thought that mental exercise is actually more tiring for your dog than physical exercise, so games should be kept fairly short and practiced regularly. This way, your dog can rest and relax in between.
The key to a happy dog when it comes to dog games, really lies with you. A creative owner can come up with all kinds of homemade brain games for their dog, often using items found easily at home. Here we’ve put together some of our favourites.
What brain games can I play with my dog?
Before we get into the detail of our favourite brain games, there are a few considerations worth bearing in mind in order to adjust the games you choose to work for your dog. A young active dog may love a puzzle feeder, but this may prove too much for the fragile mouth and teeth of an older dog. A younger dog who struggles to focus may find training more tiring, so the steps we lay out may take longer than you’d like.
Age, past training and behaviour may influence your choice of game, and that’s absolutely fine. You know your dog better than anyone, so find the options that work for you and see how your dog responds.
Do brain games really tire out your dog? Try these five games to find out!
Game one: Treasure Hunt
This game is a favourite for most dogs because it taps into their natural foraging instincts and allows them to use their noses. Sniffing and searching is all great stimulation for your dog, and all the more rewarding when it leads to a tasty treat at the end.
Once you’ve found these two things, go into the space and distribute food around the area, ideally at different heights to keep things interesting. Hide the food in different places around the room, leaving some pieces more easily accessible to your dog. This will help build their confidence, after which they can progress to harder to find pieces.
Bring your dog into the room and encourage them to “find it”. Use an excited tone and if needed, direct them to the first pieces until they get the game. You’ll find their nose will soon kick in and they’ll get the hang of the game.
Game two: The Shell Game
For this game of visual tracking, you’ll need two cups and some high value dog treats. Ask your dog to sit and turn the cups upside down. With your dog watching, place the treat under one cup and encourage your dog to move the cup to get the treat.
You may need to repeat this stage multiple times (some dogs need more than ten tries) before your dog gets the hang of the game. Don’t worry if this is the case! The whole idea with brain games for dogs is that they’re using their mind. Let your dog work it out and move on when they seem ready.
Once they’ve got the hang of turning the cups over, alternate the cups the treat is under and when they choose the right one, give them the treat. If they don’t make the right choice, show them where it is quickly and then keep the game going. This will maintain focus and interest. If your dog gets the hang of this quickly, you can add a third cup to make things harder.
Game three: Muffin Tin
This fun game requires three things: A muffin tin from your kitchen, some high value food rewards (boiled chicken works a treat!) and some tennis balls.
Depending on your dog, their regular food may work just as well as a high value reward. See if your dog will enjoy their own kibble, as using this for training can be a great way to keep calories down.
Place the food in the cups of the tin, and place tennis balls over the top. Encourage your dog to sniff out the food underneath, and to take it out. This game requires brain effort, as your dog will have to work out that they need to move the tennis ball to get to the treat.
You can take the game up a level by placing food in only a few cups, with tennis balls over all the spaces. This way your dog has to work harder to sniff out the rewarding cups and disregard the rest.
Game four: Toy Pickup
Arm yourself with patience for this one, and bear in mind that once your dog gets the hang of it, you’ll have someone happy to help with the tidying at home!
The first step will be to teach your dog to drop it.
Once they’ve got the hang of this, ask your dog to drop their toy as near as you can get to a box or basket. Click and treat every time they do this.
Over time, and as your dog learns what is being asked, you can increase what you’re asking, by increasing the distance between them and the box. This will require multiple sessions of practice and it may be you’re only increasing the distance by a few centimetres at first. You’ll want to see your dog understands the toys have to be dropped in the box before increasing the distance further.
At first, be sure to reward all toys, then two toys, and then once all have been put away. Your dog will learn that collecting toys and putting them in the box leads to tasty treats and time spent using their brain to work things out.
Game five: Name Game for Toys
We’ve all seen videos of genius dogs with huge vocabularies. In reality, all dogs are capable of associating words to objects in some capacity, they’re just not usually taught to do so. As brain games with dogs are all about stretching the mind and using the brain, this is the perfect homemade brain game for your dog to try.
To start, hold a toy and say the name of the toy. Let your dog grab it and reward them for having taken it.
Repeat this 20-30 times, always letting your dog take the toy and rewarding them for doing so. Then choose a different toy, and place it next to the first one. Say the name of the first one and see what your dog does.
If your dog picks up the second one, say nothing, put it back, and ask again. Make a big fuss when they get to the right one.
Once they’re consistently choosing the right toy, you’re ready to start the whole process again with a new toy. Build up the collection as your dog learns. Choose a selection of toys that are very different to each other to avoid confusion.
Games for the brain can be tiring work. If your dog seems restless, distracted or moves away from the game, this is probably them showing you they’re feeling frustrated. This can reduce the benefits of brain games, so it’s important to pay attention to the signs they’re no longer enjoying the experience. If you feel your dog is feeling overwhelmed, just bring the game back a couple of stages or take a break.
Remember to keep sessions short and sweet – lots of encouragement and regular breaks go a long way in keeping brain games with dogs the fun and rewarding experience they should be.