Are you a crossword addict? Sudoko fan? Or maybe a bridge fiend? If so, you’ll be happy to hear that brain games—activities that demand mental problem solving—aren’t only fun, they are also good for the mind… both human AND canine.
Memory and learning ability tend to decline with age, in both people and dogs. In fact, the types of brain changes, from normal aging to diseases like Alzheimer’s, are so similar between dogs and people that dogs are used as a model to study mental decline in human aging. The good news is that brain games help reduce some age-related brain changes. While it isn’t clear yet which specific cognitive exercises work best, the general consensus is that “use it or lose it” holds as true for human and canine minds as it does for our bodies, so Fido better perk up his ears if he wants to keep track of where the bones are buried in his sunset years. To help you keep those canine cognitive wheels well greased, here are a few awesome brain boosters that most dogs rate with two paws up and a big wag of approval.
How many toys does your dog know the names of? Increase his vocabulary by teaching him to retrieve each toy by name. Start with his two favourites, and teach him to fetch them by name one at a time, in a room with no other toys to choose from. If he isn’t a naturally motivated retriever, use lots of praise, tug, or treats to reward the good fetches. Once he knows the names of two toys, put both on the floor and ask him to fetch them one at a time. Reward correct choices with whatever turns his crank, and by continuing the game. Respond to incorrect choices by repeating the request, and eventually guiding him toward the right toy if he really needs help. If he can succeed with two, try three or more. This is really tough brain work, so expect to build up his vocabulary very gradually. If you think you might have a doggie Einstein on your hands, check out Rico, the world-famous Border Collie with a 200-word vocabulary, for ideas on how to crank it up a notch (http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2004/0610rico.shtml).
One, two, threes
Get some small healthy treats, or kibble. Hold six pieces in one closed hand, and two in the other. Ask your dog to sit, hold your hands shoulder width apart, about arm’s length from your dog, and then open your palms and say “small.” Only let him chow down if he picks the smaller group—just close your palms and start over if he picks the bigger one. You can hand him the six after he gobbles the two—as an added bonus for choosing correctly. Randomly switch up which hand has the smaller number so he isn’t just learning to choose “right” or “left.” If he’s SUCH a chowhound that he just beelines for either hand willy-nilly, make him wait a few seconds before you say “small” so he takes the time to think. The closer the quantities, the tougher the task: if he can choose correctly between four and five you may need to enroll him in a doggie PhD!
This is a top pick for lazy owners with brilliant dogs. Sit back on the couch with your choice beverage in one hand, and a handful of small healthy treats in the other. Ignore any attempts by your dog to approach you directly for food. Think of a doggie action, like walking over to the bookshelf and making contact with it. Watch her for ANY movement in the right direction, and when you spot it say “HOT!” in an excited tone, and toss her a treat, but not too close to you OR the bookshelf. Gradually hold out for movement that is closer and closer to the action on your mind, and see how she reacts. If she’s a quick giver-upper you’ll need to make it easy for her so she doesn’t quit on you. If she’s a real tryer, you can let her get frustrated and rack her brains a bit harder. If you stumble on an action that will make a neat party trick, just throw in a command once she’s good at it, and you’re set.
Earning the kibble
Do you waste time and get aggravated searching for your misplaced purse or keys? Let your dog earn some of her kibble by helping you out. Dab these items with the tiniest drop of her favourite essential oil—so little that you don’t even notice it—and teach her to find them by scent, on request. Rewarding successful search missions with a stuffed chewtoy will keep her content as you head out the door, and motivate speedy and reliable retrieves.
Ever find yourself half asleep in bed, only to realize you didn’t close the bedroom door or turn off the light? Hop online or pick up a book on “targeting and clicker training” and teach your dog to use his snout to shut the door, and his paw to flick off the light switch. If you aren’t a morning person, you may want to put him in charge of turning the lights on to get you going. And no, you cannot safely teach him to make you a coffee!
The shell game
Have your dog sit, and let him see you hide one piece of kibble under a cup on the floor. Tell him to “take it,” and when he noses or knocks over the cup let him eat the kibble it was hiding. Once he’s good at this he is ready for the shell game. Rub kibble on your fingers and along the inside of three mugs lined up in a row, so the smell of it is everywhere—this is a visual tracking game and we don’t want him cheating with his talented nose! Let him see you hide a piece of kibble under one of the mugs. Tell him to “take it” and give him the kibble when he makes the right choice, no matter how long it takes him, and no matter how many mistakes he makes. Do this many times, hiding kibble under each of the three mugs, one at a time. When he’s good at this step, slide just the kibble-hiding mug to a different spot before telling him to “take it.” This is pretty tough, and not all dogs can do it. Finally, if your dog seems gifted, try swapping two mugs and see if he can track the kibble-hiding one. This game is EXTREMELY challenging, so don’t start out working him like a grifter or you won’t get anywhere! Success at any level means he is no Forest Gump!
Interactive brain games are a fun way to socialize with your dog, while encouraging healthy intellectual exercise at the same time. If you and your pooch enjoy physical activity as much as brainwork, there are also oodles of organized dog sports—agility, tracking, and flyball, to name a few—that work your minds and bodies together. Learning to engage your dog in these activities at just the right skill level is hard brain work for you, too, so now you have lots of activities to choose from that will help keep you BOTH mentally sharp!