We love brain games for dogs at Practical Paw, so we thought we’d share our favourites. Not only do brain games keep your dog’s mind active, but they also tire them out much more effectively than physical exercise.
What’s more, brain games are suitable for all ages of dog. Whether you’ve just taken on a puppy or your dog is well into their senior years, brain games provide much needed mental stimulation.
What are Brain Games for dogs?
If you’re new to brain games, you may be wondering what they are. Simply put, they are any activity that involves your dog using their brain to work out what to do.
Many of the activities we do with our dogs satisfy their physical needs, walking, playing fetch, off-leash exercise etc. But apart from training, which is a brain game in itself, there is little focus on ways to stimulate our dog’s minds.
The benefits of playing brain games go beyond having a tired dog at the end of the day; mental stimulation can help too;
- Relieve boredom
- Tire your dog
- Increase your dog’s confidence
- Strengthen the bond between you and your dog
- Help older dogs remain active
Invest a few minutes a day engaging your dog in a brain game and reap the rewards of a contented dog.
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Introducing Brain Games for the First Time
It’s essential that you set your dog up for success. Learning any new skill is difficult and can be both confusing and frustrating.
It’s essential that you go at your dog’s pace, not at your own. Having unrealistic expectations of what your dog is capable of or expecting too much too soon will have a negative impact on both of you.
Dogs learn fast when they get rewarded, so when teaching any new activity always use high-value treats.
Which Games to Play
While the brain games we’ve chosen are suitable for all dogs, you may find that your dog has a favourite.
Motivation differs from dog to dog and breed to breed, so what excites a Jack Russell may very different from what excites a Labrador.
Start with an activity that you think your dog will enjoy most. The aim, to begin with, is to make it as easy as possible so that your dog succeeds.
Once your dog masters the basics you can make the games incrementally more difficult to keep their brains challenged.
Toys or Treats?
While food motivates a lot of dogs, especially special treats like cheese or hot dog pieces, others prefer a toy.
So, if your dog isn’t a foodie, don’t despair. While most of the games we’ve chosen work with treats many of them can be adapted for toys too.
In fact, rather than toys or treats why not play the game with toys and treats to make it even more fun!
How to Play
We’ve assumed that each game is new to both you and your dog. So, we’re taking you through the basics while giving you a ‘level up’ option for more experienced players.
Most of the games don’t require much in the way of props, but we’ve included what you’ll need to make the game a success.
All of these games bar one require you to interact with your dog. Whether that’s direct interaction or via verbal encouragement but none of these games is time-consuming or need a lot of effort on your part.
In fact, all of the games we’ve included can be played within a few minutes and are perfect for sprinkling through the day to give your dog a break from boredom.
So, fill your pockets with some tasty morsels and plenty of toys and let the games begin!
Props; Tasty treats or a favourite toy
This game is one of our favourites. It engages one of your dog’s most powerful natural instincts – to sniff, and it can be as simple or as complicated as you want.
It can be played with treats or a toy and extended to an outside game once your dog has mastered the basics.
Choose a tasty treat or favourite toy and make sure that your dog sees that you are holding it. If your dog knows ‘wait’ or ‘stay’ that’s perfect, if not you may need a helper to hold your dog while you move away.
The aim is to make this first game as easy as possible. While your dog is watching, place the treat or toy a few feet away from them but in plain sight.
Release your dog and say ‘find it’ as they move towards the treat. Praise your dog and repeat. Don’t advance the game until your dog reliably ‘finds it’.
Once your dog has the hang of the game you can place your dog in another room and put a treat somewhere less visible but still easy to find before releasing them to hunt for it.
We love playing this game as there are so many ways to level up. Here are some ideas;
- Hide the treat or toy behind or under cushions
- Place the treat in something – my favourite hiding place is my husband’s slipper!
- Vary the height of the hiding place so that your dog has to think about vertical as well as horizontal searches
- Place more than one treat at a time to extend the search period
- Extend the search area and place treats in different rooms, so it’s more like a scavenger hunt
- Expand into the garden or yard. This is an excellent challenge for dogs that are masters of ‘find it’ as there are lots of competing smells
Roll the Towel
Props; A towel and treats or toys
Roll the Towel is such a simple game that it’s easy to dismiss it. But your dog has to learn the right way to get the treats. We like this game as it’s suitable for all dogs even those with limited mobility.
The games aim is to get your dog to use their nose to unroll the towel and get a series of treats hidden inside. Shaking, pawing the towel or anything other than nose work is against the rules!
Ask your dog to wait and put the towel on the floor in front of them placing a treat or toy near the edge.
Release your dog and let them get the treat. On the next turn place, the treat a little further in and flip the edge of the towel over it so that it’s out of sight. Release your dog, if they use their nose to uncover the treat praise them and repeat.
Some dogs may try to pick the towel up or use their paws to uncover the treat, but only praise for nose work. You can reinforce the game by giving your dog extra treats anytime they touch the towel with their nose.
As your dog progresses, you can add more treats and more rolls of the towel. So eventually you end up with a line of treats in the centre of the towel for the entire length before rolling it up.
Too easy for your dog? Here are a couple of ways to up the challenge;
- Roll the towel tighter
- Once the towel is rolled add a twist
- Double layer – sandwich treats in between two towels before rolling up
- Only put treats at the beginning of the roll so that they end up being in the very centre once the towel is rolled up
Find the Lady
Props; Three paper cups, treats or toy
The aim of this game is for your dog to use their problem-solving skills. A tasty treat or toy is hiding under one of three cups, and it’s your dog’s job to work out which one it is.
This game is simple to set up but challenges your dog to pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s a great way of getting hyperactive dogs to learn more focus if you build the difficulty level up slowly.
If your dog is brand new to the game, use only one cup to start. Let your dog see the treat and make sure they watch as you cover it.
As soon as your dog shows interest in the cup, praise them and uncover the reward. As your dog gets the idea, you can ‘hide’ the treat under the cup without your dog first seeing it. As your dog progresses, add the other cups.
Smart dogs catch on quickly so if you want your dog to level up and make it more challenging, here are some ideas;
- Add more cups
- Ask for a particular behaviour for your dog to show you to indicate the right pot, for example, placing a paw on top of the cup
- Use boxes with lids so that the scent of the treat is harder to detect
Spin the Bottle
Props; A clean plastic bottle and sturdy string
If you want to stand back and watch your dog have some fun, then this is the game for you. You need to make two holes opposite each other in the top third of the plastic bottle so that you can thread the string through them.
You can use chairs, door handles or any other stable platform to tie the ends of the string to. Just make sure that the bottle ends up suspended at a comfortable height for your dog.
Put a few pieces of kibble in the bottle and encourage your dog to spin it to get the kibble out.
The closer the holes are to the centre the easier it is for your dog to tip the bottle over. Don’t be afraid to show your dog how to play the game by spinning the bottle over so your dog gets some ‘free’ treats.
This tactic is especially useful for nervous dogs who are sometimes reluctant to engage in new activities.
Once your dog is comfortable playing spin the bottle, you can challenge them by making the game more difficult.
There are several ways of making this game more challenging. In fact, we use the second option all the time. It does mean a bit of tidying up after but I use it as an excuse to engage in a ‘find it’ game as well.
- Place the holes nearer the top of the bottle
- Remove the string and let your dog roll the bottle around the floor to get the kibble out
- Use larger size kibble – it still needs to be small enough to come out of the neck of the bottle, but larger kibble is heavier and gets stuck on some swings, so it adds a gambling element to the game
Props; Empty cardboard boxes, toilet roll holders, cartons, paper, one large box that will fit everything else
The treasure chest is an excellent way of recycling all your cardboard and paper. The idea is to hide kibble in as many different boxes or containers as possible and then put them all into a larger box and let your dog hunt for their food.
The first time you do this for your dog, make it easy for them. Either place a treat in loosely scrunched up paper or put it in a box and leave the lid open so they can quickly get to the treat.
As your dog becomes used to the game, you can add more boxes and layers of paper and place them in a larger box making the game more challenging.
The more boxes and layers of paper you use the more difficult it is for your dog to find them. But if you need more ideas for your dog to level up here are a few to think about;
- The harder you scrunch the paper around the treat the higher the challenge for your dog
- Closing the lids of the boxes will make the game harder
- More layers equal more of a challenge
Brain Games for dogs
Keeping your dog happy and healthy has never been easier. All these games take very little time to prepare but offer your dog a good mental workout.
Mental stimulation for our dogs is just as important as physical exercise. As all of these games are so quick and easy to play, squeezing them into even the busiest days is simple.
There are so many ways to enrich your dog’s day with food or toy challenges. So how did we do? Did we leave out any of your favourite brain games for dogs?