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10 great brain games for dogs

brain games for dogs - dog doing a high-five with owner
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You’ve probably heard of sudoku, but have you tried these brain games for dogs? Our canine friends are much cleverer than we give them credit for at times. In fact, a dog called Chaser was labeled the ‘World’s Smartest Dog’ for her 1000-word vocabulary. 

Another dog, Rico learned around 200 words, but amazingly he learns them by inference: his trainer will ask him to collect a new item from the other room. When he gets there, he sees a variety of things he already knows the name of alongside the new object. He reasons the new item must be called the new word and brings the correct item back 7 in 10 times.

You may have seen videos of dogs that have been trained to ‘speak’ using buttons that play recorded words, dogs that can read simple words, or dogs that do impressive freestyle routines with their owners. But what about the average pooch? 

How do you mentally stimulate a dog?

There are lots of ways to encourage your dog to use his brain and stimulate him mentally. Some are simple, like letting him sniff on a walk. Others are more difficult, such as training or canine sports. Whilst some types of mental stimulation need specialized equipment, the vast majority don’t – and since every dog should have some sort of mental stimulation, it’s all about finding the right brain game for you and your dog.

Do brain games tire your dog out?

All types of mental stimulation are tiring for dogs – just as school is tiring for humans. Learning new things requires effort and energy, as does putting the brain to work solving puzzles. Our modern dogs lead luxurious lives, but one downside of this is that they can quickly get bored and lazy. Adding brain games to your dog’s routine is a great way to tire him out.

What brain games can I play with my dog?

Even if your dog isn’t likely to hold world records for intelligence, it’s still important for them to use their brain. In fact, mental exercise is good for behavior and may even help to slow the onset of dementia. So, what brain-training games can you try with your dog? I’ve listed my tried-and-tested top brain games that my dog loves below.

1. Find the treats

This is one of the easiest games you can play with your pup. You need no special equipment, and no training – just a spare five minutes.

Essentially, you hide the best dog treats around a room and then tell them to ‘find the treats’, giving encouragement as they do. Since most dogs will naturally sniff out the food, this is an easy game to get started with. 

At first, you’ll want to place the treats in an easy place – even within sight. But, once your dog has got the hang of the fact ‘find the treats’ means sniffing, you’ll be able to start hiding them in more and more difficult places. This game allows your dog to use their most powerful sense – their nose – and engages the parts of their brain used for sorting scents.

2. Which cup?

Also known as the ‘cup game’ and ‘shell game’, you’ll need two or more cups and some treats to play ‘which cup’. Simply place some dry dog food under a cup and say ‘which cup’, then wait for your dog to look at or put their nose to the cup. Lift it as soon as they do so, allowing them to have the treat. 

Once they have got the idea that ‘which cup’ means they should indicate the cup containing a treat, you can add more cups and even move them around slowly so your dog has to work harder to indicate the right cup.

This is a fun game that works on your dog’s patience and impulse control as well as their focus – they’ll be watching you like a hawk when you try to mix up the cups.

3. Learn a new trick

You might be thinking that this isn’t really a game, but all tricks and commands should be taught in a fun way – and they are certainly good brain training. This doesn’t have to be a ‘serious’ command like recall or sit – why not pick something fun? If you’re stuck for trick ideas, you could choose one of the following:

  • ‘Spin’ and ‘twist’ – a clockwise and counter-clockwise turn. It’s extra-impressive if they can go both ways
  • ‘Shy’ – dog paws at his nose as if shy
  • ‘Speak’ – teach your dog to bark on command. This one is useful as it’s also the first step in teaching your dog not to bark at all
  • ‘Bow’ – if your dog knows a few tricks, they’ll need the bow command for the end of their performance

Don’t forget to start small and keep your sessions short, or you’ll over-tire and frustrate your pooch.

4. Towel roll

This is a really easy game for you to set up – but it’s not so easy for your dog. You’ll need an old, clean towel, and some treats or dry dog food. Lay the towel on the floor and spread the treats over it, then roll it up so the treats are spread in each layer. Your dog will have to work out how to unroll the towel in order to get the treats. 

To make this brain training game extra hard, you can use several towels in ‘pass the parcel’ style. This game allows your dog to stretch their problem-solving skills, and it’s a great way to give your dog their supper.

brain games for dogs - a dog trying to get a treat from a wooden puzzle

(Image credit: Getty Images)

5. Feeding puzzle

Another great option for brain games you can play whilst your dog has his dinner is the massive selection of dog puzzle toys available to buy. These have several levels of difficulty depending on how many steps your dog has to complete to get to the food. The hardest food puzzles have three or more steps that must be completed for your dog to get their food.

Food puzzles allow you to put your dog’s brain to work at every mealtime. They’ll have to practice their puzzle-solving and memory skills in order to get to the food.

6. Which hand?

A little like the cup game, this one is easy to play out and about as it needs no equipment. Hide a treat in one hand, then offer them both to your dog. Ask him to choose one. When he indicates the correct hand, open it to reveal the treat and let him eat it. Repeat, making it more difficult as you go. A slight variation in this game is to put a different treat in each hand, then let your dog choose his preferred option.

7. Dog parkour

A combination of energetic exercise and brain work, dog parkour is a little like canine agility – but out and about and on the fly. First, you’ll need to teach your dog some basic parkour commands – to go over things, under things, weave, and to walk along a narrow wall or similar. 

Once your dog has got the hang of these, add a bit of parkour into your daily walk. Ask them to leap onto the wall and walk along it, weave through the bollards, or crawl under the slide in the park. This game requires complete focus on you whilst your dog waits for the next command.

8. Learn a new word

Follow in the footsteps of Chaser and Rico and teach your dog some words. First, you’ll want to choose an unnamed toy – perhaps ‘teddy’. Then play with the toy often, using the word ‘teddy’ whenever you instigate a game. Start to leave teddy out of reach, and say ‘teddy’ then reward your dog for looking towards or picking up his toy. Soon, he’ll have the hang of all his toys and you’ll be able to start naming other objects, like ‘slippers’.

This game works on your dog’s memory and improves his ability to learn.

9. Food dispensing toys

Not to be mistaken for food puzzles, these more active options dispense food when they’re rolled, bashed, pulled, or spun. A treat ball is a simple version, but more complex, self-righting, and DIY versions exist.

A food dispensing toy is another great way to train your dog’s brain to solve puzzles. It also helps with frustration and impulse control, as your dog needs to be patient in order to retrieve the food.

10. Hide and seek

A great game for rainy days, with children, or for dogs working on their recall, hide and seek is simple and requires little set up or training. First, tell your dog to sit and stay (or have a family member hold onto him). Then, hide and call your dog – praise him when he finds you. 

Step it up a notch by hiding in a more difficult place (under the bed or up high), or by having several people he has to find. You can also combine this with the name game so your dog has to seek certain family members or hidden toys.

This brain game practices your dog’s search skills as well as working on his recall.

Great brain games for dogs – conclusion

There are tons of brain games for dogs you can play with your pooch. Some require hard work on your part, whilst others are relatively easy. Make sure you break new games down to make them easy at first – nobody likes playing games they’re bad at.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.