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Staying Sharp - Brain Games to Play With Dogs

By Edited Sep 19, 2014 4 5

While some dogs are perfectly happy playing fetch, other dogs need a little bit more. Dogs, especially smarter breeds, need to play games that are not merely for expelling excess energy but stimulate them mentally. With people who need mental stimulation, one can just pick up a crossword, but that just won't cut it for dogs. However, there are several options regarding brain games for dogs. Some are simple and can be made at home while others are much more complex and expensive, keeping even the smartest of dogs occupied for hours.

For those who are unsure if their dog needs brain games, there is one tell tale sign--destruction. Dogs that need more mental stimulation will destroy things just for the sake of destroying them. They will sit right in front of their owners and chew a shoe or rip open a couch. Old dogs also have an increased need for brain games. When it comes to brain deterioration due to age, dogs and humans are extremely similar. In fact, aging dogs are studied to better understand the brain deterioration in humans. Aging dogs need to have brain games just to keep their minds sharp.

Some of these games may seem a little cruel because most likely owners have been told not to tease their dogs because it makes them mean, but they are quite stimulating. Though if a simpler dog (read: stupid) starts to get frustrated, it is best to put an end to that brain game and give them a prize for their effort.

the shell game for dogs

The Shell Game

Everyone should remember this game, not because it is a popular dog brain game, but because it is a popular human game. The premise is simple; hide a treat or piece of kibble under a cup, making sure your dog sees it, then move the cups. If the dog picks the wrong cup, they get nothing and the game starts over, but if they get it right, they get a treat.

To begin this game, make sure your dog gets the point by starting simple. Place a treat under the cup, but do not shuffle them. Let your dog see you do it so that they knock over the cup. A reasonable smart dog will get the point for then onwards. To ensure your furry friend doesn't cheat with their ultra powerful nose, rub the treat on your fingers and then smear the scent on the inside of the cups. This way the game challenges their brain by making them pay attention to the movements instead of just using their nose.

Hide and Go Treat

My dog, appropriately named Bandit, likes to hide things. He hides his toys and bones more than he actually uses them. So, I play back. He's a bit hot and cold when it comes to being given treats for good behavoir which made training him hard. However, now I use his treats for this game and he loves it.

Before I leave for the day, I put him out on the porch where he can't see me and I hide about five treats around the house. Some are in tough to get to places, yet still easy enough to not get himself stuck others are in smart places that require some thought like behind open doors. Then I let him in before I go and let him get to work. Some days I come home and they are all gone, other days there are still a few he missed (or ignored). This is a good game for scent breeds like Beagles or Bloodhounds. Those dogs were bred to sniff things out, so finding things with their nose is the ultimate brain game for them.

Treat Ball

OurPets Buster Food Cube Interactive Dog Toy, Large (Colors Vary)
Amazon Price: $22.99 $10.35 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 19, 2014)
This is a great way to challenge your dog and make them work for a meal. With the treat ball, dog owners place treats or kibble within it. It is then placed on the ground where the dog will smell the treats and tries to figure out how to get them. The challenge is that they must roll it for the treat or food to come out. This is also a fine solution for an animal that eats too fast and ends up suffering because of it.

A free alternative to the treat ball is to hide small piles of kibble around the house during dinner time. This way, they really have to work out finding all of their meal. Hunting things are how wild dogs stimulate their brains.

Hide the Treat Cup Game

Kyjen DG40112 Paw Hide Treat Toy Dog Toys Scent Puzzle Training Toy, Large, Red
Amazon Price: $14.99 $2.51 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 19, 2014)
This game is one that encourages the natural foraging and hunting instincts in dogs. A treat is hidden in one or all of the little sections where it is then covered with a cup. The dog is tasked with the chore of trying to figure out how to get the cups off and the treat out. This is a good daily challenge for smart or aging animals to keep them sharp and distract them for varied amount of times. Though if your pet starts to get really good at it, it may be time to find a new game. There are quite a few hide the treat games out there that involve different mechanics in order to get to the treat, rotating two or three is a smart choice.

This game can be made at home with a cupcake tin and some tennis balls. Place the treat in the tray, and then cover it with a tennis balls. Since the ball is rounder, it is a bit simpler but at least it is free.

Cage Ball

Kyjen 2451 Cagey Cube Dog Toy 2-Piece Dog Puzzle Training Toys, Large, Red
Amazon Price: $14.99 $8.22 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 19, 2014)
For those who have dogs who are utterly obsessed with tennis balls and fetch, like my sister's rescued Labrador, this is the perfect brain game to keep them busy and stimulated. The cage game involves sticking a tennis ball inside of a chew proof rubber cage and challenges them to get it out. For an extra challenge, find a small treat ball and put that in there. It gives pets who are not quite so obsessed with tennis balls some added motivation.

Tug a Jug

PetSafe Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug Meal Dispensing Dog Toy, Medium/Large
Amazon Price: $19.99 $9.69 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 19, 2014)
Much like the treat ball, the Tug a Jug can also be an alternative way to feed your pet a meal while stimulating the brain. This particular toy stimulates a dog's vision, hearing, and smell by affecting all of them at once. They see the treats inside, they can smell them, when they pick it up they can hear them, now the challenge is how to get them out. This is a little more difficult than the treat ball so it will easily be frustrating for a hungry simpler dog. Essentially the treats are dispensed via the rope going in and the animal pulling it back out, causing the bounty to spill. More creative bigger dogs just grab it and turn it upside down, though. So be sure to get an appropriate size for your pet.

Dog Turbo

Nina Ottosson Wooden Dog, Turbo
Amazon Price: $49.95 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 19, 2014)
This is both the most expensive and most difficult dog brain game currently on the market. It is a Nina Ottosson creation from Sweden. Nina Ottosson is world renowned for making the most durable and challenging dog toys, which target their intellect rather than their energy. For owners who have extraordinarily intelligent animals, there is no more satisfying game for them. The owner places a treat within narrow grooves and the dog must navigate pegs in order to scoot the treat out one of the open side panels.


Dec 23, 2013 4:17am
Great ideas to keep your dog active in body and the brain. My mum has a Blue heeler and right from a pup they taught him many different tricks. He gets the mail, shoes, find keys, carries shopping. And when dad had a lawn mowing round he was dads accountant. The customer would come round to pay and they had to give the money to Titan to take inside to dad or mum. The customers loved this too. All dogs need to be stimulated so they are not bored.
Jan 14, 2014 2:55am
A good article. I lost the most intelligent of dogs a couple of years ago, BB the lurcher, who would do the most amazing things, including duping our other dog Giro (who is not nearly as clever) on multiple occasions. Typically, if she wanted the bed that Giro was sleeping in, she would go to the front door and bark - Giro would run to the door wondering who was there, while BB just turned around and then go straight to his bed and curl up contented.
Jan 14, 2014 8:36am
Great ideas. One review of a product above...my dog just broke the tug a jug and got the whole thing. They aren't supposed to be able to, but nobody told him.
Jan 15, 2014 9:57am
Such a good read. My dog is really in need of challenges, Thank you for sharing the great toys!
Jan 19, 2014 9:48pm
Good advice! I have a really intelligent German Shepherd that is destroying everything in the garage when we leave the house. I know these dogs need constant learning games to keep them happy, since I guess they're working dogs. I'm going to try this.
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