15 Exciting Ways To Mentally Stimulate Your Dog’s Mind

By Richard Gray

How to mentally stimulate your dog. It is essential to find an answer this question because mental stimulation is a key aspect in a dog’s health and happiness. 

It’s just as important as physical activity. In fact, mental activities that tax your dog’s brain can tire him out more. 

Stimulating your dog’s brain has positive effects

Being occupied with mentally challenging tasks can also lead to less destructive behavior, less anxiety and loneliness. 

It is in a dog’s nature to be busy. After all, their ancestors scavenged for and hunted food to survive. They used their mind every day to solve problems. So, the dog in your home should also use his natural instincts in activities and games. This will help him to be a more mentally stimulated dog. 

It is important for your dog to use the five senses. He also needs activities that stimulate his desire to be occupied.

Your dog might be barking excessively, pacing up and down, sleeping all the time, or chasing his tail. These are signs that your dog is bored and needs to be mentally stimulated!

 I have I’ve divided this post into four main areas for you to consider:

  • Mentally stimulating activities with food & treats
  • Games That You’ll Be Involved In
  • Games & Activities without Treats or Rewards
  • Socialization Activities

Here is the full list of Contents

Mentally Stimulating Activities With Food & Treats
#1. Making Meals a Challenge
#2. Interactive Puzzles & Enrichment Toys
#3. Make your own puzzle toy
Games that you’ll be involved in!
#4. Choose the Hand Game & Cups/Shell Game
#5. Free Shaping Games
#6. Hot & Cold Game
#7. Red Light, Green Light
#8. Hide & Seek
#9. Training
#10 Obstacle Course
Games & Activities without Treats or Rewards
#11. Fetch
#12. Tug Of War
#13. Sniff and Roam Free Adventures
Socialization Activities
#14. Meeting Playmates
#15. Meeting New People
Where to go next?

In many recommended mentally demanding activities, dog treats are used as a reward. 

When giving treats, It’s important to not overfeed your dog and to give them only healthy ingredients.

Now, check out the 15 Mentally Stimulating Activities for your dog.

How To Mentally Stimulate Your Dog With Food & Treats

#1. Making Meals a Challenge

A food dispenser makes a dog figure out how to get the food out

Making your dog work for their food is a good start to providing some mental stimulation. The Kong wobbler and the Bob-A-Lot food dispenser are ideal to make your dog use those natural instincts to scavenge food. An added bonus is your dog won’t be bolting down his food. A variation of food dispensers will further make his brain have to work. A tip, put him out in the yard if the noise from the toy rolling around is too much. 

Finding treats and food in the snuffle mat can be a challenge

A ‘snuffle mat’ is also a challenging way for your dog to feed and makes him work to find the food within the creases of the mat.

#2. Interactive Puzzles & Enrichment Toys

Puzzle toys develop your dog’s problem solving skills

Break the boredom and get him thinking with an Interactive puzzle and enrichment toy. These types of toys are great to get your dog really hooked on solving a problem.

Many of the toys available have different levels. Start him off with a level one toy so he can learn the ropes. 

Here are some good examples for you.

Stimulating level one toys for beginners include ‘Snoop Interactive Treat Toy’, Kong Gyro, and the Hol-ee Roller toy. 

Your dog can play alone with The Hol-ee Roller

The level two puzzles, like ‘hide and slide’ offer two challenges for your eager pouch. Take some treats and hide them in the puzzle. There are about 6 compartments for treats. He’ll need to sniff and figure out how to get to the treat. For example, he’ll need to work out to slide a block to uncover the treat or swivel a flipper to find it. Demonstrate what you want him to do and he’ll soon catch on.

He’ll find different ways to get his treats with this puzzle

In level two, there are puzzles like the Tornado. It spins of course! It has three levels that spin on an axis.Your dog can spin each level to uncover compartments that contain the reward. You could put the tornado in your freezer and freeze the treats to make it more challenging.

The ‘Dog Brick’ is another challenge. It’s a robust puzzle. He’ll have to flip a lid to find his treat, lift a block to find one and finally slide a lid to reveal the final treat.

Examples of more advanced puzzles are in level three and four. Ideally, It’s best to get used to level two first. 

The Challenge Slider is a level three puzzle. It has many compartments. You slide out a tray which is positioned at the base of the toy. Drop in the treats into selected compartments and slide back in place. Your dog will sniff out the treat and slide back the compartment lids to find his reward.

Moving to level four, there is the ‘Multi Puzzle’ Yes, it has multiple challenges. 

Enrichment toys offer challengers like locks on compartments!

Around the outside perimeter are compartments where your pouch will slide the covers to get his treat. But they’ve added ‘locks’ to this puzzle in the center section. So, the dog will need to move these locks to reveal more treats.

 This isn’t easy, but that’s the point isn’t it? Again show them how to do it.

#3. Make your own puzzle toy

Puzzle toys can be expensive, so why not make your own simple puzzle? 

You can make your own snuffle mat with a towel. Crinkle up the towel and hide treats in the folds.

You can use cardboard boxes, egg cartons, baking tins, paper plates to construct puzzle enrichment toys.

Try using an egg carton or baking tray for this puzzle.

Simply put some treats inside and put a ball of the correct size to cover the hole. Let your dog figure out a way to shift the ball to uncover the treat.

A cardboard box and crinkled paper make a cheap toy

Another option is to use a cardboard box and some paper to construct a puzzle activity.

Put some treats in some scrunched up paper and put inside the box.

Close the cardboard box up and watch as your pouch works out how to open the box by himself and scavenge and dig to find the treats in the paper.

Another variation is folding up a paper plate after putting a treat inside.

Your dog will find his own way to ‘unfold’ the plate to eat the treat!

How to Mentally Stimulate Your Dog with Games that You’ll be Involved in!

#4. Choose the Hand Game & Cups/Shell Game

‘Choose the hand’ is a simple game where you show both your empty hands palms up to your dog. Then, show the treat to your dog. 

Put the treat in your closed palms and move the treat back and forth, then present both hands in closed fists to your dog. He chooses the hand. 

After this, develop his mental capacity some more. Put your hands behind your back and move the treat from one hand to the other. Then present both closed fists to your dog.

 Of course the scent of the treat is in both of your hands. It’s a good game to get your dog interested and to then move onto more mentally demanding tasks.

Your dog will be using different senses with ‘Play Cups’

‘Play cups’ is more advanced. Use three containers or cups. Show your dog which cup you put the treat under. 

Switch the cup positions around numerous times and watch him pay attention. Let him choose the cup and reward him with the treat.

He’ll enjoy the game and he’ll be using two senses, smell & sight to solve the problem.

#5. Free Shaping Games

Teaching a dog to kick a ball is a free shaping game

These are games that really stimulate your dog to think and to make his own decisions. 

You don’t really use prompts or demonstrations here. 

Frees shaping is not a trainer led method and is unlike ‘target’ and ‘luring’ training in this respect. [1]

The first step is to make him curious and arouse his interest. You’ll need to build up to what you want your dog to do.

It’s a good idea to use a ‘clicker’ or a clicking sound to show to your dog he’s doing the right thing and on the right track. Give a treat as reward for each step he makes towards completing the task. 

A clicker is useful to let your dog know he’s doing well

For instance, you might want to teach your dog to kick a football. 

To begin with, click and reward him if he touches/pushes the ball with his nose. 

Then, when that pattern is established, stop clicking/rewarding him for that until he figures out to push/kick the ball with his paw. 

Then when he does this praise him and double treat him. He’ll soon catch on! 

The game forces your dog to think and pay more attention to you. You and your dog can both have fun!

Teach your dog to sit or lie down in a place of your choice

Another free shaping game for you to try is teaching your dog to lie or sit down in a place of your choice. Follow the same positive reinforcement steps with clicking and treats as the dog progresses towards the task you have chosen.

Check out this YouTube video ‘Brain Games for Dogs – Simple Shaping Games’ for more simple shaping ideas using a box and cones. [2]

#6. Hot & Cold Game

Later, you can graduate to the ‘Hot & Cold’ game. 

In this game he’ll use his intelligence to figure out he gets a treat reward for going in the right direction. When he moves towards where you want him to go, use the command ‘hot’ and give a treat. There’s no treat reward (and the command ‘cold’) for choosing the wrong direction.

 For instance, you might want him to go under the kitchen table. Start in another room. Reward him as he progresses in that direction. When he gets to the kitchen reward and shout ‘hot’ when he goes near the table. Continue until he goes under the table and then double reward!!

 It is challenging and some dogs might get frustrated and give up. The more intelligent and patient will continue and get it.

#7. Red Light, Green Light

Adapting the popular children’s game ‘Red Light, Green Light’ is also a good option. 

This kid’s game teaches listening skills, agility and concentration skills. [3]

It can easily be adapted to your canine kid. Just use the command ‘green light’ for go -this can mean just to play with him or doing something to create an exciting mood. 

Then command ‘red light’ for stop. Reward your dog with more and more treats for the speed he responds to the ‘red light’ instruction. With repetition, he’ll respond well.

#8. Hide & Seek

This is best played with a friend or member of the family. Get your partner to command the dog to sit in another room. You go and hide in yet another room. Hide behind or in something, and when you’re ready, call your dog to you. Reward him for finding you. He’ll be excited!

#9. Training

5 to 15 minutes training a day will stimulate your dog’s brain

Learning a command or new trick will make him prick up those ears and start to use that brain. No matter if he’s old you can teach an old dog new tricks (as long as the trick’s not too physically demanding for an old dog!). 

The American Kennel Club recommends that a duration of five to fifteen minutes training a day will really take it out of him mentally and also tire him physically.

Also, you can use the commands your dog learned in games as training commands when your exercising your dog in the park.

 You could use the ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’ commands for direction finding on a walk, or better still the ‘red light’ and ‘green light’ instructions!

#10 Obstacle Course

 It’s an old tried and tested activity, but making an obstacle course in your home or yard aids training and the learning of new commands. It’s also great fun and challenging for your dog. 

Teaching him to go under, around and over obstacles can also be transmitted to the park. In the park, you can reward him for obeying the commands when there are other pressing distractions!

How to Mentally Stimulate Your Dog with Games & Activities without Treats or Rewards

Activities without rewards appeal to a dog’s natural instincts

#11. Fetch

You can play this inside (in a controlled space where nothing gets broken!), or outside in the yard or park. There are different variations you can try to keep it fresh and interesting with a ball, bouncing a ball, and with a Frisbee.

#12. Tug Of War

This will develop his determination and give him a workout but it is less mentally demanding. Done correctly, when you use commands and make your dog give up on the tugging of the rope or rubber toy, it can establish respect for you from your dog. Watch that he doesn’t get too dominant.

#13. Sniff & Roam Free Adventures

Allow your dog to choose the path when you’re out walking. Then, he’ll be exploring and using his sensory perceptions. He’ll gain a feeling of freedom and confidence that he can lead you. I did this with my Basset Hound in the woods where I knew there were deer around. My Basset loved picking up the scent and would follow it (on a long lead!). She was really happy and tired at the end of the walk. 

Socialization Activities

Meeting new people and other dogs makes a dog comfortable with new experiences

#14. Meeting Playmates

Meeting regular doggie playmates in the park can invigorate your dog and really make him look forward to the daily walk. A good idea is to go at the same time of day to encounter the same playmates. Better still arrange a time with the playmate’s owner. A lively playmate session is a sure way to burn off energy and to trigger mental activity.

#15. Meeting New People

Take your dog along when you meet old and new friends for coffee. Getting your dog used to new folk will arouse their curiosity and they’ll develop more social ease. They’ll also see, feel, and smell a different environment and learn to feel calm and comfortable in different places. [4]

Where to go next?

Make sure to provide your dog with the recommended 15 to 20 minutes of mental stimulation a day. This will keep him alert and eager and satisfy those natural instincts. Keep in mind when rewarding him, it is important that you don’t overfeed him treats and to check there are healthy ingredients in the treats.

Make sure to check out our guide on Homemade Dog Treats.


How can I keep my dog entertained while I’m away from home?

A frozen Kong is a good option to keep your pooch occupied while they are on their own in the house. Hiding their breakfast in a snuffle mat is good too. Interactive toys can keep him chewing, licking and exploring happily. Having access to a window with a view can offset feelings of isolation. Better still, hire a dog walker to break up the day.

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