When you think about exercising your dog you probably think about activities like walks, trail hikes, and games of fetch, but it may come as a surprise to discover that your dog needs brain exercise as well.
Working a dog’s mind is just as important as working the body, and brain games are a great way to do it. And the best part about playing brain games for dogs? Tapping into your dog’s unique cognitive abilities is important enrichment that is easy to do!
What is Brain Training for Dogs?
While standard obedience school can be considered brain training for dogs, true brain training engages your dog’s mind in a slightly different way. The dog training exercises in standard obedience training have a specific goal: your dog learns foundation behaviors like walking politely on a leash, holding a stay, or coming when called.
With brain training the goal is to encourage your dog to think creatively, problem solve, and have fun. Steve Dale, certified animal behavior consultant, pet radio host, and co-editor of Decoding Your Dog (authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists), suggests that brain training has numerous benefits, including:
- Giving the opportunity to engage in breed-specific behaviors, like digging or searching for resources.
- Providing an outlet for anxiety.
- Helping to slow the cognitive changes associated with aging.
In addition to behavioral benefits like preventing inappropriate behaviors and keeping your senior sharp, brain training is a fun way to strengthen the bond with your dog. If you’re playing the right kinds of brain training games with your dog, you both should be having fun!
Fun Brain Games for Dogs to Try at Home
While there are many commercially available games for dogs, you can DIY cognition activities as well. Try the following simple dog brain training activities with your pup.
Play Hide the Toy
Teaching your dog to look for a hidden toy taps into their natural scenting ability and it is a fantastic way to burn through excess energy inside the house or out. To begin teaching it, place your dog in a “stay” or have a helper gently hold him. Let him watch you place a toy in an obvious spot a few feet away, like on the edge of a chair, then tell your dog to “find it” in an excited voice and encourage him to grab the toy.
Play together with the toy for a few minutes, then hide the toy in a new obvious spot and repeat the process.
After a few repetitions your dog will start to figure out what “find it” means, at which point you put him in a different room and do a “blind find” by hiding the toy where he can’t see it. Because this game makes your dog rely only on his sense of smell, he’ll be happily worn out at the end of a few rounds!
Make an Indoor Dig Pit
Many dogs love to dig but don’t get enough opportunity to do so. Creating a safe spot to engage in this instinctual behavior is a simple way to address that urge and give your pup’s brain a workout at the same time.
To make a dig pit simply use a box with low sides or a plastic storage container and fill it with dog-safe materials like rags cut into strips or cardboard paper towel rolls and bathroom tissue rolls cut into a variety of lengths. Make sure to select filler material that your dog won’t want to eat!
Then scatter treats or part of your dog’s daily meal ration inside and mix up the filler, or if your dog is toy-driven, hide balls and toys inside. Many toy-driven dogs will enjoy play breaks with you when they uncover them.
Teach Your Dog to Spin
A great way to work your dog’s brain is introducing trick training, which is low-pressure fun-for-fun’s-sake training. “Spin” is one of the easiest (and cutest!) tricks to teach and it doesn’t take long for pups to master it.
To begin the process, place a small treat in front of your dog’s nose so that he has four paws on the ground and doesn’t have to jump up to smell it. Trace a halo-like circle in the air above your dog’s nose so that he follows the treat lure slowly. Then, give your dog the goody once he’s completed the circle. Dogs that are reluctant to follow the lure might need to get the treat at the midpoint as well as at the completion.
Repeat the process, making the luring motion quicker with each repetition.
When your dog is happily moving in a circle keep the treat in your pocket and make the circle gesture more subtle with each repetition, rewarding after each attempt. Continue until you can twirl a single finger above your dog’s head as if stirring a drink. When your dog is responding to the subtle hand signal you can add a verbal cue like “spin” by saying the word right before you begin to make the gesture.
Teach Your Dog to Focus
A fun brain game that also has real world applications is teaching your dog a “watch” cue to capture eye contact. Not only is this skill fun to practice, it has many real world applications, like helping to refocus anxious dogs by getting them to look at you instead of potential stressors.
It helps to use a clicker to teach this behavior since the initial steps move quickly. To begin simply toss a treat on the ground near your dog and after she eats it and looks up at you hoping for another one, click her for her attention then then throw another treat. Repeat this process, always using the clicker to mark the moment your dog turns to look at you.
Next, ask for your dog to do more. Wait to click until your dog looks up at your eyes, then toss the treat. Extend the length of time your dog holds your gaze by waiting a few seconds before you click and treat. Start naming the behavior by saying “watch” right as your dog swings her eyes up to meet yours.
Practice the behavior in different parts of your house and outside to help generalize it, then try using it in a real-world scenario like during a walk.
Other Ways to Support Your Dog’s Brain Health
Healthy brain function comes from a healthy lifestyle, and diet is a big part of the equation. Feeding your pup a premium dog food with real meats as the primary ingredients and no filler or additives contributes to overall wellness from the inside out.
Additionally, puzzle toys for dogs that keep dogs busy make for great brain boosters when you don’t have time to play with them. Hiding treats in the toys and encouraging dogs to solve the puzzle and find the reward will help boost brainpower.
You can also help to support your dog’s brain health with veterinarian formulated supplements that use natural ingredients to promote cognitive wellness.
Keeping your dog’s mind active, engaged and supported will help to ensure a happy and healthy dog well into his golden years!