Physical exercise isn't the only exercise your dog needs – he needs to get that brain working too. For both humans and for dogs, "use it or lose it" is the rule when it comes to staying mentally sharp as we age. So how do you keep your dog's brain active at every life stage? Try combining food and play for one of the most fun (and delicious) ways to encourage cognitive development and maintenance in your dog.
HOW DO DOGS BENEFIT FROM BRAIN GAMES?
The benefits of dog food puzzles don't just stop at brain development – they can also help with some common behavioral problems. Spending additional bonding time with your dog can help reduce separation anxiety, while regularly exercising his mind can help reduce destructive behavior due to restlessness. Teething puppies will love games like the Tennis Ball Puzzle because it'll direct their energy towards something they're allowed to chew. Plus, if you're using kibble out of your dog's bowl as the reward for puzzles, he'll be less likely to inhale his meals and vomit them up later...win-win!
LET'S PLAY! BRAIN GAMES FOR DOGS
Some notes to keep in mind before we get started: It's a good idea to monitor your dog's play at first to make sure that he's not swallowing things he shouldn't be. Since treats should account for no more than 10% of your dog's daily calories, it may be better to take a few kibbles out of your dog's bowl and use those as "treats". It may take some time for your dog to learn the rules of the game, and that's ok! Sit with your dog and help him learn one bit at a time, while rewarding him for steps in the right direction. Don't give him the answers immediately – exploration and discovery help his brain develop.
1. OBSTACLE COURSE
Mix it up in your backyard, the park, or even your living room! Add some boxes to create tunnels, platforms, and obstacles, fill a kiddie pool with water or sand, or anything else to make a familiar location feel new and exciting. Let your dog explore his new environment on his own, or get out the kibble to teach him how to go through the obstacle course.
2. CHEW TOY PUZZLE
All you need is a chew toy and some treats (or kibble) for this brain puzzle. If the toy doesn't have existing holes to put food inside, you can make a cut in the chew toy (either in a curve, straight across, or in a crisscross pattern), then fill the opening with your dog's favorite snack. It's such a simple game, but it challenges your dog to think: "Where's this smell coming from? How am I going to get the treat out? Chewing? Tossing the ball around?" Tuck in the flap from a curve-cut toy for added difficulty!
3. MUFFIN TIN MEMORY GAME
Grab a 12- or 6- cup muffin tin and hide some treats/kibble in the cups underneath some tennis balls for this easy DIY memory game. Your dog will have to sniff out the morsels, figure out how to dig the tennis balls out, and remember where he's already looked once the tennis balls start moving around. SEEK & FIND Test your dog's sense of smell and curiosity by turning his dinner into a scavenger hunt. Divide his meal into small portions and hide them around the house (whether they're in small bowls or just loose on the floor). The hiding places may need to be obvious at first, but feel free to make the hiding spots more challenging as he gets the hang of it!
4. COUNT DOWN TO KIBBLE
Your dog will love the game that's all about eating! Hold six pieces of kibble in one hand and two in the other, and keep both hands closed. Tell your dog to sit, then say "small" as you open both your hands at arm's length away from him. Close your hand quickly if he goes for the bigger pile – only let him eat if he correctly picks "small"! Start over until he understands, then switch up which hand has the smaller amount so he doesn't just learn left vs. right. Got that? Now challenge him by teaching him "big".
5. THE SHELL GAME FOR DOGS
A favorite in casinos and on the scoreboard during the 7th inning stretch, the shell game is great for your dog to play too. Have your dog sit in front of you and watch you place one piece of kibble under one cup on the floor. Tell him to "take it" and let him eat the kibble when he knocks the cup over. Now, introduce two additional cups, and rub kibble along the inside of all three to he can't cheat by smelling the food. Let your dog watch you hid a piece of kibble under one of the cups and tell him to "take it". Give him the kibble once he finds it eventually, no matter how many mistakes he makes. Once he knows how to find the kibble under any of the cups, try moving the cup once you've placed kibble underneath it. This game is surprisingly tough and will work your pup's brain!
6. WORD SEARCH
Build your dog's vocabulary by teaching him to fetch his favorite toys by name. Sit with your dog with his favorite toy in the room, then ask him to fetch it ("Get Bunny!"). Keep repeating the name of the toy and use lots of praise and snacks to reward him for correctly fetching it. When he's got the name of one toy, remove it from the room and start over with a new toy. Once he's learned the names of two toys, put both on the floor and ask him to fetch them one at a time. Didn't get it right? Just keep repeating the name of the toy you want and guide him to the right one if he's really struggling. It can take a lot of time, effort, and reinforcement-by-kibble to build your dog's vocabulary, but gradual lessons are worth it. (Just don't say we didn't warn you when your dog suddenly understands W-A-L-K!)
7. OTHER DOG FOOD PUZZLES + INTERACTIVE TOYS
There are hundreds of dog food puzzles and interactive toys on the market. If you decide to stock the toy chest instead of create your own games for your dog to play, make sure that any toy you buy is made of safe, durable and non-toxic material that won't get chewed through and choked on, and choose a toy that's appropriate for your dog's size. Large dogs will need toys that are durable and that they can't swallow, while small and flat-faced dogs tend to enjoy smaller, softer toys.
Even if it takes a while to teach your dog about a new game or interactive toy, don't get discouraged. Letting your dog learn and helping him keep his mind sharp is the whole point. Happy playing!
What brain games do you play with your dog? Leave a comment below!