Fun and Frugal Mental Games for Your Dog

Dog owners know the importance of regular physical activity for their dogs. Walks, a run at the dog park, a game of fetch, various dog sports, and many other activities are enjoyed by dogs and their owners and are important for dogs’ health and well-being.

But what about that doggy gray matter? Engaging a dog’s brain is as important and necessary as physical exercise. Having our dogs use their brains as well as their bodies will ensure that we have healthy, well-rounded companions.

Most dogs love a puzzle. Giving your dog a brainteaser to creatively solve is a great way to bond with him and to learn more about how his brain works. Puzzle-solving also comes with behavioral benefits by channeling some energy into a fun activity. Pet supply stores carry many wonderful puzzle toys, but they can be quite pricy. With a little creativity, you can turn everyday items into fun puzzles for your dog to solve. Use these games any time you want a fun change of pace for your dog. They are also good to have at the ready during inclement weather, or if your dog’s physical activity is restricted for a medical reason. You know your pet best—use puzzle ideas that are the best fit for your dog. As with any new activity, check with your vet if you doubt the appropriateness of any of these games for your particular dog, and be sure to supervise your dog to ensure his safety. Have fun!


Bobbing for treats

Do this outside, or spread a big towel on the floor first. Make sure Buddy is watching you, and then place a bowl or tub of water on the floor and plop in several treats that won’t break up in water, such as small pieces of hot dog or cheese. Will Buddy go for it? Some dogs will plunge right in, and some seem not to like their noses getting wet. If your dog is the “No water on my nose, thank you,” type, you can start with just a small amount of water and gradually deepen it. You’ll also find that some treats float and some treats sink, which creates variation in this game for your dog.


Hmm, how do I get that treat?

Perhaps you’ve seen the toys that are filled with kibble, then the kibble falls out randomly when the dog knocks the toy around. Make a no-cost version using a milk jug, soda bottle, or any container with a narrow opening. Careful though: Many dogs are content just to knock the container around, but if your dog starts to chew on the container, take it away to avoid sharp edges. Trade it for a treat or a toy to keep things fun.


Pick one

Another fun challenge for your dog is diving for treats that have been hidden under furniture or a pillow, or under upturned paper cups or bowls. Let your dog watch you move the cups around in a canine version of the Shell Game.


Muffin tin game

Put a treat in each well of a muffin tin and cover each well with a tennis ball. Small toys would work as covers, too. Let Fluffy figure out how to get those treats she smells in there.



Many dogs love to rip things apart. Take a rag, place a smelly treat in the center and tie it up. This can be placed in yet another rag and tied up. Present this to your dog and watch her go. Use however many layers are needed to make the challenge an appropriate level for your dog. There are endless variations: old socks, paper bags, empty paper towel rolls, cereal boxes—anything you can place a treat inside of and close up is a candidate for this game. I’ve never known this game to cause a dog to start unauthorized grabbing or ripping of laundry or other items, but if you’re concerned about that, try one of the variations that uses something different, such as a paper bag. Do not let your dog play this game if she is the type to ingest what she rips apart.


Crazy for balls

If your dog is ball-crazy, let her see you put several balls in a tall bucket or box. Vary the position of the bucket: upright, upside-down, on its side—each position presents a new challenge as your dog solves the puzzle of how to get those balls. A five-gallon paint bucket once kept my smallish ball-loving Aussie challenged for a long time. Use caution with this one if you think your dog might be alarmed by the bucket falling over. Create a variation of this game by using toys instead of balls.


Hide and seek

An old standby. Put your dog in a stay or have a helper restrain him from following you. Choose a hiding place and call your dog. Make a big happy fuss when he finds you and even give him a treat. Bonus: Your dog’s recall may improve in other situations.


Suggestions of items and places in which to hide treats or toys

Paper bags of various sizes

Paper towel or toilet paper rolls with the ends folded

Margarine containers with a hole cut in the lid to let out the lovely smell (be careful of sharp edges)

Milk jugs, caps removed

Soda bottles, large or small, caps removed

Milk cartons of various sizes

Juice containers


Paper cups



Tennis ball with a slit in the side

Cereal boxes, macaroni dinner boxes, shipping boxes, any box


Muffin tins

Under the sofa

In a crate with the door mostly shut

Behind a gate or fence

Under the bed behind the bed skirt

In a closet with the door partly shut

In the bathtub

In a block of ice

Under a pile of children’s blocks

Under the dining room table behind a jumble of chair legs

Under a pile of newspaper

Click any image to enlarge.

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