Boost your dog’s brain power and prevent boredom with these five stimulating games and activities.
Most dog owners know the importance of physical exercise for their furry friend. A long morning walk, a run on the beach, frolicking at the local off-leash park — they’re all great ways to get your dog’s heart rate up and help her stay fit and healthy.
But not all dog owners are aware that it’s not only important to exercise their dog’s body, but their mind as well. This is known as mental stimulation, and Alisa Sannikova, animal behaviour scientist from Sydney dog walking and training service Perfect Dog, says it’s incredibly important for all dogs.
“In the short term, it’s a perfect way to prevent boredom behaviours such
as barking, digging and chewing — any time your dog is engaged in a human-approved activity, it’s much less likely to be the household nuisance,” she says.
“In the long term, the more mental stimulation you can provide to your dog, the better the trust and communication between you will be and the easier it will be for your dog to learn new things. Mental stimulation is also a great way to give shy dogs a confidence boost, thanks to the feelings of satisfaction it can provide from success.”
Tenille Williams, dog trainer from Dog Matters in Bundaberg, Queensland, points out that in the modern world, everyone seems to be time-poor. Unfortunately, this means that many dogs spend a lot of time at home in the house or yard with not a lot to do. At the same time, our dogs have often been bred to work and use their amazing brains to do jobs for us.
“Like people, exercising the brain can help a dog feel tired, even more than physical exercise,” Tenille says. “It’s important to leave your dog with things to do when you’re gone but also very important for a dog’s health and wellbeing to spend time exercising their brain when you’re home. This doesn’t have to take up a great deal of time; in fact, dogs learn best with several short training sessions rather than one long one.”
What can you do to challenge your dog and boost his brain power? These five games and tricks are the perfect place to start.
1. Hide and seek
The easiest way to get your dog’s brain going is to get him to use his nose more and practise instinctive searching behaviours. Alisa recommends getting your pet to sniff around and think with his nose by scattering some dry food or treats around the house and encouraging him to search for them. “Every time he finds and eats one of the treats, he gets encouraged to keep going and do it again. Just be mindful of the location you put the treats — don’t put a pile behind the TV if your dog is big enough to risk knocking it down,” she says.
Finding a treat on the smooth floor at home is the easiest level but for more difficulty, you can scatter the treats in a small patch of grass. If you don’t have a backyard, Alisa suggests making or purchasing a snuffle mat, which is a rubber mat with felt strips tied onto it to make a dense fabric forest. “Hiding the treats in there will have your dog sniffing away for ages,” she says.
For a different twist on the game, encourage your dog to use her nose for a game of hide and seek where she has to find you. “This trick uses the dog’s sense of smell, exercises their brain and gives them physical exercise as well. It can be easier with two people but you can do it alone if your dog can hold a reliable stay,” Tenille says.
Just follow these simple steps:
- Have your dog stay or have a friend hold your dog with them in another room.
- Go and hide. Make the first few easy.
- If you have a friend helping, they can say “seek” and let the dog go.
- The first few times, you may need to also call your dog once or twice to show them that they need to find you and give them a bit of help.
- When they find you, treat them with a big reward.
- Make it slightly harder each time but always keep it fun.
2. Find it!
Wouldn’t it be great if your dog could find your keys or your mobile phone? Not only does this trick provide great mental stimulation, but it’s useful for you around the house as well.
“When dogs search for an item, they use their amazing power of scent. Having a dog use their sense of smell is a great way to exercise their brain and keep them tired and happy,” Tenille says.
“You don’t need to teach your dog to use their nose; they already know that. You just need to teach them the object you want them to find and show them that it’s worthwhile to find it.”
Here are the steps:
- Show your dog the object you want him to find. You might want to give it a unique name for later when you expand to more items. Let’s say you’re teaching your dog to find the keys. Show him the keys and when he looks at them, sniffs them or touches them, say “yes” and give a treat (or any other reward that motivates your dog).
- Place the keys on the ground and mark with “yes”, then reward your dog for sniffing them on the floor.
- Keep moving the keys around to different places of the room and continue to reward for your desired outcome — this could be just sniffing them or picking them up. Reward for small steps towards your end goal.
- At this point, put a command to the task such as “find keys!”
- When your dog is consistently giving you the reaction you want, start to hide the keys where they can’t be seen. This will encourage her to use her nose.
- As long as your dog is successfully finding the keys, gradually increase the difficulty of the location. If she is struggling, take a step back to where she was last successful and do some more practice.
3. Stringing tricks together
Usually, when we teach our dog tricks, we keep the tricks separate as individual behaviours. But for a really good brain workout, start thinking about how you can link behaviours together into a chain for an even bigger, more impressive trick.
“If your dog can spin around, try teaching him to spin a couple of times in a row followed by a lie down,” Alisa suggests. “Challenge yourself to think of tricks that will be useful to you, too. If your dog likes fetching soft objects, you can teach him to fetch your kids’ dirty socks into a laundry basket. Or, if you teach your dog to pull on a kitchen towel tied to a door, pick up a bottle with a stubby holder on, fetch or shut a door with his nose or paw, you can link those four behaviours into fetching you a cold beer without having to get up off the couch.”
4. Learning object names
If you really want to stretch your dog’s brain, teach her the names of her toys. Remember that dogs are partially colour blind, so try to pick toys that have a lot of shape, size and texture differences between them to help your dog out.
“Start with just two toys, calling out simple names as you throw them such as ‘fetch the elephant’, ‘fetch the bone’ and so on,” Alisa says. “When your dog is getting the hang of it, throw both objects at the same time and ask your dog to fetch the closer one (which is easier), and give him a big reward if he manages it! If he goes for the wrong toy, just ignore him for a few seconds and then go back to working on individual names for a few tries to build his confidence back up.”
Your dog will slowly get the idea that you want him to fetch a specific toy, not just any toy, and then you can start throwing the named toy further than the wrong one and adding even more toys into the rotation. Once your dog is able to fetch several different toys by name, Tenille suggests that you could even teach your pooch to tidy up his toys after playtime. Mental stimulation for your pet and less hard work for you — perfect.
5. Dog parkour
The fast-paced and acrobatic sport of parkour is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to brain-boosting games for dogs. However, Alisa points out that the ability to balance and position their body carefully is not only great as a mental workout, but also helps dogs understand how their muscles work and can prevent strain and injury when your dog is engaged in intense play or dog sports.
“You can use a treat or a toy to encourage your dog to jump up onto any low platforms you find in your area, such as a tree stump or a wide brick wall. Once your dog is getting the idea, challenge yourself to find cool new surfaces for your dog to try out,” Alisa says. “Can she balance on a narrow beam? Can she put both front feet on top of a short bollard? There’s even videos on YouTube of dogs balancing all four paws on thick tightropes, so the sky really is the limit.”
Age is no barrier
These are just five games and tricks you can use to give your pooch a brainpower boost. There are plenty more simple and fun ways you can give your dog a mental challenge, so ask your dog trainer for help if you’re ever stuck for ideas. It’s also important to remember that mental stimulation is crucial for dogs of all ages.
“It’s absolutely important to provide mental stimulation for a dog of any age, even an older dog,” Tenille says. “An older dog may tire faster but they will still enjoy it and appreciate you for it.
“Training using these kinds of challenging tricks not only helps your dog feel tired and satisfied, it also continues to make them smarter as
they develop their skills and learn new ones. And best of all, giving your dog mental stimulation through training increases the bond between the two
In other words, it’s a win-win situation for you and your pet.
Take a hike
If your dog is always walking around the same neighbourhood, consider taking a day trip or a camping holiday somewhere else. “A trip to a state forest or a dog beach on the other side of the city lets your dog run up and down hilly trails, jump over logs, feel sand, grit or strange leaves between their paws, and hear the sounds of excitingly new birds,” Alisa says. “All of these sensory experiences can be a wonderful brain boost, especially if they’re unusual compared to the dog’s regular life.”