Say no to fast food and ditch that dish: Mentally stimulating a dog

Quick tips on mentally stimulating a dog on restricted exercise. By Laure-Anne Visele, August 2015

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I can help with your dog’s behaviour questions if you live in The Hague or region. I am a dog behaviour therapist for Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! dog training school. I graduated in Zoology and certified as a dog training instructor. I also have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude). In short, I am The Hague’s dog nerd. If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, I am your girl.  If you live close to The Hague and have a question about your dog’s behaviour, tell me about the problem here.

Mental stimulation for crate-bound dogs

A regular client wrote to me in a panic the other day. His dog had had an accident, and had needed emergency hip surgery. As soon as I read the word ‘surgery,’ the dark spectre of a rehabilitation period reared its ugly head.

Recovery can be a nightmare for dogs. They can go crazy with pent-up frustration. AND… This particular dog is a male adolescent Jack Russell! To describe him as high-energy just doesn’t cut it. He is a running, chasing, jumping ball of energy. So we switched my original training brief to recovery-appropriate mental stimulation.

Here are some of the games we played together.

The blanket game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. A blanket
  3. A recovering dog

Ask the dog to wait as you lay a blanket all crumbled up on the floor. Place a treat underneath one crease of the blanket, in full view of the dog. Quickly release the dog to ‘go sniff,’ or ‘zoek!’ as the Dutch say.

Gradually increase the distance from the dog to the blanket, the duration the dog has to wait, the number of treats and how well hidden they are.

The ‘watch me’ game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. Your face
  3. A recovering dog

Don’t ask the dog to do anything. Just sit there close to him, on the floor, and relax. Hold a treat in your closed fist. Make sure the dog knows the treat is there. The dog will likely try to pry it off your hand, lick it, etc. Just sit there, enjoying the moment. Don’t tell him ‘no’ or ‘uh uh’ and wait for him to try something else. The microsecond he backs off and looks you in the eyes, say ‘yes’ and give him the treat.

Repeat ad infinitum, demanding longer and longer looks before you release it. As with every exercise, this is how you estimate the right level of difficulty: it has to be challenging but achievable. We don’t want a desperately frustrated dog who gives up, but we do want him to work for it a little bit or he won’t be mentally stimulated, will he?

Do be sure to have very relaxed, soft eyes and not look at the dog intensely or the dog might be intimidated. If you’re not sure, just blink (like a contented cat would) once in a while. This will remind him this is not a confrontation and he’s not in trouble.

This game is a ‘free shaping’ game. We don’t prompt or command the dog to do anything, but we let him guess what will get him the jackpot. This type of exercise is brilliant to burn some mental energy as it gets them thinking hard. Do make sure you keep it fun, or he’ll quickly go on strike.

The ‘target my fingers’ game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. Your fingers
  3. A recovering dog

As above, sit there close to the dog, casually hanging out. Then cheerfully say ‘touch’ and present two fingers for him to sniff. Don’t shove them his face and don’t be too rough, but try to entice his curiosity with the sudden appearance of the fingers in his vicinity. Then wait it out. As soon as he sniffs your fingers, say ‘yes’ and give him a treat.

To make sure he really understands the words ‘touch’, make sure you first say it, then leave a short delay before presenting your fingers, so that he really pays attention to the words and not just your fingers. We want him to start looking for your hand when he’s heard the word. Repeat, repeat, repeat until he gets there. And when he does, that’s where the fun begins!

Once he gets it, present your fingers in really incongruous positions, like on your shoe, on the ground, on the table, behind your back, etc. Get that dog thinking!

The ‘101 things to do with a purse’ game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. A purse, or any object really
  3. A recovering dog

Present the dog with an incongruous object – one with which he does not normally interact. I picked a purse. Don’t put the dog under pressure by putting the object in his face, but just awaken his curiosity by having the object appear in the vicinity of the dog.

Reward any attention the dog pays to the object with a ‘yes’, then give the dog a treat. Keep changing the object’s position slightly to rekindle his interest each time. Once the dog really gets it and systematically touches the object as soon as it appears, vary the object’s position even more. This makes sure the dog really really really gets the purpose of the exercise: it’s about that object, regardless of where it is.

Now we’re ready to have some fun: when the dog is really keenly bumping the object each time you present it, start only rewarding new ways to interact with the object. Reward a nose bump, a scratch, touching with the paw, digging with his nose inside the purse, mouthing the purse, pushing it, etc. It doesn’t matter what the dog does, as long as it’s new each time.

Make sure you keep your face very friendly and relaxed. Don’t bore a hole through the dog’s head staring intensely in your excitement. Especially if your dog is not used to creative training exercises, he might get inhibited and fear he’s going to get in trouble if he gets it wrong.

Keep this one VERY short, and get ready for a hilarious time rewarding the most creative antics. You wouldn’t believe how much imagination dogs have when they put their minds to it.

More brain game ideas for  your dogs?

I have been updating this post over the years with more and more ideas for you to keep your dog mentally stimulated and happy. Enjoy!

The Golden Zone

This video shows you just the right level of difficulty, aka the Goldie Lock zone. It’s not so hard that the dog gives up or gets frustrated or flustered; but it’s not so easy that it fails to engage the dog mentally and takes no focus to solve.


Using props outside

In this section, I share ideas that I use with my own and my clients’ dogs when I want to mentally stimulate them on a walk. This is brilliant to boost their focus on you while outside. The idea is that you become a sort of fellow scavenger, you are the guy who knows the best hacks to get to food. So the dog, instead of seeing you as the boring parent, starts paying attention to your every moves in case you’ve found another hidden treasure. When you start using mental stimulation during walks, the world will never look the same to you again. Now every tree, bench and playground is a mine of play opportunities for me.

Visual barrier

Here is a nice mental challenge for your dog. Place a visual barrier between him and the treat. At first, most dogs can’t work out that, although the treat is straight ahead of them, they need to walk AROUND the barrier. Watch Bernie, my rescue dog, getting the hang of it.



Grazing games are great when you want to take your dog’s focus from something that makes him too excited, and you want to calm him down a little. This works wonders on dogs who are starting to hyperfocus. He is distracted by the food, but he is not frantically trying to get to the food. He is on ‘grazing’ mode, rather than on ‘predatory’ mode. Obviously exercise caution when playing these games with other dogs around, as you might cause a scuffle between the dogs to get to the food.

Purchased brain games

You can end up spending a small fortune on store-bought brain games if you don’t watch it. Some of them are worth every penny, though. I personally LOVE the remote controlled one (Trixie Dog Activity Memory Trainer) and Northmate’s The Green Slow Feeder.



Super cheap props

You don’t have to be a millionaire to mentally stimulate your dog. Just as I now see the outside world as a series of play opportunities with my dogs, so too do I see empty loo paper rolls, shoe boxes and old blankets as props for indoor brain games. My dogs tend to become cardboard addicts in no time and it has the added benefit that the UPS guy is now their best friend. After all, he always predicts a nice surprise.

Special needs dogs

Disabled dogs and other special needs dogs benefit the most from mental stimulation exercise, as their opportunities for environmental enrichment tend to be limited. Often you do not actually have to adapt the game that much to make it suitable for your special needs dog.

Mental stimulation with a bit of physical exercise thrown in

One of the many many many benefits of mental stimulation is that it can be a more beneficial calorie equation than just tossing the dog’s dinner in his dish. If your overweight dog has to run after every single bit of kibble for his breakfast, he’ll have burnt a lot more calories than by just wolfing his breakfast down in two seconds straight out of  his dish. The beauty of this is that 99% of dogs enjoy the playful, challenging aspect of these games a lot more than getting a freeby. This principle is called contrafreeloading for the nerds among us, and it’s used  by zookeepers everywhere to keep the frustration of their captive animals to a tolerable level.


Using mental stimulation and brain games to help dogs who aren’t food-motivated to eat

If you own a Labrador, you won’t believe some people’s claims that their dog simply is not food-motivated. This is something I come across regularly in my line of work, but only once have I not been able to overcome the hurdle using mentally stimulating games to get the dog to engage. The idea is to make it VERY playful, and VERY easy at first. I am talking holiday rep cheerful and kindergarten easy.

More resources for mentally stimulating your dog

These are just a few of many many many mental stimulation games I’ve picked up over the years, many of them are rehabilitation-appropriate. I’ll try to post more in the not too distant future.

If you’d like some good sources of ideas, try the following books:

I am also curating boards on Dropmark on mental stimulation which has a lot of crate confinement game suggestions.

And of course, do let me know of any good tips and resources you might have. I’d be happy to feature them here.  Good luck on your dog’s rehabilitation!

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