DIY: Two Fun Canine Brain Games

Dog owners are often told, “A tired dog is a good dog.”

While I agree completely that exercise is important for all healthy dogs, mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise. Every dog needs a chance to think and solve puzzles. I know if I have some problems to solve or mental work to do, I’m often as tired afterwards as I am after physical exercise. The same applies to our dogs.

There are a number of commercial brain games for dogs that are designed for interactive play for you and your dog. In some games, your dog needs to lift a piece to find a hidden treat while with others he needs to flip up a piece, pull out a drawer or spin a piece of the toy. These toys are imaginative and its fascinating to watch dogs think and figure out the puzzle. The toys are often rated from easy to advanced.

You can create brain games at home too, and these toys can be just as much fun as the commercial toys.

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The Muffin Tin Game

I’ve been playing the muffin tin game with my dogs for 10 to 12 years, and I’ve been spreading the word about this easy, inexpensive game for just as long. I can’t take credit for it, though, as it’s been around much longer than I’ve been playing it.

You will need a muffin tin, either a six-hole or 12-hole. I use a six-hole for a puppy and a 12-hole for an adult dog. You will then need either six or 12 tennis balls as you’ll need one ball for each muffin tin hole.

If you have a toy or small breed dog, look for a mini-muffin tin and small tennis balls. For medium sized dogs and larger, use regular muffin tins and normal sized tennis balls. Don’t use the small balls with medium or large size dogs as they could be a choking hazard.

To play the game, find some good treats your dog likes. Ideally the treats should have a good smell as he’ll be using his sense of smell to find them. I like to use the Honest Kitchen’s Wishes as these are healthy fish treats with a good smell my dogs like.

Place a treat in each muffin tin hole and then put a tennis ball on top of it. Put the muffin tin on the floor and encourage your dog to investigate it. You might have to move the first tennis ball to let him find that treat. Then cheer him on while he finds the additional treats. He can lift the tennis ball in his mouth and drop it to the side or he can paw the ball off. Either solution is fine.

When I play with multiple dogs, I combine the game with training. One dog gets to play while the other dogs do a down stay. It’s tough at first but they learn. Plus, the game becomes a wonderful reward for holding the down stay.

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The Hol-ee Roller Game

The Hol-ee roller is a rubber ball toy made by the JW Pet Company. This toy is a rubber molded sphere that is hollow with numerous openings. It’s soft and squishable. It’s a fun toy all by itself but it can easily be turned into a food dispensing brain game.

Find a Hol-ee roller of appropriate size for your dog; it comes in many sizes from two inches across to 12 inches across. Cut some fleece into strips, enough to fill the Hol-ee roller. The smallest one may need two to three thin, short strips of fleece while the largest Hol-ee roller may need 12 to 18 longer strips.

Wrap several pieces of good, smelly treats in the fleece and then stuff them all in the toy. Leave one strip hanging partially out of the toy so your dog can figure out what to do. Once the fleece and treats are stuffed in the toy, place one more treat inside the toy without hiding it in the fleece. This is your dog’s motivation.

Give your dog the toy. If he immediately begins searching for the treats, encourage him. However, if he seems to lose interest, show him the piece of fleece hanging out and encourage him to pull it out. Your dog’s goal is to pull out all the strips to find all the hidden treats.

You can make this game harder by packing more fleece strips in the toy or easier by packing it less densely. If your dog gets discouraged easily, pack it loosely to begin. Later, when his skills are better, you can pack more in the toy.

These are Interactive Games

These aren’t games to give your dog and then leave him alone. The muffin tin game could be over in seconds if your dog picks it up and flips it over. And the Hol-ee roller game would be a problem if your dog decided to eat the fleece. Instead, these are for you and your dog to play together. You can set up the games, help him play them or play them by the rules, while you cheer his efforts.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

Honest Kitchen Pineapple Dog Treats
Proper Topper Dog Muffins