Experts claim that these activities can hone your dog's agility, cognitive thinking, and scent-tracking abilities.

By Madison Yauger
February 05, 2021
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American Eskimo Dog playing a training puzzle game
Credit: Lenti Hill / Getty Images

As a dog owner, you know how important it is to keep your canine companion entertained—and that includes playing games. Cognitive training games help hone your dog's agility, cognitive thinking, and scent-tracking abilities. As added benefits, they help in building your dog's confidence and lowering their anxiety (which will be important when more people return to in-office work, leaving their dogs at home to entertain themselves). "Your dog doesn't have to be a working dog to go through working dog training or scent-work," says Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, DVM., medical director of Behavior Vets of NYC. "But going through that type of training can be really fun for them."

Here are eight cognitive training games that will not only improve your dog's intellectual prowess, but are really fun for you to enjoy together.

Classic Food Puzzle

There are several benefits to food puzzles: Firstly, they help split up your dog's meal so they don't eat it all in one sitting, which is good for digestion; secondly, they help strengthen your dog's cognitive ability. Dr. Tu recommends Nina Ottosson food puzzles ($24.99, because they have multiple levels to keep your dog's interest once he begins to outsmart the puzzles. Most of these puzzles have small compartments where you place the food, forcing your dog to use their nose to find the food and their paws to open the compartments. Dr. Tu says these puzzles teach independence, because they require your dog to think for itself and work toward earning its meal through these puzzles.

For higher level dogs, Kong Genius ($6, is a great option. These feeding toys are different shapes and connect together, making an ever-changing and more challenging puzzle. For easily frustrated dogs, Dr. Tu suggests a snuffle mat ($39.95,, which encourages your dog to forage in the carpet's shag for its food, but isn't quite as challenging.

"Hot and Cold" Game

This game is recommended by the American Kennel Club as a way to build a special language with your dog. The game uses verbal communication to help your dog find a chosen item. For example, you can hide a toy on the opposite side of the room when your dog isn't looking and then use vocal cues to guide your dog toward the toy. If the dog moves closer to the toy, use an excited tone and say "hotter" loudly. If the dog moves away from the toy, use a softer tone and say "colder." Once your dog finds the toy, reward him with lots of treats, and then start the game again. This game not only acts as a fun way to entertain your pet, it also teaches listening skills.

"Find the Treat" Treasure Hunt

This is a fun training game for dogs that like to track down scents. Begin with a simple version to encourage your dog to participate in the game: First, tell your dog to sit or stay, and hide a treat or favorite toy somewhere obvious. Once the treat is hidden, tell your dog to find the item using your release cue. Reward your dog for finding the item with lots of praise and possibly more treats. Once your dog masters the simple version of this game, you can take it up a notch: Hide treats and toys in others rooms, or even somewhere where the smell might be masked by other scents, like in the laundry room or pantry. You can also modify this game and have another person or even yourself become the treasure, as in hide and seek.

52-Toy Pickup

This game allows your dog to learn to put their toys away and get treats in the process—win-win! Start with the command "drop it" (this is essential for your dog learning to put toys away and not just pick them up and keep them). After your dog has mastered "drop it," try having him drop the toy in a specific location such as on a mat or in a box. Clicker training helps here: Click and give your dog a treat whenever he approaches the place you want him to drop the toy. Once he arrives in that location, use the "Drop it" command. Eventually, your dog will associate the action with whatever command you assign like "put toy away;" then, you can increase the number of toys your dog picks up by rewarding the dog only after putting two toys away, then three, and so on. Eventually, the big reward comes once your dog has "put away" all of his or her toys, earning them a handful of yummy snacks and treats. Be patient— this game isn't mastered in a day, so give your dog some time to figure it out.

Toy Name Game

Once your dog has mastered the aforementioned game, this game is the next one you should try. Dogs are intelligent creatures capable of making word associations with actions like "walk" and "bath" or objects like "bed" and "car," and this skill can also be applied to toys. It just takes lots of repetition.

Start by holding a toy and saying its name; let your dog grab the toy and then reward him with a treat. Do this 20 or so times. Next, put that toy next to a different one. Say the name of the first toy and if your dog grabs it, offer another treat. If your dog chooses the second toy, do nothing and try again. Once your dog has created a word association with one toy, try the game with another toy. If the dog learns the name of two toys, place them next to each other and see if the dog can distinguish them when you say the names. Keep the process going until your dog can "name" all of his toys.

The Shell Game

If this game sounds familiar, it's probably because you, yourself, played it growing up. The shell game is a classic game of focus, forcing you to watch which cup the shell is placed under, and following it with your eyes as the cups are switched around, leaving you to guess which cup hides the shell. With dogs, you swap the shell for a treat or small toy, allowing their noses to assist them, and go forth.

Using two opaque cups, place a treat under one of the cups while your dog is watching. Let your dog come over and get the treat, repeating this step a handful of times until they understand the reward of this game. Then, begin to alternate the cup you place the treat under. When your dog picks the right cup, let your dog have the treat. If your dog guesses wrong, show your dog the treat, and then place it back under the cup for another round. Once your dog understands the game better, you can level up and start switching the position of the cups, with the same rules.

Dog Agility Course

This training game is a classic highly recommended by the American Kennel Club. While an agility course will obviously increase your dog's physical strength, there is also a lot of mental stimulus here, too, Dr. Tu says. There are lots of ways to set up an agility course. If you have an outdoor space at your disposal then you can build or set up a legitimate obstacle course with hoops, tunnels, dog walks, and more. Indoors, you can always use common household items (chairs, brooms, and furniture) to create a temporary agility course. Start by guiding your dog through the course and giving treats along the way, and build up to only giving treats once the dog has completed the course in full.

"Red Light, Green Light"

This is a perfect game for dogs that get overexcited while playing because it helps them learn impulse control. Just like the game many of us played during childhood, "Red Light, Green Light" is a game of starting and stopping, racing and freezing. When playing with dogs, a teaser wand toy ($16.99, can help implement the action you want them to do.

Start by saying "green light!" Then lure your dog into chasing a teaser wand toy in a circle. The wands usually have a fluffy tail that the dogs chase, representing a hunt. So, let your dog chase it for a few minutes, following his instincts. Then, pull the toy up abruptly, holding the "tail" in your hand and effectively stopping play; say "red light" firmly and clearly; make your dog sit and wait. Then say "green light" and let your dog chase it again. Repeat the process. This game will help remind your dog to focus on you even when it is playing in a dog park or other places where it may get overexcited.


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