4 fun and engaging mental stimulation games to play with your dog

Wellbeing, Lifestyle

We’re all being asked to stay at home and although this may be difficult and frustrating for us it is temporary and there are many things that we can do to make life just a little better…and what better way to pass the time than finding new way to engage with our beloved dogs!

Recent studies have shown that dogs have more extensive cognitive ability than previously thought when their minds are properly engaged.

Whilst there are restrictions and limited opportunities to leave the house for physical exercise there are many indoor and backyard games that you can enjoy together with your dog. The great news is that thinking and exercising the mind is just as tiring for dogs as it is for us - so exercising & engaging your dog’s brain will work in a similar way to a walk or frolic in the park and lead to a more relaxed and contented pooch. We suggest a few fun and entertaining games that you can play with your dog using common household items you probably already have lying around!


1. Object discrimination games – teaching your dog the names of its toys

Object discrimination is something all breeds of dogs are capable of learning and love to do – especially when you can combine it with other fun games. Additionally dogs who have been taught to distinguish between objects will have an easier time learning what they can (and more importantly what they can’t) play with.

Start with things your dog knows and loves – we recommend starting by teaching them the names of their favourite toys. Take two different looking/feeling toys out and give them names you would like – for example “purple ball” and “fluffy squirrel” – and first introduce the name to one of the objects. Say “purple ball” and invite and prompt your dog to interact with that toy. At the start encourage the behaviour you wish to see and praise and/or treat the pup whenever they do the right thing. Once you can do this reliably with one toy (around an 80% success rate is a good indication your dog knows what’s going on) introduce the second object and its name – in this case “fluffy squirrel”. Once they can reliably interact with the second toy and associate its name it’s now time to introduce them both at once. Start by always placing the object you’re saying closer to the dog and use food and/or praise to encourage the correct choices. Once they start getting the hang of it you can bring the two objects closer together.

This can something take a couple of sessions to reinforce but once the dog has learnt to distinguish between the two toys the real fun begins! We all know dogs love hide and seek - well now you can plan scavenger hunts by hiding the toys around the house and saying “purple ball” and “fluffy squirrel” and encouraging them to try and find their toys.

Feel free to introduce as many toys or other objects as you wish – it will get easier and easier as your dog practices and engages more and more.    

2. Games of choice - The Classic Shell Game  

Dogs of all ages and breeds love games of choice because they often involve their two favourite things – humans and food (and not necessarily in that order)!

Using cups and their favourite treats you can recreate the classic shell game by taking three cups and putting a treat under one. Rearrange them and let your dog smell them before letting them choose (paw or nose both work). If they choose the correct cup they get the treat otherwise reset the game and let them try again. Simple fun that I promise they’ll love. If you find their nose is too strong you can move the cups closer together or even put smaller treats under the losing cups!

3. Puzzle Games

Puzzles are another great way to keep your dog mentally stimulated. There are a number of commercial options available online for all different ability levels but with a bit of imagination you can create your own at home.

A great one for beginners is to fill a muffin or cookie tray with tennis balls hiding a treat under one of the balls. Encourage them to look and move the ball to reveal treat. As they get more experience engaging with the puzzles you can use a box, a tennis ball and a ruler and construct a system where they need to use their paw on the ruler to lift the box and find the treat.

You can get as creative and imaginative as you like providing hours of fun and stimulation for the both of you!

4. Obstacle Courses

If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard (or willing to upend your living room for a day) obstacle courses are a great way to combine mental stimulation with light physical activity.

There are a plethora of commercial options available online but sometimes the most fun can be had by creating your own course. The three main aspects of any obstacle course are weaving, jumping and tunnelling and they can be as long or as short as you like. Cardboard boxes, milk crates, towels, cushions, cones, hula hoops and even golf clubs (don’t tell Dad!) can be used to create a fun challenge for you and you dog.

Remember to always start small and simple and to teach and practice one obstacle at a time making sure your dog is comfortable and each area is safe with plenty of room between obstacles. Especially with jumping dogs should always start by stepping through or over something at ankle height. Similarly with tunnelling some dogs are hesitant to begin with so start with very short ones and gradually build up. Wherever possible try to make the obstacles collapsible to minimise risk.

You can change up the obstacles and order when your dog gets comfortable to keep it fresh and even add other games into the mix such as fetching or moving items.


As you can see the opportunities for fun with your dog are only limited by your imagination! Trying these mentally stimulating activities even at a basic level will help build a stronger connection with your dog and hopefully help you both stay healthy, happy and engaged.

About the author

Andrew is a certified canine nutritionist with a passion for helping all dogs live longer, healthier and happier lives through proper nutrition, care and owner education. Currently a doting Dad to Daisy, a loveable Golden Retriever. Over the years he has loved and cared for Australian Terriers, Border Collies and a particularly sweet Maltese Shih-Tzu.