Physical exercise and a balanced diet aren’t all your dog needs to stay healthy – mental fitness is also important! 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 brain games and puzzle toys 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.
- Regularly exercising your dog’s mind can help reduce destructive behavior due to restlessness.
- Teething puppies will love games that direct their energy towards something they're allowed to chew.
- Using kibble out of your dog's bowl as the reward for puzzles encourages slower eating.
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 they’re not swallowing things they shouldn't be.
- Treats should account for no more than 10% of your dog's daily calories, so 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 them learn one bit at a time, while rewarding steps in the right direction.
- Don't give away the answers immediately – exploration and discovery help your dog’s brain develop.
1. Obstacle Course
This is a fun game to play with your dog indoors or outdoors! 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 their new environment on their own, or get out the kibble to teach them how to go through the obstacle course.
2. Chew Toy Puzzle – Great for Teething Puppies!
All you need for this DIY dog food puzzle are a chew toy and some treats (or kibble). 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?”
- Select a toy that has holes, or carefully cut holes in a chew toy (cut holes in a curve, straight across, or in a crisscross pattern).
- Fill the opening with your dog's favorite treat or kibble and let them get to work.
- Tip: Tuck in the flap of a curve-cut hole for added difficulty!
3. Muffin Tin Memory Game
Some of the best mental games for dogs can be made from items around your home! Test your dog’s memory with this easy DIY brain game for dogs.
- Grab a 12- or 6-cup muffin tin.
- Hide treats or kibble in the muffin cups and cover them with tennis balls.
Let your dog get to work! Their nose will help them find kibbles, but it will take some brain power to figure out how to dig the tennis balls out, and memory skills to remember where they have already looked once the tennis balls start moving around!
4. Countdown To Kibble
Your dog will love this food game for dogs 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 them.
- Close your hand quickly. Only reward your dog if they correctly pick "small"!
- Start over until your dog understands, then switch up which hand has the smaller amount so they don't just learn left vs. right.
Next: challenge your dog by teaching them "big"!
5. The Shell Game For Dogs
A favorite 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 them to "take it" and let them eat the kibble when they knock the cup over.
- Next, introduce two additional cups. Rub kibble along the inside of all three cups to they can't cheat by smelling the food. Let your dog watch you hide a piece of kibble under one of the cups and tell them to "take it". Give your dog the kibble once they find it eventually, no matter how many mistakes they make.
- Once your dog 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 them to fetch their favorite toys by name. 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!)
- Sit with your dog with their favorite toy in the room, then ask them to fetch it ("Get Bunny!"). Keep repeating the name of the toy and use lots of praise and snacks to reward your dog for correctly fetching it.
- When they understand the name of one toy, remove it from the room and start over with a new toy.
- Once your dog has learned the names of two toys, put both on the floor and ask them to fetch the toys one at a time.
- Didn't get it right? Just keep repeating the name of the toy you want and guide your dog to the right one if they are really struggling.
Other Dog Food Puzzles + Interactive Toys
There are hundreds of dog food puzzles and interactive toys on the market for a variety of dog ages from senior to puppy. If you decide to stock the toy chest instead of creating your own games for your dog to play, make sure that any toy you buy is made of safe, durable and non-toxic material. Avoid toys that will 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 keep their mind sharp is what’s important. When you pair mental fitness with a tailored Just Right dog food blend, there’s no limit to how much your dog can thrive.