10 Brain Games to Play With Your Dog

brown dog wearing sunglasses stretched out in front of a chess board
Your dog might not like chess, but there are other brain games to keep it busy.

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Everyone loves playing a good game of fetch with their dog. It's perfect for getting exercise and having fun. But the downside to the game is that there is no thinking involved — just a lot of running back and forth. So many games with dogs, from fetch to tug-of-war, don't require them to do a whole lot of thinking.

On the other hand, interactive brain games not only tire out your energetic dog, but they also defeat boredom, increase your dog's confidence, and strengthen the bond between the two of you as you work together as a team. So many great activities that you can do with your dog are simply dog-versions of favorite kids' games, all of which exercise and train the brain as much as the body. 

Here are 10 brain games for dogs to get you started.

Treasure Hunt

dog finds ball
You can teach your dog to find a favorite toy or treat.

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Getting your dog to use its nose to find hidden treasure is a great way to stimulate its brain and teach your dog to use all of its senses. Starting out, you'll want to set your dog up for success so it understands the game and doesn't get too discouraged. Begin with something simple. Put your dog in a sit-stay and hide a treat or favorite toy somewhere obvious, even letting your dog watch you hide it. Then give your dog the release cue to go find the toy. Reward your dog big-time for its success in finding the hidden treasure.

Once your dog understands the game, ramp up the difficulty. Hide the treat or toy in another room, or some place where other scents mask the treat or toy, like the bottom of the laundry bin or under the food dish. You can also make the game really hard by using cardboard boxes. Set up 10 to 20 cardboard boxes of different sizes and, without your dog seeing, place the reward in only one box. Let your dog investigate all of the boxes and provide the reward or a jackpot treat when it selects the correct box. There are so many variations on this game that it will have the two of you playing different versions for years to come.

Hide-and-Go-Seek

dog and boy hiding under the bed
Let your dog find you when you hide.

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Boost the excitement and reward level of the popular treasure hunt game by making yourself the treasure your dog is tasked to find. You'll need at least two people to play. One person distracts the dog and gives it the sit-stay cue while the other person hides. The person who is not hiding then gives the release cue for the dog to start looking. This game works wonderfully both indoors and outdoors, and is a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon playing with your dog.

Ring Stackers

Just as toys can teach toddlers eye-hand coordination, they can teach dogs eye-paw (or eye-mouth) coordination. Walking down the aisles of any toy store will set your imagination alight with things you can teach your dog. A tough game that takes awhile to learn, ring stackers will keep you and your dog hard at work together for hours. Patience is the key to success for this activity as it can take days or weeks to perfect the game. It's important to find wooden rings with natural dyes rather than plastic, since your dog will be biting down on the rings quite a bit. Choose rings in a size appropriate for your dog’s size and mouth dexterity. 

Clicker training is ideal for learning to stack rings since your dog is feeling, rather than seeing, what it’s doing. One method to try is to click-and-treat your dog when it picks up a ring, then click-and-treat again as the dog moves closer to the stick. Continue by click-and-treating each time the dog touches the ring to the stick and when it tries to maneuver the ring onto the top of the stick. 

What Is Clicker Training?

Training a dog by using a device that makes a clicking sound to let the dog know you approve of its behavior followed quickly by a reward or treat.

You can change things up by mounting the stick to a wall so the dog has to fit it onto a horizontal stick rather than dropping it onto a vertical stick. You can also put the rings in a different room so your dog is running back and forth to collect and stack all the rings before earning the jackpot reward.

Shell Game

Dogs love this simple but challenging game because, as with all good games, there are treats involved. Take two opaque plastic cups and flip them upside down. With your dog watching, place a treat under one cup. Give your dog the cue to come turn over the cup and get the treat. Do this eight or 10 times, giving your dog time to really understand the game. After the dog has caught on, alternate which cup you place the treat under. When your dog selects the correct cup, let it have the treat. If the dog doesn't select the correct cup (which will happen, even when it sees you placing the treat under the cup), show the dog the treat under the correct cup but don't let the dog have the treat. This will keep the dog focused on watching which cup you place the treat under so it can guess the correct cup. While the game may sound easy, for many dogs this requires some serious thinking. 

If your dog masters this, it's time for even more of a challenge. Place a treat under the left cup, then slide the cups to switch places, so that the cup with the treat is now on your right. Release your dog to find the treat. If your dog selects the correct cup, give it the treat. If your dog doesn't select the correct cup, show it the treat but don't let the dog have it. Keep repeating this and see if your dog can figure out the trick. Some dogs may never quite get how the treat magically switches sides — this is a tough game that requires visual tracking and not all dogs make the connection. But if your dog does, bump up the challenge even more by swapping sides randomly. See if your dog can use its eyes, nose, and thinking skills to find the treat after the old switcheroo. Very few dogs will be successful at this challenging version of the game, so don’t be discouraged if your dog isn’t a whiz at the shell game. 

New Trick

black and white dog in a field doing trick standing on two paws
Say 'new trick' and see what your dog offers.

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An activity that boosts your dog's creativity is the "new trick" game. It's a popular game in clicker training because it teaches a dog to think independently and come up with its own ideas about what behavior earns a reward. The premise is simple: Click and treat for a new behavior offered by your dog and ignore a behavior already offered. A typical game between a dog and its owner goes something like this: Say "new trick" and the dog might sit. Click and treat and then say “new trick” again.  Repeat the sequence. The game continues as long as the dog does a new trick each time. Once the dog repeats a trick, let the dog know it already did that trick and don’t offer a reward. If the dog returns with a new trick, restart the game with another round of click and treat and a request for a “new trick.” Depending on the dog, this game can sometimes last for 30 minutes or longer.

If your dog isn't used to clicker training for shaping behavior, start simple when teaching this game. The slightest new thing can earn a treat. For example, set a box next to your dog. Click and treat your dog for looking at the box, for touching it with a paw, for touching it with its nose, for stepping on it, for walking around it, for just about any vague interaction with the box. But don't reward the same action twice. Your dog touching the box with his nose earns a reward once, but the second time it earns nothing. Once your dog gets the grasp of the game, expand it to other behaviors like sit, down, crawl, spin, sit up, and so on. Pretty soon, your dog will be going through your entire repertoire of tricks and coming up with new ones just to earn that treat for creative thinking.

Hot and Cold

The hot and cold game is also ideal for clicker training your dog since it follows the basics of shaping a new behavior. It's great for smart dogs who don't get frustrated too easily. And all you have to do is sit on the couch and say "hot" or "cold" and toss treats. It’s that easy.

Start by coming up with something you want your dog to do. It can be anything — maybe you notice your keys on the floor and you want your dog to go pick them up and bring them to you. Simply sit back with your bag of treats, and any time the dog makes a move that edges them closer to the keys, say "hot" with enthusiasm and toss a treat to the dog near the keys. If your dog moves away from the chosen goal, quietly say "cold." If the dog moves back toward the chosen goal, excitedly say "hot!" and toss a treat. You can teach your dog to go touch the doorknob on the other side of the room, grab a blanket from the couch, or pretty much any behavior you can think of.

52-Toy Pickup

Cleaning up has never been so much fun. To get your dog to understand the game, start by saying "drop it" to get your dog to drop a toy on command. This is a key component to getting your dog to the next step which is dropping a toy in a particular location. After your dog has mastered the drop-it command, start shaping your dog to drop toys in a basket or box. Click and treat stages of the behavior a little at a time — when your dog heads toward the basket with the toy or drops the toy near the basket. Anything that leads closer to the behavior of dropping the toy in the basket should be rewarded. Eventually, your dog will understand that a command like "put it away" means to grab a toy and take it to the basket, drop it in, and leave it there.

After this part is mastered, build up the number of toys your dog picks up. Start with rewarding your dog each time it puts a toy away. Then, begin to slowly reduce the amount of rewards offered. Reward the dog after it puts away two toys, then after three toys, and so on. Eventually, the reward will only come when every toy is put away, and you'll have a dog running around the room finding every toy as quickly as possible in order to win that wonderful jackpot reward of a handful of treats.

Just remember, it takes time to build these skills, and the journey is all part of the game, so have patience. It may take quite a few clicker sessions before your dog understands the meaning of “put it away.” But watching your dog learn and figure things out is part of the fun. Silence, or just a tiny bit of encouragement when your dog gets frustrated, goes a long way in helping it figure out the trick while also gaining confidence.

The Name Game

After your dog has mastered how to put away toys, provide a new challenge by teaching your dog to put away toys by name. Start by teaching your dog the name of specific toys, and then send it to go get a particular toy. Certain breeds — like border collies — are famous for their vocabulary, but even the most stubborn of dogs can learn the names of at least a couple of toys. It just takes a lot of repetition to hammer home the name. One way to get started is to hold a toy, say its name, let your dog grab it, then reward your dog for grabbing the toy. Let's say it's a rubber tug toy named Tug. Hold Tug in one hand, say "Tug," let your dog grab Tug, and give a reward. Repeat this 20 or 30 times. Then set Tug next to a very different toy of equal value, like a rope toy named Rope. Say "Tug" to your dog and if your dog selects Tug, give a reward. If your dog doesn't select Tug but selects Rope instead, say nothing but place Rope back next to Tug. Say "Tug" again and let your dog choose. Once your dog is consistently selecting Tug, place Tug next to another different toy, and repeat the steps until your dog is always choosing Tug over other toys of equal value.

Once your dog is successful with one toy's name, start the whole process over with a different toy, like Rope. Hold Rope, say "Rope," let your dog grab Rope, and give a reward, repeating this 20 or 30 times. Set Rope next to a different toy (but not the first toy, Tug), say "Rope," and only reward your dog when they select Rope. Say nothing if your dog selects the other toy, but return it next to Rope and try again. Keep repeating until you have the same consistent success that your dog had with Tug.

Once you've established Rope and Tug and your dog knows the names of these two toys, it's time for a test. Place Rope and Tug next to each other, and ask for Tug. Reward only if your dog chooses Tug. Keep trying until your dog is successful a few times, then switch to asking for Rope. When your dog has this down, consistently selecting the toy you ask for, you're ready to take the test farther by adding in a few more unnamed toys. See if your dog can pick out Tug or Rope from the small pile. If you have success with two toys, then keep the process going for more toys. Who knows how many names your dog will learn!

Jumping Rope

Eye and body coordination meet with this game. Your dog has to concentrate on the pace of the rope, on targeting a certain spot on the ground, and of course, on jumping. Think it can't be done? You'll be surprised.

Start by teaching your dog to target an object on the ground. A good object to begin with is a stick because it can demonstrate to the dog not just where to jump but also how much space there is to work with on either side so it can stay within the boundaries of the rope. Once your dog has mastered targeting, teach it to jump on that spot on a cue. After that, add in the rope, cueing your dog each time it needs to jump as the rope comes down. It will take a lot of practice, but it will also burn a ton of extra brain and body energy. Plus, this trick will certainly impress the kids in the neighborhood.

Red Light Green Light

This is an ideal game for dogs who tend to get wound up during play and become overly enthusiastic. The game improves a dog's impulse control and reminds it to pay attention to you no matter how much fun it's having. This will ultimately make excursions to the dog park or other off-leash areas much more safe and enjoyable, but it is a game that can be played any time, anywhere. 

To play, you’ll need to teach your dog the difference between “red light,” or stop, and “green light,” or go. Begin by having your dog sit or stay, say “green light” and encourage your dog to chase a toy, follow a lure, or run around. As you play with your dog, make sure it stays focused on you so it’s ready for your next command. When you say “red light,” immediately tell your dog to sit or lie down. Continue repeating the sequence until your dog ultimately learns the red light and green light commands without assistance. The video below is a great example of how to teach your dog to play the game.