10 Ways to Give Your Dog More Mental Stimulation
Looking for some easy ways to help tire out your dog and keep them busy? If so add a few mentally stimulating activities into their routine. Contrary to popular belief dogs need more than just physical exercise, and a few quick brain games can do wonders.
Instead of just adding more physical exercise to your dog’s routine add in a few brain games to really tire them out. Mental stimulation enriches our dogs lives by giving them something meaningful to do. And because these activities alleviate boredom they decrease the likelihood of our dogs developing behavioral issues such as excessive chewing or barking.
If you’re looking for some easy ways to exercise your dog’s brain here’s 10 ways to give your dog more mental stimulation.
Tip: If you’re looking for even more ways to keep your dog busy be sure to check out 33 ways to keep your dog busy indoors & 26 boredom busters for dogs.
1. Have Your Dog Work For Their Food
Our dogs have it pretty easy when it comes to meal time. Most of us just set their bowl down & let them go at it. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is a far cry from their natural scavenging habits. So if you want to add some more mental stimulation to your dogs routine you can start with changing up their feeding routine. Instead of just handing over their food a few times a day you can make a fun game out of it for your dog.
My favorite method is using a food dispensing toy such as the Kong Wobbler or Bob-A-Lot. You place your dogs meals in the toy and they have to roll it around in order to get the food to come out of the hole. And yes – it can be a bit noisy, but it’s well worth it when you see how satisfying it is for your dog.
2. Let Your Dog Sniff & Explore on Walks
Getting to go for a walk is one of the most exciting parts of your dogs day. You can give them some more mental stimulation by letting them stop & sniff around some more. It’s true that walking is great physical exercise, but for dogs it’s also about exploration. Sure you may have walked down your road a million times now, but that certainly doesn’t mean there’s not new & exciting smells for your dog to check out everyday.
And if you’re not comfortable with letting your dog lead you around on walks you can designate certain areas or times for free sniffing. Just teach your dog a cue such as “go sniff” and let them explore for awhile. You’d be surprised at how much more tired dogs are after a walk that includes exploration & sensory enrichment (sniffing) rather than just walking a straight line.
3. Get Your Dog a Puzzle Toy
Puzzle toys are a nice and easy way to keep your dog busy & entertained. Interactive toys like puzzles help keep your dog focused on a task, and that added extra mental stimulation goes a long way. One extra 15 minute game a day can such a huge difference to your dog. It gives them something to focus on, and that extra meaning in their day helps when it comes to alleviating problem behaviors.
Puzzle toys are great because they give your dog a chance to use some of their natural problem solving abilities. And by keeping your dog engaged with interactive toys you can help boost their confidence & tire them out mentally.
Now keep in mind not all puzzle toys are loved equally by all dogs. My dog prefers a frozen Kong stuffed with treats over puzzle toys that lay flat on the ground. A frozen Kong will keep her busy for 30+ minutes, while a puzzle toy usually lasts 2. So if you’re not sure if your dog is into puzzles I suggest making one out of a muffin tin & tennis balls to gauge their interest.
4. Teach Your Dog Some New Tricks
How many tricks does your dog know? Do they have a good stay, come here & lay down? Well the good news is there’s a lot more you can teach them that goes beyond the basics. With trick training there’s always more to add.
Teaching your dog a new trick or command is great for mental stimulation, and it can be especially helpful with shy or fearful dogs. All that training will help boost your dogs confidence, and it strengthens the bond between dog & owner. Learning new commands can also help increase your dogs focus and impulse control (manners).
Not sure what to teach your dog next? Here’s a great list of 52 tricks to get you started. One of my favorite tricks is weaving between legs. It looks really cool & impressive, but it was surprisingly one of the easiest tricks to teach.
5. Play Some Nose Work Games
One of my dogs favorite activities is some basic nose work games. Having your dog use their nose to find things is a really simple way to help them hone in one their natural skills. And all that searching will provide your dog with a lot more mental stimulation in their daily routine.
Our favorite game is ‘go find it.’ I’ll chop up a carrot or two into small bits and hide them throughout the house. You can use any treat you like, but when you’re first starting out I recommend sticking to something smelly since it might take them a few tries to really get the hang of it.
As you have your dog in a stay position go hide some of those treats around the house. If you’ve never done any nose work games before start with some easy spots & be sure to encourage your dog when he finds them. Keep it fun & exciting for them by praising them every time they find a treat. After they get the hang of it you can start hiding them in harder to find spots, encouraging them to use their nose more and rely less on visuals.
6. Teach Your Dog the Names of Their Toys
Does your dog know the names of their toys? My dog loves the ‘go find it’ game, and we play it toys as well as treats. I mean don’t get me wrong – I love using treats, but if we used them all the time my dog would probably end up overweight. So we started using toys as well. I started using this game after I saw those amazing videos of Chaser the Border Collie who knows the names of over 1000 toys. To say she’s an inspiration is a bit of an understatement.
The first step is making sure your dog knows the name of the item you’re going to be hiding. If you’re starting with a certain toy I recommend sitting down with them & that toy (and in this case let’s say you’re using ‘pink bear’). With pink bear on the ground in front of you tell your dog ‘pink bear.’ As soon as they touch it or grab it praise them like crazy.
Now once you’ve done this a few times you can add in a different toy in addition to pink bear. Just be sure to go slowly to ensure that your dog knows exactly what ‘pink bear’ is before you move on to another. So once your dog knows the name of a few items you have them ‘go find pink bear’ or ‘go find yellow bird.’
7. Play Some Free Shaping Games
If you haven’t heard of 101 things to do with a box you’ve been missing out on some fun training opportunities. The basic principle of shaping games is to encourage our dogs to try something new. By giving our dogs the chance to make their own decisions we can increase their mental and physical flexibility.
You start out with a box on the ground and without any cues let your dog investigate and decide what to do. Shaping can be used with any item, not just a box. Here’s a great video of shape training a dog to crawl under an object.
8. Make an Obstacle Course For Your Dog
Teaching your dog how to go through an obstacle course is a nice mental workout for them. And if you don’t have any agility jumps or poles at home don’t worry; you can make your own, or just use some stuff in your house as alternatives.
I’m not quite crafty enough to make my own agility course, so I opted for using alternatives at home. We use a blanket, some toys and a few orange hazard cones I picked up at the local thrift store. Now my little course doesn’t look anything like a professional one, but it’s really useful in teaching my dog new tricks.
You can teach your dog to ‘go to your blanket,’ ‘jump over this broomstick’ or ‘weave’ through cones. Whatever commands work with what you’ve got set up. And the benefit of putting these obstacles together like this is that it’s a really big mental workout for your dog. You’re not just asking them to do one thing, you’re asking them to do one thing after another.
9. Engage in More Interactive Play With Your Dog
Our dogs love playing with us, and engaging in interactive play is one of the easiest ways to keep them mentally stimulated. And I know play seems awfully basic, but it’s easy to underestimate just how important play is for our dogs. Recent studies have found that the more play a dog engages in the less likely they are to suffer from behavioral issues.
Interactive play is when you actively engage with your dog. Playing a game of tug or fetch is interactive play, and those sorts of games help tremendously when it comes to giving your dog more mental stimulation. And any of those fun games will help strengthen your bond. Tug is my favorite game to play because it’s great physical exercise, it’s a lot of fun, and it helps our dogs work on their impulse control.
10. Play the Shell Game With Your Dog
Do you know what the shell game is? It’s a game where you hide a treat under one of 3 identical containers, and then you shuffle them around letting the participant choose the correct container.
To play the shell game with your dog you let them watch as you place a treat under one of the cups. Shuffle them around and then encourage them to ‘find the treat.’ The shell game will give your dog more mental stimulation, and it’s an easy way to help them work on their problem solving skills.
How Do You Give Your Dog More Mental Stimulation?
How do you give your dog mental exercise? Do you let your dog sniff & explore on walks? Do you play a lot of tug? Does your dog eat their meals out of a puzzle toy? Did I miss any of your favorite brain games for dogs?
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Jessica Roberts says
Great article, Jen! I have a Border Collie/Aussie and I love letting him sniff and explore during walks! It makes him so happy. He also loves to play, and I make sure to take at least 10-15 minutes every day to throw his ball or squeaky toy for him!
Laura miller says
Our 12 yrs old cocker used to love games, treats, etc but now that she’s blind, none of these interest her anymore. Its heart breaking ?
Awesome post!! You’ve mentioned some great ideas and also some fun games that i’ve never tried. Thank you for sharing 🙂 keep up the great posts.
Wonderful article. Dogs are social creatures and need stimulation to keep boredom at bay, good tips.
Check out PupPod.com for a high-tech puzzle toy that automatically gets harder based on your dogs performance.
It keeps my puppy out of trouble and he works for an hour to earn a cup of food.
Thanks for the awesome article! I dog sit and will definitely be using some of these ideas on my honorary pets!
Jeanne Perriera says
I have two 3 month old black Labrador female pups. Both pups are very smart. Stay is a tricky thing for them but it’s getting better and better. They know sit, come, belly down, belly crawl. Rewards and praise. Are we on target for learning for these young pups. Using verbal and hand signals.
Helpful information. Many people under estimate the importance of mental stimulation. Can tire a dog as much as physical activity.
Thanks for this info! I had no idea dogs could learn to play the shell game! What a great way to work their brains. Also, never heard of shaping before. Will have to look into that as well.
Thanks for the useful information. I will go to put it into practice. From the dog Jesse, huge hello.
Teaching dogs names says
I think this might be a little bit so hard 6. Teach Your Dog the Names of Their Toys. Would you explain more how you do it.
Jen Gabbard says
Here’s a video that might help (this is the technique I use): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1hZRhB9BCY
Bob Dellarte says
I have found that the number one rule to successful training is “DON’T OVERTHINK what your trying to teach your dog, use common sense and never tease. Keep it simple, so BOTH of you don’t get discouraged, let me explain. You want to teach your dog the names of it’s toys, great! Dogs like kids just love a new toy, because it captures their attention and curiosity, which is just perfect for an easy learning environment. Before giving your dog it’s new toy, you should gather up all of it’s other toy’s and put them away where they can not retrieved. With that done, now give your dog the new toy and say something like, “Oh my goodness, what do you have? Do you have a new toy?” Now is when you can introduce the name of whatever you have given your pet. So, as example, my dog has a little stuffed dog with a red hat. We named this toy, “MR. RED HAT”. To teach her this name, when giving her this new toy make a big fuss over it, continue to say to your dog, “Are you playing with MR. RED HAT?” “Do you like MR. RED HAT? Do you have MR. RED HAT?” Because you are so excited over this new toy, so shall your dog be as well. Consistency is very important. Now after a couple of days of you making a big fuss over “MR. RED HAT” you can say to your dog, “Hey, go get MR. RED HAT and lets play.” In the absence of all the other toys being packed away and out of reach, your dog may just surprise you and go grab “MR. RED HAT.” After about a week of your dog understanding who MR. RED HAT is, now is the time to unpack one of your dogs old toys and re-introduce THAT toy with a name of your choosing. Just repeat until ALL the old toys have names! Before you know it, you will be just sitting on the couch and asking your dog to go find one toy after another and when you act happy and impressed, your dog will be more than happy to keep learning NEW things.
Here is another “Don’t overthink this trick” idea for you. This is a trick that your dog can teach you. If your pet does something fairly frequently without you asking them to do that action, SIMPLY NAME THAT ACTION and it becomes a trick that you never had to teach! Let me explain. When I take my Border Collie for a run, after a short time she likes to lay down in the grass and then squirm around on her back. Every time that I would see her do this I would say, “SHOW ME YOUR BELLY” and keep saying it as she was doing just that. Soon she associated the two together and now I just have to ask her to show her belly, and she does. This is one of many “Tricks” that I never taught her to do. Good Luck!
Pauline Hope says
Fab article some fab ideas I will be using on my 6 month old border collie
Sally M Beck says
Great article! We hired a renown trainer in the area a couple years ago to help us build our “rescue dog’s” confidence. He learned one of the games VERY quickly so we keep it on the kitchen counter to remind us doggies get bored too. It’s described in this article, we call it the “cupcake game” (because we use it often and he gets excited when he sees it. Simon is a Border Collie/Spaniel/Chow(?) mix, VERY smart and VERY sensitive. He’s always watching for a signal. Excitedly saying “do you want to play the cupcake game?” puts him on alert. This took a while at first because whoever owned him before never offered him any stimulation (except he watches everything carefully and can be hand shy — not with us anymore. Cupcake game is a matter of hiding some of his favorite treats broken into small sizes into a muffin tin and putting on the floor as we excitedly say “wanna play cupcake game?”. We keep the treats small because it only takes him a couple minutes to find everything and wants to play again. Other interesting thing that happened a year ago. I was in the kitchen (which inspires him to come & watch – they always know where the food is. I had just finished a roll of paper towel and started tapping it in my hand as I mindlessly wandered through the kitchen cabinet. I noticed him go into his shy away position (fearfully) as he sulked away. I realized he thought I might hit him with it, so I stepped out of the kitchen, looked at him across the room and said “don’t be scared, this is a special toy for Simon”. I bent over and rolled it slowly towards him. He looked & listened and slowly approached it, then picked it up and walked to the area he likes to play. . .then he held it with his paw and started to rip it a part as I praised him. Now every empty paper towel roll has become his latest toy. He loves attacking them and then taking his time ripping them to shreds. He often shows excitement about going for a walk by looking for his latest paper towel role and ripping it up a bit before we can put him on leash. Also have an old pillow we use for pillow game (he attacks it, puts it in his mouth yanks at it. . .more fun. Meanwhile he has NEVER attacked or chewed on anything we haven’t encouraged. It took him a while, but he finally learned to play games, and he loves them!
Well said this info is great for dogs and helpful this information is surprising and tips are good.
Bored Cesar says
Very informative article. Dogs truly need proper mental stimulation to keep their health intact.
Also, read this article: https://www.boredcesar.com/how-to-calm-an-over-excited-dog/
Sherri Goodson says
Great article with some fun games I look forward to trying them with my pack. One game that all 4 of mine really love is Easter egg hunting! Same principle as for kids but put very small treat in each egg & “hide” em all over, indoors or outdoors. Reward is the treat but I make a big fuss too & now they get excited just seeing those plastic eggs on the counter?
I adopted my second dog over a year ago. I was aware that he had neurological issues, and I soon realized that he wasn’t trained, probably never walked on a leash, and is not very interested in toys. I try to mentally stimulate him as best as possible, but because of his issues, he doesn’t always catch on. For instance, my other dog loves her stuffed Kong, but this dog doesn’t understand how to hold it and chew on it to move things around inside so he can get to them. Or the concept of a treat ball – pushing it around to get treats. He’s just finally starting to enjoy chews, like bully sticks. I wonder if anyone else has had a similar situation and if they can suggest something different to do or things that help.
Care Of My Dog says
#3 works the best! Dog puzzles are great and my dog can play with them for hours. We also have a bob-a-lot puzzle that my dog can to push treats out. This can entertain him for days on end. I love the list though.
Wonderful tips! Thanks for sharing!
Dog’s News & Stories
I usually froze some treats for Gibby, kind of mental stimulation for him 😀
Thanks for these tips!
I loved this! its really helpful and I will use a lot for my dog, Blueberry while I am at school 🙂
Some great ideas there thank you.
Our Springer spaniel Bonnie is nearly 14 her favourite game in the world is ‘find’ every evening we hide small pieces of low fat cheese all around the lounge, she spends ages sniffing them out tail wagging all the time, it’s a joy to watch her. She’s too arthritic these days to run around so it’s the perfect game for her and she always sleeps soundly afterwards a happy contented girl, and the cheese hasn’t affected her weight which is great.