Long days on the road mean that you may not always have the opportunity to make sure that your dog gets the physical exercise they need. For dogs with a lot of energy like Laila and Riia, mental stimulation is just as, if not more important, as physical exercise.
Brain games prevent boredom, strengthen your bond, and teach you both to work as a team. There are heaps of fun games to play with your dog that don’t require a lot of space or time. Just 10-15 minutes of mental stimulation will tire them our more than a basic 30-minute walk.
The key is choosing activities that get them thinking. A simple game of fetch with the tennis ball or tug-of-war is fun, but not mentally stimulating. Below are several ideas to tame their energy on long travel days.
Use Food Dispensing Dog Toys
These are pretty much like the pacifiers for dog parents. Kid acting up? Just fill a treat dispensing toy and let them have at it. There are varying levels of difficulty, so if your dog has never used one before, start with an easy one and gradually increase the difficulty as they master the current toy. We always make sure to include a treat dispensing toy as part of our dog travel gear.
Here are a few of our favorite toys:
This multi-edged toy made from recycled materials is a great starter game. The many edges make it roll in an erratic manner, which is fun for dogs and makes them have to think a bit more to earn their food.
WestPaw Zogoflex Tizzi
I discovered WestPaw not too long ago and once I did, immediately purchased a few different toys. Our favorite travel “baby-sitter” is the Tizzi toy. Laila loves it and gets super excited when she see us take it out. We fill it with peanut butter, twist the legs, and hand it over.
Admittedly, it looks a bit like a sex toy when a dog is licking it, but hey, it keeps the dogs entertained and we get a huge laugh out of it. Every. Single. Time. We have the small version, but recommend the large size for longer term entertainment.
We’ve also been meaning to get the West Paw Zogoflex Qwizl, another treat dispensing toy that also floats, so doubles as a fetch toy for water dogs.
Nina Ottosson Puzzle Toys
I love these Nina Ottosson toys. They are super creative and unlike any other treat dispensing toy I’ve seen on the market. We have the Dog Brick Treat Puzzle and it took Laila a few tries to figure out how to remove the treats. The best part is that there are different ways to make the toys more challenging with secret hiding spots you can incorporate once your dog aces the first challenges.
Pet Safe Busy Buddy Waggle Toy
For smart cookies like Laila, the Waggle will stump them. Even Laila can’t figure this one out and she is very good solving puzzles. It keeps her entertained for hours.
Shaped like a dumbbell with holes on either end to insert treats or kibble, the food is contained with prongs, which can be trimmed to make the it easier for your dog.
Hide Their Meals
This is one of my favorite games to play with the dogs. It gets their brain working, makes them work for their food, and also stimulates their olfactory senses (that would be their noses). I think we tend to forget that dogs have such a powerful sense of smell. Dogs see the world through their noses. Think of it like like them checking their Instagram feed.
Start out easy. Maybe you just toss a handful of kibble into the air and let them watch it fall. On your command, tell them find the treats. I use “where’s your dinner?” Encourage them to keep going by offering lots of praise each time they find a treat.
Progressively hide the kibble in more difficult locations. Grass is great because it acts like a snuffle mat. I also hide it on top of benches or tables they have to climb to find, under leaves and branches, and inside containers. If you have a dog who tends to wolf down their food, this is a great way to get them to slow down. It also makes a great indoor game to play when you’re stuck inside due to bad weather.
Play Hide and Seek
This is my absolute favorite game to play with Laila. She is a hunting dog, so we play a lot of games to stimulate that drive under our control. All it takes are two people and your pup. While Dave and Laila are distracted, I go and hide. After several minutes, Dave asks her to come find me and then we throw a big party when she does.
It is so much fun to watch her use her scent to locate us. We play so that the person handling Laila has no idea where the person hiding is, so there’s no opportunity to cheat and help her out!
We huge advocates of using every opportunity to train your dog. We are always training with ours. On walks, hikes, meals, you name it, we’re training. When we take a short break to eat a meal or Dave wants to take a nap, I take each dog individually and work with them for 10 or so minutes on some behavior that needs modification.
If you have a reactive dog, work with them at a park where there are other dogs nearby. With Laila these days, we practice recall on a long lead or loose leash walking in parking lots.
Lately, I’ve also been working with both dogs using Karen Overalls’ Relaxation Protocol. I cannot recommend this program enough. Basically, the idea is that you work with your dog daily, for about 10-15 min at a time teaching them impulse control.
So, the first day has your dog sitting or lying down in a spot while you count to five. Then you give them a treat. Then you count to 10 and treat. Next, you take three steps back and treat. And so on. The protocol is a 15-day program that increases duration and excitement while teaching your dog to stay in place until you release them. We’re well past the 15 days, but I have continued by just increasing duration and walking or running farther away.
Teach Them a New Trick
Not only does teaching your dog a new trick tire them out mentally, it also is a wonderful way to bond with your dog. I started teaching Sora new tricks during our cycle tour on long days when she wasn’t able to get the physical exercise she required. That adage that you can’t teach a dog new tricks is baloney!
From age 11 until her finals days, I taught Sora several new tricks, including “meerkat,” jump through a hoop, weave through my legs, and more. She knew what we were up to when I got out her treat pouch and became eager to work with me on new skills.
If you’re fresh out of ideas for tricks to teach your dog, here are a few resources.
101 Dog Tricks. This book is in serious need of an update, but it has a ton of fun tricks to teach your dog.
Kikopup YouTube Channel. I love learning from the Kikopup. She proves that any dog can learn difficult tricks and has step-by-step videos to teach your dog a lot of fun tricks like turning the lights on and off, crossing their paws, and playing peek-a-boo with you.
What are your favorite brain games to play with your dog?
How do you tire out your dog on long days of travel?
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