Canine brain games?! The idea of dog sudoku might sound strange, but dogs need mental challenges as well as physical exercise. For young pups, learning and exercise most often go together. And when we think of dogs’ learning capacity, most of us think immediately of puppies. We love the fun and challenge as little pups learn their first human words and games and become integrated members of the human-canine pack. Once a part of our lives, however, our dogs often fall into a comfortable routine that gets more entrenched as they get older.
Unfortunately, this comfortable rut can lead to a lack of mental stimulus and challenge. This in turn leads to mental deterioration as dogs continue to age. As dog guardians, we often contribute to this process, unconsciously reducing the levels of regular training and challenges for our aging pets. According to Lisa Wallis, co-author of a recent study by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, “As is the case with people, dopamine production in dogs also falls in old age, leading to a decline in memory and motivational drive. But this natural mental deterioration can be countered with the specific training of cognitive skills.”
Fortunately, our senior dogs are as capable of exercising their cognitive abilities as any bright, inquisitive puppy. The trick—for us humans—is to provide them with the mental challenges they need without too much strain on their decreased physical abilities. Enter canine brain games.
In the Vienna study, researchers used a combination of computer-based brain teasers with food rewards to challenge older dogs. The dogs learned to interact with a touch-screen by “tapping” the screen with their noses. They learned simple computer “puzzles,” likened to “dog sudoku,” and solved them in exchange for a tasty tidbit. According to the study’s senior author, Ludwig Huber, “The positive feeling created by solving a mental challenge is comparable to the feeling that older people have when they learn something new, doing something they enjoy.” Says Huber, “Regular brain training shakes not only us, but also dogs out of their apathy in old age, increasing motivation and engagement[.]”
So is this the dawn of a new era of canine computer games? At least one company thinks so. CleverPet has designed a computer dog toy using principles of animal behavior and cognition such as those highlighted in the Vienna study. Called the Hub, CleverPet’s game console uses a system of push-buttons with light and color combinations that offer a variety of puzzles. The buttons are designed to be pushed with either a nose or a paw. Challenges increase in difficulty and automatically adjust to your dog’s current level of ability. Dogs (cats and pigs, too!) enjoy learning to solve the puzzles and get the rewards. According to CleverPet, the device’s ability to auto-adjust means the tasks are never too easy or too difficult, so pets won’t give up on the games. Plus the Hub comes with an app that allows you to monitor your pet’s progress and food intake.
CleverPet Hub uses science and technology to go beyond the standard food-dispensing puzzle toy. Although it’s no substitute for companionship, the CleverPet Hub offers the possibility for providing canine (and feline) family members with continuous mental stimulation while you’re away. The CleverPet Hub receives favorable online reviews. Criticism mostly centers around technical issues that need to be worked out for this new and innovative product. The Hub regularly retails for $249.00, but is currently out of stock. We hope this is temporary and that updates will usher in a new and improved product.
Other high-tech games for dogs and cats are available in the form of apps for both iOS and Android. The games come with catchy names like Squirrely Sam and Jolly Dog, but also with warnings like “We do not encourage or condone the use of the cat having direct contact with the iPad as it could cause damage.” Not sure I’d want my 120-lb Rottweiler having direct contact with the iPad, either, just sayin’…. These game apps are not reward-based and provide entertainment mostly in the form of sound and movement. While some allow your dog to move up through various levels of play, it isn’t clear why your dog would be interested in doing so. Understandably, these free apps get mixed reviews.
Fortunately, there are several low-tech solutions to the problem of challenging the canine mind. Many of these are sedentary or low-intensity canine brain games that you can play with even a physically challenged senior dog. Consider that ubiquitous toddler toy, the ring stacker, for example. Dogs can learn this game, too! Versions of the Shell Game are also dog-friendly and lend themselves well to clicker-training. A game of Hide and Seek or “Find It!” with you or a favorite toy engages problem-solving skills while offering its own inbuilt reward. German-based Trixie company offers a variety of challenging canine puzzle games. However, removable plastic parts make it recommended to use them under supervision. Trixie dog activity toys may not be suitable for dogs who prefer chewing over problem-solving.
For more basic, beginner canine brain games, why not employ a DIY solution? One example is the muffin-tin game. For this game, place a small treat in each tin of a muffin-tin. Place a tennis ball on top of each treat-filled tin. Let your dog figure out how to remove the balls to get the treats. After this, put treats in only some of the tins. Of course, if your dog is not food-motivated, but loves tennis balls, this game won’t provide much of a challenge, but it might still be fun. For some other ideas on how to create mental challenges for a senior or any dog, check out this list of canine brain games from Mother Nature News.
The success of any canine brain game will depend on your dog’s own personality, intelligence and learning-style, so be creative and explore! The take-home lesson for us humans is to try new things and encourage our dogs (and cats!) to do the same. Trying out different puzzle games and training for new tasks and tricks can help keep an old dog young, and it might have the same effect on us humans! To exercise your brain learning more about the cognitive and emotional lives of pets, read this PugetPets blog post.