Whether you have a fully-grown dog or a new pup in your home, keeping them mentally stimulated is a hugely important part of having a happy and healthy dog. Dogs who are mentally stimulated are far less likely to have what are considered undesirable or destructive behaviours, either in your home and garden or for example, when travelling in your car.
The one mantra new dog owners will hear over and over again is ‘a tired dog is a happy dog’ and nothing could be truer!
Mentally stimulating games are particularly important for puppies during the period prior to vaccination – before they are allowed into the outside world and all the mental stimulation that entails. Keeping a ball of energy occupied during these first few months can be a (literally!) painful process from time to time as they are out growing their indoors environment and require increasing amounts of stimulation. What might you may be surprised to learn is that playing brain teasers with your dog will burn as much energy as free play and physical games like fetch, so being able to have a bunch of brain-engaging ideas in your arsenal will keep you both sane – particularly in the torturous last few weeks before they can go walkies!
All of the games below are tried and tested and suitable for both puppies and adult dogs – in some cases with a few modifications as your dog grows wise to the tricks!
#1 Which Hand?
This is one of the most basic of brain games and is an excellent introduction to any training session to get your dog’s attention.
How to play: Simply show your dog a treat in either hand, bring your palms together to show that you’re moving the treat between your hands and then outstretch your closed fists with the treat on one hand only. Use the command “which hand?”.
Depending how good your dog’s nose is, you may have to show them how the game works by opening your palm flat to show them the treat a few times before they get the idea. Once they touch the fist containing the treat reward them with “good” and allow them to take the treat!
If your dog is smart, you may have to start swapping the treat behind your back, so they don’t follow the scent in your hand straight away.
Puppy modifications: When your puppy is learning new games for the first time you might have to up the ante! Rather than using training treats which are low calorie, you might need something a bit smellier! Try pea-sized bits of cheese or chicken.
Getting your dog to chase bubbles is great fun – as well as providing perfect Instagram opportunities, it’s one game that causes wonder and amusement in your dog’s face and that is priceless.
Make sure that you’re using dog-safe detergent (see the recipe below) and it’s best to do this in a yard or if not the kitchen as you’ll end up with soapy suds on the floor!
Dog-safe bubbles recipe
Mix a generous squirt of a natural washing up liquid (without sulphates) with a cup of water (mineral water does work better but that seems a bit excessive!). Add a teaspoon of glycerine and mix very gently so as not to fluff up your bubbles too much!
You can make your bubble wand out of many things but an old-fashioned metal coat hanger or garden wire are perfect for the job.
#3 Hide n Seek
Hide and seek is a fantastic game if your dog has an excellent ‘wait’ already dialled into his repertoire of tricks but if he’s not quite there, you will need to recruit an additional hooman to help play.
How to play: Position your dog in one room (or ask someone to hold them if their ‘wait’ isn’t quite as strong as you’d like!). Simply find a hiding spot and release your pooch on command or by your your team mate letting your dog go.
This works best in larger properties, but you can get creative by hiding under duvets, behind doors and in the shower! If you have an enclosed outdoor space, leave the doors open and utilise that space too.
#4 Breakfast roll
First of all, it’s important to note, this game only works for dogs that are fed kibble – it’s not suitable for those on wet or raw diets – that will make quite a mess! Dogs on these type of diets can use Kongs and toys designed specifically for the purpose to achieve the same goal.
If your dog is anything like most, after a good stretch and a chance to do their business first thing in the morning, the most important topic on their mind is breakfast! Breakfast is a fantastic opportunity to engage your dog’s brain when he’s rested and, more importantly, when he’s hungry! Making his first meal of the day hard won, is a fantastic way to shake off the cobwebs and this game is super if you have a wolfer! It slows their eating down making them less likely to get indigestion.
Hot to play: Simply lay out a towel or piece of fabric the size of a hand towel, scatter his kibble over the surface and then roll it (not too tight) and tie it loosely. Use your usual “sit-wait” commands when serving up their meals and simply offer it to your dog to work out. You must resist the temptation to help him figure it out! He’ll work it out in time.
You may have to incentivise a little to start by including some super stinky treats and, take care to measure out your dog’s normal breakfast quota or you won’t know how much he’s eating.
This game is perfect for dogs that suffer from the zoomies! It’s also really only suitable for dogs that have access to a yard, or private outdoor space of some sort because it can get a bit messy!
Many dogs are natural diggers and anyone who’s had one of these in their family will know that trying to stop your canine rotavator is like trying to herd cats! It’s never going to happen!
Newer training and behavioural wisdom suggests that allowing your dog to fulfil some of their more ‘creative’ instinctive habits in a controlled way, is far better than simply trying to prevent it. And that’s where a simple sand pit comes in!
Some people allow their dogs a patch of their garden to play this game but not everyone has access to a suitable area – sand is also a lot less of a chore to deal with once play time is over!
Sand pits are inexpensive children’s toys which you can often pick up at a second hand store or you can simply make one yourself using a big plastic container, garden trug or using reclaimed pallet wood. Using a mixture of course sand and grit for your digging space is recommended, making sure it’s deep enough for a good dig – this will largely depend on your dog size and breed.
How to play with your dog in a sand pit: Bury toys or robust treats in your sand pit whilst your dog is watching and then command “get it” or whatever your ‘find’ command is. Watch your dog get down and dirty hunting out her buried treasure but be ready with a damp towel and maybe even a bucket for tidy up!
Mastered these doggy brain games?
Once you’ve mastered these games and you’ve worked on strong obedience commands and perhaps some clicker training, you can move onto more technical games which incorporate multiple activities in one and will require patience and persistence from everyone involved.
If you want to move up the grades when it comes to brain games, try searching some of these games on YouTube where you can find in-depth instructional videos and trouble shooting advice! You can also check out our list of some of the best dog training videos on YouTube to get you started with Essential training videos to begin with your new puppy.
Tidy up – our favourite and it’ll be yours too if you have a dog with a lot of toys! It’s a multi-part activity which builds on their ability to fetch and place.
New Trick – Fabulous if you have a creative dog who loves doing things for your attention. Rewarding them for only new ideas when it comes to hopping about or offering paws for example will develop into a trick that you can name to add to their repertoire!
Three Cups – A development on the ‘which hand’ game, placing treats under one of multiple cups (you can increase the number as they get more skilled) and encouraging them to keep their eye on the cup containing the treat really makes their brains ache! This one is very popular and can keep a dog of any age or training level occupied for quite some time!
Name that toy! This is a very useful game, especially if you’d like to train your dog to bring you your slippers!
Catch – New dog owners are often surprised by how challenging training ‘catch’ is! It isn’t instinctive for a dog to catch objects in their mouths that are thrown at them to start with so this is considered quite a difficult trick for beginners. Persistence is worth it though as the first time your dog catches something, you’ll be cheering like your football team won the world cup! It’s great for your dog’s coordination and opens up a world of games and opportunities.
Hopefully you’ve found some of these ideas helpful – each game suggested exercises your dog’s brain in a different way, some helping to increase patience and control your dog’s impulses and some helping to get rid of some of that energy!
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