Brain Enrichment for Dogs: Keep Your Pup Sharp with Cognitive Games

When we think about giving our dogs the best life, we usually think about exercise, healthy food, and vet visits. But brain enrichment for dogs plays a vital role in their health. A lack of enrichment can result in undesirable, and sometimes destructive, behaviors.
We can use mental enrichment to build confidence in our dogs. It helps them relax and broadens their experiences beyond the daily routine around their home or neighborhood.
I’m a certified canine enrichment technician. And I’m excited to share my expert insights into why brain enrichment is an important part of giving your dog the best life possible
brain enrichment for dogs

What is Brain Enrichment for Dogs?

Also known as doggy brain games! Cognitive enrichment focuses on building problem-solving skills and keeping your dog’s brain sharp.
The goal of brain enrichment for dogs is to elevate their physical and mental well-being. We do that by adding stimulating activities or elements. Simply put, it’s about enhancing their quality of life.
Zoos have long recognized the value of enrichment in keeping animals mentally healthy.
Mental enrichment is essential for all dogs, from lively puppies to wise senior dogs. It can even help slow the onset of cognitive issues like doggy dementia.
But not every enrichment activity qualifies as cognitive enrichment. For instance, enrichment toys and lick mats or snuffle mats, while engaging, don’t really fit this category. It’s important to give your dog a mix of brain enrichment with physical exercise and social engagement. 

Mental Enrichment for Dogs DIY: Homemade Games

To help you see what kinds of activities fall under cognitive enrichment I want to share a few examples. These are great mental enrichment for dogs DIY games.

You’ll see they’re all simple games because enrichment shouldn’t be complicated!

If you’re interested in learning more about these activities, check out my Mental Enrichment Activity Pack. It’s a bite-sized online course I created for busy pet parents like you!
shape on your mat

Activity 1: Shape on Your Bed (also known as “place”)

Chilled-out dogs are happy dogs. Imagine having your dog relax on their “place” while you enjoy a cup of coffee at your local cafe. Relaxed dogs are less stressed and will be more open to learning new things
Here’s a fun cognitive enrichment activity to train them:
  1. Start Simple: Let your dog familiarize themselves with the bed. Reward positive interactions.
  2. Add a Cue: Introduce cues like “place” and reinforce them with treats.
  3. Challenge your dog: Once they get good at place you can challenge your dog by moving further away. Or you can distract them by stepping away and doing something exciting like opening a snack bag. If they remain calm, they get their reward.

hand targeting

Activity 2: Train a Hand Target

This is one of my faves! It’s all about getting your dog to tap their nose to your hand. My senior dog Lucy loves it when I ask her for a “kiss” on my palm.
I often use this behavior when I’m on a walk with Lucy and need to distract her from something triggering – like another dog. I ask for a “kiss” to my palm and Lucy gets focused on that and ignores the other dog. 
You can see how having less reactive moments on our walks can help both of us be less stressed. Reducing stress is a great goal of enrichment!
Here’s how to do some dog training to teach this mental enrichment activity: 
  1. Begin with a Treat: Show your flat hand with a treat tucked between your fingers.
  2. Signal Success: The moment your dog’s nose makes contact, say “yes” or give a click with a clicker trainer like this.
  3. Evolve: Remove the treat, adding a verbal cue (like kiss or touch) as they master the game.

Shell Game

Activity 3: Shell Game

This game challenges both cognitive and olfactory enrichment. That’s a fancy way of saying brain games and scent games!
This is a great mental enrichment for dogs DIY activity because all you need are three containers and some treats.
Your dog can use their scent skills, but this is definitely a memory game. Make sure your dog can see where you put the treat and don’t mix the bowls up for too long when you first play.
  1. Setup: With your dog watching, hide a treat or some dog food under one of the three containers.
  2. The Shuffle: Mix the containers around.
  3. The Pick: Let your dog choose. If they struggle, make it easier by not moving the containers as much or using more treats.

>> You can find video demonstrations of this game and more in my Mental Enrichment Activity Pack.

Non-Food Dog Enrichment: More than Just Treats

Not all dogs are food motivated! There are other ways to reward and engage with your dog. You might find a favorite toy to motivate your dog. Some dogs feel most rewarded with verbal praise and a loving ear scratch.
Hide and seek is a great non food dog enrichment game to play indoors or outdoors. It keeps your dog entertained and gives them a sense of satisfaction.
I love playing this indoors on a rainy day! I ask my dogs to stay in their place in one room, then I go hide in another room and shout “search”!
We usually do about 5 rounds of this game. Afterward, I can tell that my dogs had fun and feel a sense of satisfaction. They get more joy from a game like this than a routine walk around the block. That’s because mind enrichment is so fulfilling to your dog!
Your dog might be used to their regular routine and generally a happy pup. But when you add activities designed to tap into their natural instincts, their life can truly be enriched!
Let me know if you want more specific non food dog enrichment ideas. I could go into more detail on sniffari walks, sit and watch the world go by, musical enrichment and more! This blog post explains the 7 categories of enrichment for dogs. 

Mental Stimulation Games for Dogs DIY: Boosting Brain Power

Picture this: a content, satisfied dog that doesn’t chew on furniture or explore trash cans for fun. The right enrichment games can make this a reality!
What I love most about the mental stimulation games for dogs DIYs shared in this post is that they’re budget-friendly and adaptable. A fun-filled 15-20 minute session might only require a handful of treats. It’s affordable enrichment at its best!
Remember that consistency leads to success. Throughout the week, you want to give your dog a mix of mental games and activities like sniff walks or time with a lick mat (or try a lick painting!).
Even small changes, like a new walking route or playing in a different room, can offer loads of enrichment! 

mental enrichment for dogs online course

Mental Enrichment for Dogs Online Course

Brain enrichment for dogs isn’t only about fun and games. It’s essential to their well-being. Dip your toes into these DIY games and consistently play with your dog every day. Just 10-15 minutes will make a huge impact on dogs of all ages and abilities. 
Want more mental enrichment for dogs DIY ideas? Explore my bite-sized course designed for busy pet parents like you. The Mental Enrichment Activity Pack is full of 10 unique mental enrichment activities and games for dogs with fun-to-watch videos and clear written guides
Your dog craves enrichment, not another puzzle! So check out this Activity Pack and start giving your dog what they want! 
Like this post and want more easy enrichment ideas for your dog? Check out these posts:
How to Make a DIY Snuffle Mat
Review: Nina Ottosson Food Puzzles
Easy and Healthy Kong Stuffing Recipes Beyond Peanut Butter!


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Tori Mistick is a blogger, podcaster and certified Canine Enrichment Specialist. You might call her a professional dog mom! Tori has a soft spot for senior dogs and loves the color pink. Based in Pittsburgh, PA.


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