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Boredom-Busting Brain Games for Dogs

Boredom-Busting Brain Games for Dogs

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. Mental stimulation is just as, if not more tiring than physical activity.

Brain games prevent boredom, strengthen your bond, and teach you both to work as a team. There are heaps of fun brain games for dogs that don’t require a lot of space or time.

Just 10-15 minutes of mental stimulation will tire them out more than a 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 doesn’t really provide mental stimulation for dogs. Below are several ideas for fun indoor games to play with your dog.

Treat dispensing toys are an easy way to tire out your dog on long travel days.

How Do You Mentally Stimulate a Dog?

If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably heard the phrase “a tired dog is a happy dog,” alluding to the idea that a well-exercised dog won’t cause destruction. This is true in some ways, dogs DO require daily physical activity, however running your dog 10 miles every day turns your dog into an Energizer bunny.

Think about thinking activities that make you really tired.

Driving in really bad weather.

Trying to speak a new language.

Learning any new skill.

The reason these things are exhausting is because they require your full, undivided attention.

The same goes for dogs when they are using their brains to figure out a puzzle, learn a new skill, or concentrate on obedience.

There are countless ways to mentally tire your dog by getting them to use problem solving skills.

You can do activities that cater to their specific breed, like hunting games, herding, or scentwork, or you can use puzzle toys and objects you have at home to create easy and fun activities for your pup.

I like to add at least one daily session. If the weather is bad, break them up into three 15-20 minute sessions throughout the day.

Puzzle Toys for Dogs

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 to tire out a dog:

Ruffwear Gnawt-a-Rock

Ruffwear Gnawt a Rock

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 Toppl

West Paw Toppl Toy

I discovered WestPaw not too long ago and once I did, immediately purchased a few different toys. My favorite toy is the Toppl.

  • It’s easy to clean
  • It’s wide, so I can layer different foods easily
  • It’s super durable for rough chewers

I love using my friend Tori’s method of layering to add an extra layer mental challenge for your dog.

I also love the West Paw Zogoflex Qwizl, another treat dispensing toy that also floats, so doubles as a fetch toy for water dogs.

Nina Ottosson Dog Puzzle Toys

Nina Ottoson Dog Brick Treat Puzzle

I love these Nina Ottosson toys. They are super creative and unlike any other treat dispensing toy I’ve seen on the market.

I have the Dog Brick Treat Puzzle and 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 step.

Pet Safe Busy Buddy Waggle Toy

Pet Safe Waggle Toy

For smart cookies the Waggle will stump them. 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.

Hiding treats is a great game to play with your dog to tire them out on long travel days.

Mental Stimulation Games for Dogs Using their Dog Food

Allowing dogs to work for their meals is a great way to tire out a dog and avoid overeating using treats in addition to meals.

There are a number of ways to play mental stimulation games using their food.

Play “Find It”

This is one of my favorite dog stimulation games. It gets their brain working, makes them earn their food, and also stimulates their olfactory senses.

I think we tend to forget that dogs have such a powerful sense of smell and 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 “find it!” Encourage them to keep going by offering lots of praise each time they find a treat.

Progressively hide the kibble in more difficult locations. A few good examples include:

  • Grass is great because it acts like a snuffle mat
  • On top of benches or tables they have to climb to find
  • Under leaves and branches, and inside containers.
  • Inside cardboard boxes
  • Under rugs

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 with your dog when you’re stuck inside due to bad weather.

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!

Obedience Training

I am a huge advocate of using every opportunity to train your dog. On walks, hikes, meals, you name it, we’re training.

A few ideas for obedience training include:

  • If you have a reactive dog, work with them at a park where there are other dogs nearby
  • Take them to a busy spot like Home Depot to practice distraction training
  • Use Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol to teach them to settle in a designated spot
  • Set a timer for 20 minutes and practice loose leash walking
  • Go to a fenced area and work on recall
We practice impulse control using Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol to help stimulate our dogs mentally.

Relaxation Protocol

I mentioned Karen Overalls’ Relaxation Protocol right above. 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.

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 practicing in more distracting locations.

Teaching your dog to chill the F out will allow you to do things like:

  • Open the door without your dog freaking out
  • Enjoying a beer with friends at a brewery
  • Sitting in the park, reading a book on a sunny day
  • Good behavior in car rides
  • Moving to the side on hikes for good trail etiquette.

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 an old 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.

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.

The Big Book of Dog Tricks. I checked this book out from my library and had so much fun that I bought it to have on hand always. It’s filled with a lot of fun show tricks.

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.

DIY Brain Games for Dogs

There are countless dog mental stimulation ideas using products you probably have lying around in your home. Here are a few I’ve scoured from friends from around the Net.

  • My friend Tori at Wear, Wag, Repeat has you covered again with busy boxes.
  • A favorite easy peasy idea is a “snuffle towel” like this one from Maggie Loves Orbit.
  • @thehikerpup posts a ton of great ideas on Instagram, including a simple game using a muffin tin and 12 dog toys.
  • Use an egg carton and fill it with treats. Tape the box shut using a few strips of masking tape and let your dog have at it!
  • Take several boxes that can stack inside one another. Toss several pieces of kibble at the bottom of each one and loosely close the top.
  • The “shell game.” Hide treats under one of three cups (can use yogurt cups, Solo cups, etc) and ask your pup to “touch” the cup where the treat is hidden. Rotate the cups around like a magician so they don’t know where the treat is hidden by sight.
What are your favorite dog brain games?
Do you provide mental stimulation for your dog?


boredom busting brain games for dogs Pinterest Image


Friday 6th of January 2023

I love all of the options! If we are having bad weather I use find the treats, my dogs seem to really enjoy it and I just use their kibble. I'm going to try the relaxation protocol. You have so many options in this article, it's great. Thank you Jen!

Jen Sotolongo

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

So glad you found the article helpful, Grace!


Tuesday 24th of May 2022

Loved the brain games for dogs. What breed is the dog in the pictures? We adopted a shelter dog Februrary 2022 and he looks just like this dog. The shelter listed him as a shepherd mix. We think he might have some husky, but he is smaller than either breed.

Jen Sotolongo

Thursday 26th of May 2022

I'm not exactly sure, but I think she was a podenco mix, which is a Spanish hunting breed.

Tammi Kaeberlein

Monday 30th of March 2020

Awesome ideas, thank you! We've not played hide and seek for too long and I love that there are so many new options for us as well. We REALLY need to work on the relaxation technique. Plenty of time now, so no excuses. Thanks!

Jen Sotolongo

Wednesday 1st of April 2020

The relaxation technique is such a life-changing activity. It makes such a different in my relationship with my dogs.


Thursday 19th of March 2020

There are so many great ideas here! I need to work on the relaxation protocol with Burt. If someone so much as makes eye contact he thinks they want him to be as close to him as possible lol And thank you for including a few Wear Wag Repeat links!

Jen Sotolongo

Thursday 19th of March 2020

Relaxation protocol is so good for dogs like Burt! He'll eventually start to look to you (literally!) and it will tire him out to no end. Concentration is HARD! And you're very welcome! Thanks for creating fun posts.