When Youre Done with Sit, Stay, and Down, Theres Brain Games for Dogs

Fresh ideas for keeping your pet physically - and intellectually - stimulated.


The irony is in Ms. Arrowsmith’s observation that we view our dogs, “quite rightly, as highly intelligent animals.” And, she says, “not finding time to teach your dog new games will not stop him from learning new things. It will just make it more likely that he will learn inappropriate activities, such as barking, jumping up or perhaps digging up your flowers.”

That’s why she wrote Brain Games for Dogs: Fun Ways to Build a Strong Bond with Your Dog and Provide It with Vital Mental Stimulation (Firefly Books). She wanted to help dog owners keep the learning coming and enhance the bond and vital trust that comes to the dog-person relationship from frequent, mind-engaging interactions that also involve a significant level of physical activity — critical to a dog’s well-being.

Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic veterinarian Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, is glad she did. “Most dogs require much more exercise and mental stimulation,” she says, “the absence of which can lead to problems of anxiety, destructiveness, excess attention-seeking behaviors, and even premature cognitive decline. Brain Games for Dogs offers loads of ideas about ways to engage your dog’s true mental potential and help him be a happier and healthier pet.”

The book, loaded with color photos on every single page and crystal clear instructions, is a terrific tool even for those dog owners among you who believe they could never teach their dogs things like how to close a door, fetch the remote (and actually hand it to them), play three-card monte (okay, with treats, not cards), do the limbo, and much, much more. You can. That’s because Ms. Arrowsmith breaks each brain game into small steps and teaches about “shaping” the behavior over time.

Also, she rates the level of difficulty for every single trick (and there are many in this 160-page book) from one star (easy brain exercise) to five (a proper brainteaser), so you’ll know just what you’re in for with each one and have an idea about whether your dog is ready for it. She says, too, what props you need, the location either inside or outside to best perform the trick, and whether it’s done with you, by the dog himself, with another dog (or dogs), or with you and other people. A trick called “Bedtime” is a five-star brainteaser, but oh, what fun if you can get your dog to lie down and pull the blanket over himself. “Balance a Treat On Your Paw,” on the other hand, is a simpler two-star “moderate brain teaser” even though it advances to putting a treat on both front paws and getting the dog to follow your cue about which one to take first. (You should see the adorable photo of the confused Cavalier King Charles spaniel with a biscuit on each foot in a chapter called “Games For Less Active Dogs”— page 121.)

“Toy Identity Parade” is a four-star advanced brain game. Your pet has to pick out the right toy on a board full of toys based on your verbal command. You can also teach your dog to ride a skateboard while “waving to the crowd” (also four stars), put away his own toy (three stars — good brain workout), and even participate in an egg-and-spoon race (although granted, it’s you who’s holding the egg).

Not all the games require physical input from pet owners. Aware that many people lack agility or have limited mobility, Ms. Arrowsmith includes a chapter called “Armchair Games.” In one of those games, “Hop Over,” you can teach your dog to hop over a stick — or hop over your leg outstretched on an overturned wastebasket. You can also get him to bring you a tissue in a game called “Sneeze and Retrieve.” (Whether you’re actually going to use the tissue is delicately left undiscussed.) And then there’s “Go Get….” It teaches a dog to bring someone to you if, say, it’s hard for you to move around or the person you want to talk to is deaf or hard or hearing and won’t hear you calling.

One particularly good chapter teaches dogs to come to you when you call them outside as you engage them physically and mentally. You can, for instance, attach a “lure” to a retractable leash and get your dog to follow the toy from some distance to right beside you — really good training for dogs who act deaf when you try to get them to come back to you off leash.

There are also easy games to rig up that will provide your dog with loads of stimulating fun — like attaching a bungee-like cord to a high-up clothes line and getting your dog to jump at the bottom of the cord for the toy.

Ms. Arrowsmith offers advice for getting non-playing dogs to play, too. It could be a rescue dog who was kept in a cage for most of his life before he met you or was otherwise abused. But such a dog can come around with patience — and perhaps a cat wand that allows him to react without feeling threatened by the movement of a toy at the end of it.

She even offers brain games that teach a dog to do something when the doorbell rings other than bark at and jump on visitors. On top of all that, there’s game-playing entertainment for long car rides along with games you can play with your pet in hotel rooms or other destinations that will help him expend some pent-up energy after a long drive and thereby feel more comfortable about his new surroundings.

No matter who the dog is and what the situation, the author reminds owners that game-teaching sessions should last only about three minutes before a break. That helps the dog learn comfortably in small bursts and ratchets down any frustration on the teacher’s part about a pet not learning faster. Patience is key. “A major inhibitor” to learning “is low confidence,” Ms. Arrowsmith says, “so make sure your dog feels safe and relaxed.” Allowing your dog to feel good about learning instead of showing frustration also helps dogs who start out too over-excited to cooperate so that they finally get to enjoy time with the people in their household in a way they never were able to before. That’s right. A dog who has always been able to fetch something you throw but is too berserk to give it back to you can be taught to play collaboratively if the teaching is done with patience and good humor.

Stay enthusiastic but accepting, and you can even teach your dog to skip rope (five stars — a proper brainteaser). But no matter how good your relationship and no matter how much you’ve already strengthened your bond with your pet by spending time teaching him to do other complicated tricks, you probably still won’t be able to get him to skip Double Dutch. n

How many stars does this book get? Five. That’s a no-brainer. ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪


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