30 Ways to Make Your Dog Smarter
We've all heard the adage, “a tired dog is a good dog.” But what people don’t always realize is that this isn't just about physical exercise. While all dogs need physical exercise, they also need mental exercise. A dog who has to use their brain as well as their physical strength will be tired, happy, well behaved — and smart.
That’s why we recommend trying out one of these 30 activities to exercise your dog’s brain and enhance those smarts. Just remember: Using positive reinforcement during your sessions will make training fun and easy while strengthening your bond!
Play Hide ‘N’ Seek
For many dogs, this game is pretty easy to learn, as they naturally want to find you when you disappear. You can play this in a variety of ways depending on your dog’s level.
You can put your dog in a stay, go hide and then release them with a cue. Or, you can put some treats on the floor to distract your dog while you go hide.
If your dog is new to the game, you may want to start by calling their name once, so they know the vague area you are in.
Expert dogs should need no noise from you to find you.
Provide Puzzle Food Toys
Stop feeding your dog out of a regular bowl, and instead, get a puzzle feeder or toy. These not only slow your dog down while eating, which can help prevent bloating and vomiting, but they make your dog use their brain.
That means they actually get exercise while eating!
There are many types of puzzle toys. It’s best to have a variety and swap them out every so often so your dog doesn’t get bored.
Play the Shell Game
Dogs have amazing noses, and they love to use them! The shell game is where you put a treat under something (traditionally a walnut shell, but you can use anything you like). And, then, the dog will have to figure out how to tip over the item to get at the treat!
You can take the game to the next level by having multiple “shells” but only one with a treat. Your dog has to figure out which one has the goodies by tipping them all over.
Puppies especially love this game. And you can combine confidence building into this by using something that makes noise, like tin cans, with the game.
That way puppies learn loud noises mean treats!
Provide Soft Puzzle Toys
In between meal times, give your dog something to do with soft puzzle toys.
These are usually cloth-made items. For example, you could have a barn that is filled with smaller stuffed animals your dog can pull out.
These are great toys for dogs that like to dig or rip things apart. It just might save your furniture and yard!
Teach Toy Names
You may have heard of Chaser, the Border Collie that knew the names of more than 1,000 toys … well your dog is capable of learning toy names, too! It’s a great way to use your dog’s brain while playing together.
Simply start calling each toy by a name when your dog picks it up or you give it to them. Soon, when you say the word, they will grab it.
Go on Sniff Walks
It’s easy to leash up our dogs, take them out to go potty and then immediately come back inside. Or maybe you power walk to the dog park, let them off-leash and then power walk back home.
However, for dogs, taking time to stop and smell the roses is vital! Let them “lead” the walk with their nose.
You can train this on a cue such as, “Go Sniff,” so that your dog knows it’s his turn to lead.
When it’s time to keep walking, a “Let’s Go” cue is useful.
Play the Hot/Cold Game
Remember playing hot/cold in preschool? Someone would pick an object out and you would try to figure out what it was by wandering around the room.
The closer you get to the object, the other player would say things like “hot, hotter, boiling.” If you moved away from it, you would get “cold, colder, freezing.” Well, dogs can play this, too!
Have a toy hidden somewhere (make it easy to start — you may even just want to have it laying in plain sight) and let your dog loose. You can use the same words “cold” and “hot” to let your dog know if they are headed in the right direction.
To help them learn the association, use your tone — calm and flat for cold, excited and upbeat for hot — and, of course, lots of praise when they find the toy!
Agility is a great sport because it doesn’t just use physical energy but a lot of cognitive energy as well.
Your dog has to learn many behavior chains, learn to watch you for subtle body language cues and to perform with distractions.
You can join a local agility club and take lessons. No yard? No problem!
You can use things like pillows, brooms on books for jumps, blankets over chairs to make a tunnel and so on.
Encourage Eye Contact
Eye contact in the dog world is not polite. You will notice that dogs that get along with other dogs rarely — if ever — make eye contact with them. Teaching your dog to give you eye contact definitely uses brainpower.
It will also help your dog to focus on you in distracting or stressful situations.
Start in a low-distraction environment, and use a treat to lure their gaze to your face. When your eyes meet, reward by putting a treat on the ground so they look away.
Your dog will soon start looking at you immediately after they eat the treat. That’s when you can put it on a verbal cue if you wish.
Teach Ring Stacking
Dogs have the mental ability of toddlers. So, many games and puzzles that toddlers play, your dog can do, too!
One of these is ring stacking. This one definitely uses a lot of brainpower, as your dog has to figure out how to pick up the toy and then place it on the stand.
This is an advanced trick that will be easiest if your dog has already been taught to pick up a toy and place it somewhere.
Check out this video of Niner, a dog learning to stack rings.
Play Red Light/Green Light
Have a dog with too much energy and not enough control? The old schoolyard game of red light/green light is fantastic at not only expending physical energy but also mental energy as your dog learns self-control.
This game is easier if your dog already understands how to stay; however, it could be taught to a dog that doesn’t have one. It just might take longer.
Start with your dog in a “stay” (standing, sitting or lying still). Say “Green” (or “go”) in a fun tone and invite your dog to come play with you. After a bit, stop moving and say “red” or “stop.” As soon as your dog stops moving, praise them and wait just a second or two before saying “green” and moving again yourself.
Soon, your dog will start responding to the words! For tips on how to teach this, watch Robin MacFarlane’s video on YouTube.
Plan a Treasure Hunt
This is another fun game that uses your dog’s nose.
You can hide toys and/or treats around your house, in the yard or even bury them in a sandbox for your dog to find.
Any version of this game uses brainpower!
Teach Picking Up Toys
Advanced tricks, like picking up toys, use a lot of brainpower, as your dog has to remember a behavior chain, and in this case, repeat that behavior chain several times.
Start by rewarding your dog for picking up a toy near their toy basket (both the basket, and the toy should be close to your dog to start). Then, you are going to shape the behavior by rewarding him for any movement toward that basket while the toy is in his mouth.
Eventually, your dog will have his head over the basket, and when you go to reward them, they’ll naturally drop the toy because that’s when they get a jackpot of treats.
Repeat this until they pick up and drop the toy into the basket in one fluid behavior. Then, you can start adding in a second toy, and then add distance from the basket. Finally, add the cue, like “clean house” or “pick up.”
Respond to Hand Signals
If you have only taught your dog to use voice commands, teaching them to also respond to hand signals can engage the brain.
It’s also handy if they end up going deaf as they get older.
To add in a signal, do the new hand signal just before the old voice one. Soon, your dog will start responding to the new hand signal before you say the verbal cue.
Use both of them randomly to keep your dog sharp to both signals.
Put a Treat or Toy on a Rope
This is a simple thing to do if you need to occupy your dog for a bit. Put a treat or a toy on a rope (some say string, but you don’t want your dog to ingest string).
And then put the treat or toy out of your dog’s reach under something like a couch, chair or dresser.
Your dog will have to use problem-solving to learn to pull the rope to get the prize.
Teach ‘Wait Your Turn’
If you have more than one dog, teaching “wait your turn” helps with impulse control as your dog learns when it’s not “their turn.”
This is easier if your dog already has a mat-stay, but can be taught without a stay. It’s also helpful if your dog’s name has not been “poisoned” (used so much it doesn’t have much meaning).
If their names have not been poisoned, put your dogs on their mats in stays. One at a time, use their name and then a cue. If just the dog whose name you said performs the behavior, jackpot to that dog as well as those that stayed put! If one of the other dogs does, no treat for that dog, and just settle them back on their mat.
Start with easy, stationary cues first, like wave, and then move to more advanced like a recall or even fetch!
Go to New Places
Exploring new places definitely uses your dog’s brain and can make them smarter! They will use all their senses to experience new sights and smells.
This is especially important for puppies as they are being socialized.
Just remember to make sure new places are positive experiences.
Make a Ball Pit
Running out of ways to keep your smart, athletic dog occupied? Consider a ball pit! All you need is a simple box, deep enough to hold balls but short enough that your dog can stand up in and get out of the side.
Then, fill it with balls — all kinds of balls!
The trick? Hide something in there your dog has to find.
Can they ignore all those balls and find the prize?
Teach Scent Discrimination
For those dogs that have mastered nose games, it’s time to take it to the next level: scent discrimination. Instead of just one treat hiding, maybe you hide a treat and something else, like an old shoe.
Can your dog find the treat instead of the shoe?
You can actually name scents as well, so you can direct your dog to find the banana, chicken or even your child!
Help Them Learn Shapes
Your dog has the ability to not only learn the names of toys but also the ability to distinguish their shapes, too.
Use wooden blocks or stuffed toys shaped like cubes, stars and spheres.
This is another fun way to exercise your dog’s cognitive function and can be a gateway to harder tricks.
Maybe your dog learns to put a certain shape in a hole, for example.
Use Their Instincts
A lot of these games and activities involve nose work, but your dog has other instincts.
If you have a herding dog, teaching them “herd” will definitely improve their cognition, and you will find you have a more content dog as they have an outlet for their drive.
Have a terrier? Check out Earthdog events.
Teach Advanced Tricks
Tricks are cute and fun, but they also use brainpower.
The only thing that limits your dog’s tricks is your imagination.
From classics like playing dead and speak to innovative dance moves, if you can think of a way to teach it, your dog can learn it.
Compete in Nose Work
If all the nose games on this list makes your dog a happy one, considering trying out K9 Nose Work!
This fun sport combines a lot of the things on this list, including hide ‘n’ seek and scent discrimination.
Want to give back? Maybe search and rescue is a great volunteering position for you and your dog.
Your dog will get to use their natural instincts and brain, and you just may save someone’s life.
Dr. Claudia Fugazza created an incredible training method called, “Do As I Do,” in which your dog learns to copy you (or another dog).
This is definitely taking training to the next level and will challenge even the smartest of dogs.
To get started, check out Dr. Fugazza’s website or Facebook page.
Give Them Chores
Tired of tricks that seem pointless? Why not teach your dog tricks that help around the house?
From putting away laundry (similar to the putting their toys away trick!) to shopping, you might be surprised what your dog can learn. Maybe you want to teach them to turn the lights on and off for you or even to open doors.
Need some inspiration, check out Jesse the Jack Russell on YouTube. He even gets you out of bed in the morning and turns off the alarm!
Try Crate Games
Crate Games was created by Susan Garrett. It not only uses your dog’s brain as they learn stimulus control, but it’s also incredibly useful for creating a dog that loves their crate!
There are several levels to the games as your dog learns to go to his crate, settle and relax in it, and then come out and be ready to work on cue.
Check out this Crate Games online class to get started!
Play ‘Find the Toy’
Did you teach your dog their toys by name?
If so, then you can up the classic game of hide ‘n’ seek by hiding multiple toys and asking your dog to find a specific one.
Note: They will definitely be physical and mentally exhausted after this game!
Teach Left and Right
Another fun behavior to teach your dog is their left and right.
This uses a lot of brainpower because, just like us, dogs tend to have a side they prefer.
Having a word that detonates a direction or a side — for example spin left and spin right or left paw/right paw (for shake) — makes your dog use both sides of their brain.
Try Free Shaping
Ran out of ideas on what to work on next? Try free shaping!
The ultimate technique that lets your dog use their brain to make decisions, free shaping is where you wait for your dog to move and then reward for that behavior, slowly shaping it into a trick.
Professional dog trainer Karen Pryor has a great list of “101 Things to Do With a Box” to help you get started with free shaping.
Work on Impulse Control
A few of the games on here work on impulse control: teaching your dog to stop or not do something they may want to.
Impulse control takes a lot of brainpower and is very important to teach. It can stop a dog from biting, from running into the street or jumping on the counter.
Basic ways to start teaching impulse control are behaviors like “leave it” (don’t go after whatever it is they want), sit/down/stand-stay, mat-stay and wait (usually used as a temporary stay that doesn’t have a specific body position).
Other more advanced impulse control behaviors and games are mentioned in this list!