We all know dogs are serious about play, which is great for us because it keeps our beloved fur balls happy and healthy. Both puppies and adults benefit from exercise, so there's no better way to burn off excess energy than chasing after a toy or going out for a jog. But, while its fun to run around the dog park and play fetch, not all games and physical activities are designed to stimulate one of your dog's most important assets: her mind. Luckily, activities that provide mental exercise for canines can be just as simple and enjoyable as those of the physical variety, and the best part is that most of them only require items that are likely already in your home. These games will entertain your dog while also challenging her brain.
1. Three-Paw Monte
While the notorious shell game has been used for eons by street performers to swindle unfortunate rubes out of a few bucks, it can also work as a top-tier brain training game for your pooch (and your dog won't have to worry about the house always winning with this version). First, take three bowls, and hide a treat or some kibble under one of them. Then, tell your dog “Find ___,” and refer to the food by its name. After your gets used to the game and the name of the food reward, try the same process with a different treat, using its name.
When the dog becomes familiar with the second treat and its name, the real challenge begins. Start playing the game with one empty bowl and two containing the previous rewards you worked with, but tell the dog to find one of the treats by its specific name. If your dog finds the right reward, be sure to feed it to her and give lots of praise for a job well done.
For the ultimate exercise, play the game with a third unique treat and two empty bowls. Once your dog identifies the look and smell of that reward with its name, try playing with all three foods at once. This game will exercise your dog's excellent scent abilities, and it will also expand her vocabulary by teaching her some new words. You can continue teaching your dog new words by introducing new treats, and when she becomes proficient with this exercise, you can increase the number of bowls and food rewards.
2. Hide and Seek
Many people have fond childhood memories of playing hide and go seek with their friends. Fortunately, you can indulge your inner-kid and relive those memories while teaching your best furry bud how to play the classic, mentally stimulating game. Once your dog has mastered the “stay” and “come” commands, you can spice things up by giving the “stay” command and finding a hiding spot somewhere nearby, bringing a treat or some kibble along. Issue a single “come” command from your hiding spot that is loud enough for your dog to hear. When she finds you, be sure to congratulate her with affection and a treat.
If your dog is young or just learning how to play the game, let her watch you find the hiding place. Then, as she gets better at finding you, start hiding farther away, and don't let her see you enter the hiding spot. For a more difficult challenge, don't bring the treat with you. She will then have to rely on her hearing skills and ability to track your scent.
3. Muffin Tin Mania
This is an engaging and inexpensive game that dog owners have been enjoying with their pets for years. All it requires is a standard-sized muffin tin (ideally containing twelve muffin holes), a tennis ball for each hole, and a few treats or pieces of kibble. Place a food reward in each of the holes, then put a tennis ball on top. Watch as your dog nudges the balls out of the way to find the treats, then praise her when she does.
If your dog hasn't played the game before, it may be a good idea to remove one or two of the tennis balls to let her see what's underneath. After she has seen the reward, replace the balls and allow her some time to figure out what to do next. Once she understands how the game works, you can add some challenge by only placing the food reward under a few balls, bringing the number down to one. She will learn how to find the treats by following her nose, which will help her develop stronger scent tracking abilities, and she will exercise her problem-solving abilities if you stand back and let her do the thinking.
4. Stop and Go
While stop and go is less of a game and more of an exercise for teaching obedience, your dog will definitely have fun in the process. This game reinforces discipline and helps you establish your authority as the pet parent in the relationship. However, like most worthwhile endeavors, stop and go will require time, patience, and dedication (both from you and your dog). This exercise strengthens your dog's ability to recall commands and carry them out at the time they are given.
First, begin rigorous play with your dog. An intense game like tug-of-war or chase works best. Now, if she has mastered the “sit,” “stay,” and “down” commands, it's time to put those skills to the test. At any point during the game, stop what you are doing and give one of the commands. Of course she wants to continue playing, but over time she will understand that The goal is to teach your dog that no matter what she is doing or how much fun it is, she will stop, listen, and comply when you give a command. With enough practice, your dog will learn how to ignore outside distractions and focus on your commands, which is a skill that can be absolutely vital in potentially dangerous situations.