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11 Brain Games for Dogs to Prevent Bad Behavior and Boredom

Brain games for dogs improve emotional health, relieve stress, and fight boredom. These games also provide bonding and training fun for you and your special pets.

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Responsible pet parents understand that dogs require brain exercise every day to stay happy and healthy. As a pet expert, I know that mental stimulation offers benefits to all dogs, not just so-called smart dog breeds. Brain games for dogs provide more than fun for your pet. Most canine pet peeves, like chewing the wrong thing, or barking and whining too much, happen because of dog boredom.

We pamper our dogs because we love them. But when they’re left alone in the house or outside in the yard with nothing to do, that wastes brain potential and provides opportunity for dogs to engage in unwanted digging or barking behavior. Just like with people, “use it or lose it” applies to brain games for dogs. Engaging the brain also can slow down the rust that causes cognitive (senility) issues aging dogs can develop.

For dogs with emotional challenges, brain games that provide mental stimulation reduce stress. Stress predisposes dogs to health problems too. Dogs that routinely play brain games using puzzle toys or indestructible dog toys gain confidence and develop fewer behavior problems, like separation behaviors.

How much mental stimulation does a dog need a day?

Every dog requires mental stimulation, but the amount varies. How much depends on your dog’s breed, age, and sometimes individual personality.

Puppies need less stimulation—no more than five minutes daily for each month they’ve lived. So a three-month-old pup benefits from 15 minutes a day, and a six-month-old thrives on 30 minutes a day (not necessarily all at once). Adult dogs can do well on more.

Active working breeds, like German Shepherds, need more than senior citizen dogs. Also, the brain game should suit your dog’s strengths. For example, scenting breeds like hunting dogs enjoy sniffing games, while your Papillon lap dog may excel at games needing more paw dexterity.

What are good mental games for dogs?

Nearly anything works well for canine games that exercise the brain. Think in terms of your dog’s senses. While humans rely on sight, dogs focus on sounds and smells we can’t detect. Toys and games that prompt dogs to sniff something out, or listen to clues to solve a puzzle, get tails wagging. Dogs also mouth, taste, and paw to explore their world, much as we use our hands.

Games don’t have to be expensive. You can also provide mental stimulation with cheap thrills—homemade toys and interactive training challenge dogs to think. Anything that demands extra thinking tires dogs out differently than physical exertion. That helps dogs settle, feel and act calmer, and enjoy spending time with the people they love.

What to look for when buying brain games for dogs

Look for toys that engage your dog’s senses, or that require him to manipulate an object to get a reward. Interactive games include you and increase the bond you share. Solo toys burn off energy while you’re busy elsewhere. There are no laws ensuring safety of dog toys, so evaluate games based on your dog’s preferences, and then supervise play.

Evaluation criteria

  • Design and function
  • Skill level required
  • Quality of materials
  • Easily cleaned
  • Cost
  • Reader reviews and satisfaction

Outward Hound Nina Ottosson Dog Interactive Puzzle Dog Toy Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best brain game for dogs on Amazon

Outward Hound Brick Puzzle

Dogs are motivated by treats, and you can create your own puzzle toys using things around the house. For instance, hold a treat in one fist (nothing in the other) and ask your dog to sniff and choose the correct fist to win the bonus. A puzzle toy like the Outward Hound Brick Puzzle keeps dogs engaged similarly. This highly rated brainteaser toy for dogs has nearly 80,000 ratings on Amazon. You’ll find a variety of dog puzzle toys from Outward Hound, ranked from “easy” for beginners, to intermediate, advanced, and expert levels.

Pros

What we like about Brick Puzzle:

  • Amazon best seller
  • 20 hidden treat compartments to keep your pup busy
  • Made from food-safe materials
  • Available at four skill levels
  • Durable and easy to clean

Con

What to consider about Brick Puzzle:

  • Use with supervision; pieces are dangerous if chewed and swallowed

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Kong Classic Dog Toy Durable Natural Rubber Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best value brain game for dogs

Kong Puzzle Toys

Puzzle toys give dogs something to chew, pick up and carry around, play fetch with, and get rewarded by when treats fall out. The Kong classic comes in six sizes to fit any size or age dog. Fill up the Kong of your choice with the dog’s favorite food or treat. On hot days, you can fill it with flavored liquid like no-salt chicken broth mixed with treats, and freeze the Kong for a pup-sicle.

I love Kong puzzles because you can have multiple dispensers and hide them all over the house or yard. Your dog gets the fun of sniffing out a treasure hunt, engaging the scent and the brain, and getting exercise at the same time.

Pros

What we like about Kong Puzzle Toys:

  • Long lasting
  • Economical toy, from $8 to $26
  • Multi-purpose: treat dispenser, chew toy, fetching games
  • Vet recommended
  • Easy to clean
  • 49,787 Amazon reviews averaging 4.6 stars

Con

What to consider about Kong Puzzle Toys:

  • Heavy chewers need supervision to avoid swallowed pieces

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Voice Recording Button, Dog Buttons For Communication Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best viral game for dogs

Recordable Training Buttons

The average dog learns about 150 words, including commands, hand signals, and accidental lessons you may not want her to know. Today, there are brain games that help your dog understand words and also talk back to you. You may have seen viral TikTok videos of dogs “talking” back to their owners by pressing a button that plays a pre-recorded command like “treat” or “car ride.”

Dogs already tell us they want to go outside or play a game by barking or scratching. With the talking buttons, the dog learns to communicate more clearly by pawing the right button that “speaks” the request or comment. People use similar button communication with nonverbal people, and this technology now shows us how dogs can communicate this way too. Some dogs become extraordinarily adept at using the talking buttons, like Bunny, who has racked up almost half a billion views of her videos “talking” to her dog mom.

Pros

What we like about Recordable Dog Training Buttons:

  • Challenging game for dogs and people
  • Massively entertaining and customizable
  • Economical price
  • Interactive game builds on your bond

Cons

What to consider about Recordable Dog Training Buttons:

  • Takes time to train
  • Can slip and slide, and needs secure surface
  • Supervision required to prevent some dogs from chewing the buttons

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Outward Hound Hide A Squirrel Squeaky Puzzle Plush Dog Toy Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best brain games for puppies

Squirrel Interactive Puzzle

Puppies love to play, and toys that engage their brain during fun games teach them positive ways to interact with their world. One of my dog’s favorites is nested toys. These offer smaller stuffed toys inside larger ones. The Squirrel Interactive Puzzle lets the pup learn how to find and retrieve the hidden smaller squirrels nested inside the soft tree-shaped container. Each small squirrel also has a squeaker inside to engage the hearing and keep the pup focused on rooting out the enticing rodent.

Pros

What we like about Squirrel Interactive Puzzle:

  • Easy to learn, but still stimulating
  • Well made
  • Inexpensive
  • Comes in small, medium, large, and XL
  • Replacement squirrels available

Con

What to consider about Squirrel Interactive Puzzle:

  • Many dogs destroy the squirrels

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Pet Zone Iq Treat Ball Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best treat ball brain game for dogs

Pet Zone Treat Ball

Dogs love playing with balls and adore treats. Combine the two, and you get a win-win brain game for your dog. The Pet Zone Treat Ball dispenses treats as the dog paws and rolls it around the house, making it an ideal indoor toy. Even better, you can adjust the dispensing mechanism for beginners and calm dogs, and raise the difficulty level as the dog learns.

Pros

What we like about Pet Zone Treat Ball:

  • Balls and treats encourage play
  • Comes in two sizes
  • Adjustable difficulty
  • Easy to clean
  • 23,243 Amazon ratings

Cons

What to consider about Pet Zone Treat Ball:

  • Not for heavy chewers
  • Not for Toy breeds or small puppies that can get their jaw stuck

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Outward Hound Dog Agility Training Kit Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best outdoor brain game for dogs

Zip & Zoom Agility

For high-energy athletic dogs, one of the best outdoor brain games for dogs engages the whole body. Your dog learns to navigate obstacles, jump over hurdles, or walk on elevated platforms. Agility, a fun competition for dogs of all ages, breeds, and sizes, adjusts challenges for the individual dog. Set up your own agility course in the backyard or in the house, using homemade items. Amazon also offers the  Zip & Zoom Agility starter kit . It comes with four weave-poles, an adjustable hurdle (or hoop), and a tunnel. It’s convenient, portable, and offers hours of customizable stimulation for dogs.

Pros

What we like about Zip & Zoom Agility Kit:

  • Easy to use outdoors, adjusts to different yards and dogs
  • Portable, with convenient storage
  • Adjustable and modular kit for beginners
  • Usable indoors too

Con

What to consider about Zip & Zoom Agility Kit:

  • Sized for small to medium dogs; some reviewers noted taller dogs won’t fit in the tunnel

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Dog Bungee Tug Toy Outdoor Interactive Tether Tug Of War Toy Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best tug brain game for big dogs

Dog Bungee Tug Toy

Dogs adore tug-of-war games, especially the bully breeds developed to grab hard and not let go. Most pet dogs don’t have legal opportunities to bite hard and tug harder. Giving your Boxer, Pit Bull, or other chomp-loving pup an opportunity to enjoy instinctive behaviors in a safe way relieves stress and boredom. The Dog Bungee Tug Toy provides that outlet. You can hang it from a sturdy tree limb for your big dog to leap, grab, and swing, or secure it around a tree trunk for a fun tug game that won’t pull you off your feet. Smart!

Pros

What we like about Bungee Tug Toy:

  • Made from strong materials that won’t hurt the dog’s teeth when he grips
  • Length of rope adjustable up to 17 feet
  • Safe way to relieve stress

Con

What to consider about Bungee Tug Toy:

  • Dogs may chew up the grip end

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Outward Hound Dog Agility Training Kit Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best brain game for small dogs and terriers

Tail Teaser Wand

When I play a chase-the-fishing-pole game with my cat, my dog also wants in on the fun. Many dogs enjoy chase games, but rather than fetching balls, they want a critter to catch and pretend-kill. Terriers were especially developed to go after rats and other small furry creatures. The Tail Teaser Wand offers the perfect outlet for terriers and small dogs to chase the fuzzy toy on the end of the lure, and catch and shake it into submission. Since it’s designed for rugged use with dogs, you can change up or replace the lure when it’s destroyed too. This offers mental stimulation for puppies, small dogs, and any heritage dog that enjoys the chase.

Pros

What we like about Tail Teaser Wand:

  • Durable with nylon cord
  • Used indoors or outside
  • Comes with two plush toys that make noise
  • More than 10,000 ratings

Con

What to consider about Tail Teaser Wand:

  • Lure toys are easily destroyed, so plan on regular replacement

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Pet Arena Adjustable Snuffle Mat For Dogs Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best brain game for senior dogs

Snuffle Matt

Senior citizen dogs may no longer have the athletic ability to engage in some activities. But you can still engage their brains with low-impact activities. Use a Snuffle Mat to hide treats or a portion of the dog’s food, so that the pet sniffs out the bounty. This also works well as a first brain game for puppies, but I like it for aging canines because it keeps them engaged no matter their mobility. Even blind or deaf dogs enjoy sniffing out edible prizes.

Pros

What we like about Snuffle Mat:

  • Adjustable, to make it easier or more challenging
  • Easy to take on trips
  • Non-slip design keeps it in place while dogs sniff
  • Hand- or machine-washable

Con

What to consider about Snuffle Mat:

  • Some reviews cautioned the material caused nose abrasions (supervise!)

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Lifepro Dog Treadmill Small Dogs Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best indoor brain game for dogs

LifePro Paw Runner Dog Treadmill

Here in Texas, summer weather makes it dangerous for dogs to play outside for any length of time. But high heat doesn’t stop a dog’s need for exercise. I have a desk treadmill to exercise without braving the sun or storms. So it makes sense for canines unable to exercise outside to use an indoor Dog Treadmill too. That’s especially beneficial for apartment dogs. Side panels and a remote control are nice extras. Always supervise your dog while they work out!

Pros

What we like about LifePro Dog Treadmill:

  • Offers exercise and stimulation indoors
  • Low noise motor won’t hurt dog hearing
  • Safety key and emergency off-switch
  • Sets up in 10 minutes

Cons

What to consider about LifePro Dog Treadmill:

  • Too small for large dogs
  • Comes in a large 5o pound box

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Godoggo Fetch Machine Dog Ball Launcher & Automatic Ball Launcher For Dogs Ecomm Amazon.comvia merchant

Best fetching brain game for dogs

GoDogGo Fetch Machine

Dogs who love to play fetch may pester you to death, and become frustrated and bored when you can’t accommodate them. Instead of playing a few half-hearted rounds, invest in the GoDogGo Fetch Machine for an automated never-ending supply of lobbed balls to fetch. Teach him to retrieve the ball and drop it back in the bucket, so the machine will toss again and again.

Pros

What we like about GoDogGo Fetch Machine:

  • Takes the effort out of fetch
  • Five balls included
  • Optional timed launch settings: 5, 7, or 15 seconds
  • Multiple distance settings and remote-control operated

Con

What to consider about GoDogGo Fetch Machine:

  • Some reviewers complained sensor stops working due to ball slobber

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Amy Shojai, CABC
Amy Shojai, CABC is the Affiliate Pet Editor at Large for Reader's Digest. She's also an award-winning pet journalist and the author of 35 pet titles. She specializes in translating pet medical jargon and shopping information into information pet parents easily understand. Amy shares animal behavior and care information on her blog, and lives in North Texas with her furry muses.