The Best Mental Exercises for Dogs

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Giving our dog’s problem-solving challenges is a great way to productively wear them out and build relevant skills for navigating the world around us. Win-win, right? These activities are commonly called mental stimulation or mental exercise.

Unlike repetitive physical tasks (like chasing a ball or going on a run) your pup can play cognitive games even if they’re entering their senior years or recovering from an injury. In fact, mental exercise is possible in just about any situation: during inclement weather, at your own home or a friend’s house, out in a public park, if you’re ever stuck in a small space, with a young puppy, if you don't have much time for longer walks, and more. The opportunities are endless.

We’ve put together some of our favorite activities to get your dog’s brain going. Read on to test your pup’s intelligence while having a blast together!

The below article focuses on cognitive or mental exercise specifically. You can read more about canine enrichment overall — including physical and social enrichment activities — in our comprehensive guide.

Why is mental exercise important for your dog?

Have you ever heard that a “tired dog is a good dog?” While physical exercise absolutely is important to keep our pets healthy, too much activity without appropriate mental stimulation can actually cause problems. We might create companions whose bodies never feel tired — and who have no idea how to slow down their brains! (Canines tend to develop cardio and muscle strength during physical workouts in less time than us pet parents do, so it’s easy to create a dog who can outlast us on the trails.)

Mental activity can be the perfect solution here. Paired with appropriate physical fulfillment, things like food puzzles, snuffle mats, and thoughtful training sessions can keep your dog entertained without running either of your muscles or joints to the ground. That makes for a balanced life together.

Cognitive enrichment will help prevent problem behaviors like:

  • Destructive chewing
  • Excessive barking
  • Jumping on family members or guests
  • Inability to settle
  • And other issues that are often the result of boredom

While improving your dog’s:

  • Focus
  • Intelligence
  • Resilience
  • Relationship with you
  • Overall wellbeing

Mental exercise activities to try with your dog

There are endless ways to prevent your pup from feeling bored. Here are some of our favorite games and activities! See what looks interesting, and don’t be afraid to change up your routine. Adjust to the dog in front of you.

At-home training sessions

Learning new tricks

Dogs are capable of learning an incredible range of behaviors, verbal cues, and hand signals. Set a few minutes aside each day to practice a new trick! This won’t only prevent boredom — it will also improve your relationship and give you something to feel proud of. (After all, party guests love a dog who can shake or roll over on cue.)

  • Basic obedience exercises like sit, down, loose-leash walking, and short stays
  • Common tricks like shake, wave, high five, roll over, and spin
  • Retrieving objects (bonus if you eventually turn this into your pup picking up their own toys and placing them back in a bin or container)
  • Recognizing toys by name (like "tennis ball" vs "squeaky ball" and so on)

Impulse control exercises

You can exercise your dog’s mental muscles by having them do a range of impulse control activities, like:

  • Leaving some food in your hand in favor of a larger, higher value reward like an even more delicious treat (it’s important to work up to this slowly so your dog doesn’t get frustrated)
  • Waiting to be released before chasing the toy in a game of fetch
  • Dropping the toy during a stimulating game of tug to perform a few obedience cues or tricks before starting the game back up again
  • Holding a sit or down stay while you do progressively more distracting things around them (like jumping up and down, spinning in circles, or even practicing your favorite dance floor moves)
  • Holding a stay while you go hide somewhere in your house (or behind a bush at the local park) then being released to come find you, where you reward them with lots of praise

Remember to go at your pup’s pace and stop the session if they start to seem overwhelmed or frustrated. Impulse control takes a lot of effort, especially when it involves your dog’s favorite things like treats and toys! It’s a good way to work their brain and tire them out, but you shouldn’t overdo it.

Nose work games

Your dog’s sense of smell is more than 10,000 times stronger than your own. Nose work activities are one of the best ways to fulfill their canine instincts and work their brain all in one!

There are a huge variety of sniffing-based games you can play, including:

  • Hiding treats around a room and releasing your dog to find them, like a scavenger hunt
  • Playing the shell game: Get a few different cups, bowls, or boxes. Hide treats under one of them and leave the others empty. Mix them all up while your dog watches, then have them find the food!
  • Simple games like holding treats in your closed palms and asking your dog which hand has the food
A small dog sits on a hard floor surrounded by some toys, like a puzzle feeder, that can be used for both physical and mental exercise

Puzzle toys and food enrichment

Many enrichment toys are specifically designed to feed your dogs’ meals in new and engaging ways! Get their brain going by providing them with mental challenges during meal times like:

  • Stuffed kongs (freezing them increases the difficulty)
  • Other frozen treats
  • Food puzzle toys and feeders like treat-dispensing balls, or lick mats specifically designed to test your dog's skills (cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, muffin tins, blankets, towels, and plastic bottles can be used to create simple homemade puzzles)
  • Snuffle mats (tossing kibble or treats in the grass has a similar effect)

Formal training classes like obedience, rally, or agility

You can also consider enrolling your dog in a dedicated training class. These can be the perfect way to provide your pup with both physical and mental exercise — dog sports like agility and rally are specifically known for building athleticism and intelligence at once.

Don’t have a training facility accessible nearby? Don’t worry! A huge network of professional trainers are happy to give you virtual lessons or even host digital group classes over platforms like Zoom and Google Meets. There really is something for everyone.

Anything else that requires mental focus!

Have you thought of something that isn’t on this list? Go ahead and try it out! There are countless ways to engage our dog’s brains. Consider changing up some of the activities listed in this article — maybe having your dog hunt for hidden toys instead of food, for example — or coming up with your very own interactive games based on your pup’s preferences.

When in doubt, call in a local in-person trainer or connect with a professional via virtual lessons to give you more ideas.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Beth Berkobien, MS - Animal Behavior, Cert. SAPT
Behavior Consultant/Trainer - Rehab Your Rescue Behavior Services - Masters degree in animal behavior, certified in separation anxiety