Walking through your neighborhood and playing fetch are great ways to keep your dog in shape. But have you challenged their brain recently? Because that’s important for their overall health and well-being.
Brain games are important for dogs of every age:
- Puppies. Brain games build self-confidence and teach them to play by themselves.
- Adults. They encourage problem-solving and burn off energy.
- Seniors. They keep their mind sharp and help prevent brain decline.
- Dogs recovering from surgery or other medical treatments. These games can be boredom busters when your dog has to rest and take it easy.
Such activities help keep your dog engaged in positive ways. Bored dogs can develop bad habits, particularly if they’re already stressed or have a lot of energy.
But thinking skills can start to drop as your dog ages. More than one-third of dogs over 8 years old start to lose some of their brain function.
Signs of mental decline in dogs include personality changes, accidents in the house, restlessness at night, decreased activity, and memory loss. A dog might forget simple commands or tricks they knew before. They can become cranky or stressed, particularly in new situations. And they might sleep more and become less active.
Medications and supplements might help slow this decline, but research has found that mental stimulation can also help keep their brain alert and healthy.
The Power of Food
Most dogs are motivated by food. Research shows they prefer to get food as a reward, rather than getting it without doing anything. In one study, dogs got excited and wagged their tails when they performed a task and knew food was coming.
But other dogs in that study were given food at random. They showed signs of frustration because they didn’t know when to expect treats.
Try starting brain games at mealtime when your pup is already hungry and interested in food. Use part of your dog’s daily food for games so you don’t end up feeding them too much. You might need to cut back on their feedings if you offer a lot of treats.
Food-based games encourage your dog to use natural foraging instincts as they hunt for hidden food.
Types of Brain Games
Brain games for your dog can be toys, puzzles, or other activities that challenge them and require problem-solving. There are some you can make, some you can buy, and some that require no extra materials. Always supervise your pet when playing so they don’t swallow any small parts or materials.
Scatter and sniff games. These are an easy place to start. Scatter some of your dog’s kibble on the floor or around the house and encourage them to go look for it. Make sure you choose locations that are clean and easy to clean up after. Sprinkle food in boxes to make this foraging game more challenging.
You can also let your dog’s nose work hard by using a snuffle mat. These are usually made of fleece or fabric strips attached to a flat bottom. You can buy snuffle mats or make them by sewing strips of fabric on a sturdy cloth bottom. Some also have pockets or hidden crevices. Sprinkle your pet’s kibble or some treats into the folds and they have to use their nose to hunt for them.
With any game, if your dog seems frustrated and can’t find the food, point out where the treats are to help them.
Puzzle feeders and toys. There are many games and toys you can buy where your dog has to problem solve in order to get access to food. Some require your dog to nudge or push them, so they rock and distribute food. Others are more complicated puzzles where your pup has to learn to lift a lid or slide a lever in order to release treats.
Start off with an easy toy and then gradually work your way up to harder puzzles as your pup masters each one. If the game is too hard and they can’t get the treats easily, they may give up in frustration.
You can make a simple puzzle feeder using an old tennis ball. Use a sharp knife to cut an X or two into the side of the ball. Then stuff it with kibble and give it to your dog to explore. Puzzle feeders are also helpful for dogs who eat too quickly.
Stuffed food toys. These are durable rubber toys you can stuff with food. Start by adding some dry kibble or treats so they’re easy for your pup to find. Once they’ve figured that out, add a filling and freeze it. Try yogurt, peanut butter, or cheese. Maybe add kibble that’s been soaked in water or broth and freeze it. Frozen food toys can keep your dog busy for a long time. Know that they can be messy, so feed them in an area that’s easy to clean.
Destruction game. If you’ve ever seen a puppy attack an empty paper towel holder, you know dogs enjoy destroying things. Make a destruction game by filling a cardboard box with crumpled balls of paper, empty toilet paper rolls, and anything else that’s OK for your dog to shred. Add a few favorite toys and then sprinkle in some treats or dry food. To make it more challenging, close up the box so they have to get inside it. Make sure to supervise and stop the game if your dog decides to eat the paper and cardboard.
Worried About Your Dog’s Brain Health?
Although brain games can help keep your dog’s mind engaged, reach out to your vet if you’re concerned about your pup’s thinking skills. They’ll ask you about possible symptoms and try to find the cause of any behavior changes. They may recommend dietary supplements.
There’s no treatment to cure your dog’s brain decline due to aging, but keeping their mind engaged and challenged can help keep them healthy.
Photo Credit: Fenne / Getty Images
Colorado State University: “If You Have an Older Pet, Be on the Lookout for Signs of Cognitive Decline.”
Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences: “Cognitive Decline in Aging Dogs: What To Know.”
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home: “Brain games for dogs.”
Animal Humane Society: “Brain games for dogs,” “How to make a snuffle mat.”
British Journal of Nutrition: “Cognitive enhancement in old dogs from dietary supplementation with a nutrient blend containing arginine, antioxidants, B vitamins and fish oil.”
Animal Cognition: “Positive affect and learning: exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in dogs.”
Purdue University: “Enrichment in Kennels.”
Gerontology: “Cognitive Aging in Dogs.”