Brain Games For Dogs: How To Keep Your Pup Mentally Stimulated (And Behaved)


Last Updated: May 1, 2024 | 7 min read | 2 Comments

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A dog playing with brain game puzzle.

Many dogs were bred for specific jobs, like retrieving, tracking, herding, and guarding. These various instincts have become innate, but today, many dogs don’t satisfy these instincts in their daily lives, becoming bored. Bored dogs can exhibit bad or even destructive behavior.

Does this sound like your furry friend? If so, I’ll give you some ideas to keep your pup mentally stimulated and happy. Learn more about brain games for dogs and how to keep your dog mentally active.

Why Do Dogs Need Brain Training?

Brain games are a great way to keep your dog well-trained and mentally stimulated. But before we give you specific game ideas, we want to point out that training your dog is an essential part of setting him up for mental and behavioral success.

Training your dog’s brain to behave appropriately in all kinds of situations can help keep them mentally alert. How? Because you’re teaching him skills that your dog can remember and use all the time. It’s also a great way to bond with your pup.

Brain Training For Dogs Course

Brain Training For Dogs logo (Affiliate)

Brain Training For Dogs is an excellent online course that teaches you how to brain-train your dog from puppyhood into adulthood. Adrienne Farricelli, a professional CPDT-KA certified dog trainer, developed this force-free training program that uses positive reinforcement. Many of the topics covered involve correcting bad behavior (excessive barking, jumping, leash pulling, biting, etc.), no matter how ingrained it may be in your dog.

The course teaches you specially designed techniques and games that engage your dog on a higher mental level than methods many other trainers use. Farricelli believes that mental stimulation is vital to correcting bad behavior — and boosting what she calls your dog’s “natural intelligence.”

8 Best Brain Games For Dogs

All dogs need regular physical exercise and interactive play, like fetch, tug-of-war, etc. However, many dogs need more. Here are some of the best mental stimulation games for dogs that we’ve found. Some are easy DIY games, and others are affordable interactive dog toys.

1. Puzzles

Nina Ottoson by Outward Hound's Dog Brick Puzzle.

There are many dog talking buttons and puzzle games that you can find online or at your pet store. They come in various degrees of difficulty, but most involve your dog figuring out how to get to a hidden treat. Nina Ottoson by Outward Hound’s Dog Brick Puzzle is a popular intermediate-level option for interactive dog toys.

If you want something more advanced, Trixie Pet Products has a fun and challenging flip-board puzzle that will offer plenty of mental stimulation and keep your pup occupied while working on getting to his treats.

Benefits Of Puzzles

Puzzle games help dogs build memory and boost their logic and problem-solving skills. Just like us, dogs need a mental challenge. Making your pup do a brain workout for about 15 minutes is equal to approximately 30 minutes of physical activity. Making them concentrate uses a lot of energy and makes them tired. Mental work like solving puzzles helps relieve stress and anxiety in dogs. Puzzles can be beneficial in working out destructive behaviors and decreasing hyperactivity.

See how our very own Barley loves his puzzles (and treats).

2. Treat-Dispensing Toys

OurPets IQ Treat Ball.

Another fun brain game is a treat-dispensing toy, like OurPets IQ Treat Ball, that can keep your dog mentally stimulated for an extended period of time. The OurPets interactive treat-dispensing toy is available in 3 and 4-inch sizes, and you can adjust the level of difficulty as your dog learns how to get treats faster. See more interactive dog toys.

Our Personal Experience With OurPets IQ Treat Ball

This toy keeps our puppy occupied for hours. And, when Barley stops playing with it, he falls asleep!! It is also impossible for him to chew, which means this toy will thankfully last much longer than most in our home.

Michelle Schenker, Rescue pup parent and website co-founder

Read more about this and other toys we love

3. Stuffed Kong

Kong toy.

A stuffed Kong is an excellent way to keep your dog mentally stimulated and occupied for a long time. You can load it with treats or peanut butter — and for an even greater challenge, freeze the peanut butter-stuffed Kong overnight. Your dog will enjoy working for his treat.

You can even turn this into a game by playing a treasure hunt. Show your dog the stuffed Kong, and then tell him to sit and stay while you hide it. Then, release him to go sniff out the treasured prize.

Our Personal Experience With Kong Dog Toys

I have used the classic Kong chew toys with my dogs for over 20 years. These toys are fantastic for super chewers. I have always had large dogs, Labrador mixes, who love to chew. These keep them entertained for hours on end and last for a very long time. They have literally saved my furniture from getting destroyed, and my dogs love them.

Danielle DeGroot, Labrador Retriever parent and website writer

See our reviews of popular Kong toys  

4. The Cup Game

This is the dog version of the old hustling cup game. It can help your dog develop problem-solving skills and is a great interactive game for you and your pup to do together.

  1. Get three plastic cups and some yummy-smelling treats
  2. Line up the cups on the floor
  3. Have your dog watch you as you place a treat under one of the cups
  4. Shuffle the cups around
  5. Give your dog the treat when he picks the right cup

In puppies, fun brain games like this help boost brain development and strengthen their bond with their owners. At any age, positive feedback boosts a dog’s confidence and further secures the connection you have. Mental games for dogs are fun for them and you.

5. Hide-And-Seek

Outward Hound Hide-A-Squirrel.

Yes, it’s a game you usually play with kids, but your dog can enjoy a good old game of hide-and-seek, too. And it’s yet another game that lets you interact with your dog. If your dog hasn’t mastered the stay command, you can ask a family member or friend to help by having them distract your dog when you go and hide. Be sure to praise your pup when he finds you so he knows he’s mastered the end result.

For a different version of hide-and-seek, you may also want to try out this Outward Hound Hide-A-Squirrel dog toy. You hide the plush squirrels in the trunk, and your dog is challenged to nuzzle them out. The squirrels have hidden squeakers for added fun.

Our Personal Experience With Outward Hound Hide-A-Squirrel Dog Toy

This is my dog Daisy’s favorite toy. She has had several of these and will take care of the little squirrels for months. Eventually, she tears them up, and we get a new one. This is a perfect toy for her because she loves hiding things and then finding them. We will hide the squirrels themselves all over the yard, and she will search them out.

-Danielle DeGroot, Labrador Retriever parent

6. The Name Game

Your dog has likely caught on to everyday terms like “walk,” toy,” and “treat.” But it’s mentally stimulating for him to learn different names for each toy (or person in your home). He’ll have fun learning the terms for each object or person and then seeking them out when you ask him to.

7. Put Your Toys Away

Like the Name Game, this is another fun training game. You can teach your dog to pick up his toys and place them in a container. Tell your dog to “get your toy” or “retrieve,” and then show him where to take them. Once he’s at the toy box, you say, “Drop it.” It may take some time for him to learn what you’re expecting, but training dogs with new skills boosts their confidence and keeps them mentally stimulated.

8. Obstacle Course

Dog obstetrical course.

Training your dog to go through an obstacle course is a great mental workout. This can be a DIY dog brain game where you arrange some chairs, tables, blankets, toys, etc., and create your own obstacle course. Or, if you want to go all out, you can purchase some agility equipment for your yard.

Outward Hound has an affordable ZipZoom Beginner Dog Agility Training Obstacle Course that includes an adjustable jump, weaving poles, and a tunnel. For a greater challenge, you may want to check out this PawHut Agility Training kit. It comes with an adjustable high jump, tunnel, weave poles, a square pause box, and an adjustable jumping ring.

Homemade Dog Brain Games (Video)

Watch this brief video for a few additional DIY dog brain games you can create with everyday household items.

Make Your Own DIY Dog Games & Puzzles

Not all dog games and brain puzzles need to be bought. With a little time and a few supplies, you can quickly make fun brain games and interactive dog toys at home for your pup.

DIY Dog Puzzle

You can make a DIY dog puzzle if you have a muffin pan, dog treats, and a few toys. You can substitute an egg carton if you don’t have a muffin tin. Hide a few treats in the muffin cups, then cover them with a toy, balled-up paper, or other items. Your pup must sniff through and play with each toy as they seek the treats. You can make a DIY food puzzle the same way. Simply fill up the muffin cups or egg cartons with kibble, then cover the top with cardboard or other items.

Dig Box

A fun and easy interactive dog toy you can try is to make a dig box for your pup. Find an old bin or cardboard box. Sprinkle a few treats at the bottom. Then, cover them with shredded bits of paper such as recycling, old newspapers, ads, etc.

Frozen Treats

Some dogs love frozen treats, like ice cubes or snowballs. Freezing up some tasty bone broth is another way to incorporate a frozen treat into play. You can add these to a food puzzle or toys like the Kong. Hide them around the yard for your pup to find in a scavenger hunt.

DIY Doggie Ramp

You can use a board and a rolled-up towel or blanket to create a doggie see-saw type of ramp. It will not be a huge incline, but dogs love it when it moves. You can add a ball or treat at the other end of the ramp to make it even more fun.

Cardboard Box Maze

Creating a maze out of everyday household items and cardboard boxes can provide tons of fun for your pup. Add treats and toys behind different turns. Create a cozy spot inside for your dog to lay down with a soft blanket. Your pup can spend hours in the maze, and you can easily add new twists and turns. These are also easy to clean up and recycle when you are done.

Don’t Forget To Stock Up On Dog Treats

You want to make sure you have plenty of dog treats when you’re training your dog or using some of these brain game ideas. Dogs are motivated by these tasty rewards, but not all treats are the healthiest options. You may want to consider vegan dog treats or calming treats if you have a highly energetic pup. See the best treats to reward your dog for some of our top recommendations.

Why Trust Canine Journal?

Sally has over 10 years of experience researching and testing hundreds of pet toys, accessories, and other methods to keep our four-legged friends mentally and physically stimulated. She’s part of a team of dedicated canine professionals who are committed to the health and well-being not only of our own pups but of all of our readers’ furry friends.

The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

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