APR 5, 2020
by John Woods
John Woods is the Founder of All Things Dogs and leads our editorial team as our Editor in Chief. A member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, he has been a dog lover since he was 13 years old. John is parent to Nala, a working lab retriever. John has also volunteered at multiple animal shelters, where he gained firsthand experience of rehabilitation and force-free positive reinforcement training methods.
All dog owners should know that our four-legged friends need daily physical activity in order to live healthy, long lives. But did you know that their brains need exercise too?
Mental stimulation is just as important as physical activity for our dogs’ overall health. A dog without mental stimulation is a bored dog; a bored dog is likely to display behavioral problems such as chewing shoes, destroying furniture, and barking.
Teaching your pooch to play brain games will not only keep them occupied and out of trouble, it will be fun for both of you, and can help strengthen your bond.
Ready to get started? Read on to learn about six of the best brain games you can play with your dog.
Almost everyone has played a form of hide and seek as a child, but did you know you can teach your dog to play it with you?
- John Woods
1. Hide and Seek
In this version, you are the “hider” and your dog is the “seeker.” Start off by picking a room of the house in which to hide. In the early rounds, you can hide in the middle of the room. As your dog gets the hang of the game, increase the difficulty level by hiding under a bed or behind some curtains.
Once you’ve had time to hide, call your dog to you and wait until they find you!
If they are having trouble, try hiding with a smelly treat. However, most dogs won’t need the extra help after long—their powerful sense of smell means they’ll be even better at this game than you!
Many dogs with attachment issues and separation anxiety tend to follow their owner around the house; this is a great game to help teach your dog it is okay to be away from you. It can also help dogs who need to work on their recall skills.
2. Treasure Hunt
This game can be played in the backyard or in the house on a rainy day. Decide on the treasure by figuring out what motivates your dog—good options include a favorite treat or toy.
Hide the item(s) in your game area, send your dog off with the cue “hunt” or “find it,” and watch them follow their nose to the treasure!
Get creative and switch up your hiding spots!
3. Magic Cups
This game is similar to a trick you might have seen performed by a magician at a fair. It works like this: start with three cups, and place a treat underneath one of the cups. Shuffle the cups around and see if your dog can pick out the cup with the treat.
Even if you couldn’t keep track of the cups with your eyes, your dog has another advantage: they will use their nose to sniff out the right cup!
4. Clean up time
You clean up after your dog enough as it is, especially if your dog is not a hypoallergenic breed and sheds all over the house. This game teaches your dog to tidy up their own messes—what could be more convenient for you?
It will help if your dog already knows how to fetch before you attempt this game. Start by tossing a toy across the room and asking them to “fetch.” When your dog brings it back, have your storage box at the ready.
Encourage your dog to drop the toy into the box and use the command “clean up;” when they do this successfully, reward them with a tasty treat!
5. Muffin tin madness
All you’ll need for this game is a muffin tin and some tennis balls. Like many of the other games we cover here, this one challenges your dog’s sense of smell.
“Hide” a few treats in the compartments of the muffin tin underneath the tennis balls. It will be your dog’s task to move the balls out of the way to get to the treats. You can start by leaving a treat under each tennis ball, and as your dog gets the hang of the game, keep the number of tennis balls the same but reduce the number of treats so as to increase the challenge.
If you have a toy breed, a mini muffin tin and ping pong balls will do the trick!
6. The name game
For this game, you will assign a name to each of your dog’s toys. Begin teaching them the name by playing with the toy while saying the name out loud. You may have already been doing this without realizing it, but for this activity, you’ll need to get intentional about teaching your dog the names of their toys.
Once your dog has a grasp on the names, you will come to the fun part. Ask your dog to retrieve a specific toy out of a pile. “Find your tennis ball (or other toy name)” will be a useful cue.
If your dog is having a hard time, be patient with them. Research shows that most dogs can learn well over 100 different words. With practice, patience, and positive reinforcement, your pup will be nailing the names in no time.
And remember, as well as games, there are tons of ways to make your dog happy!