How smart is your dog? It’s a question more and more people are asking and trying to answer with things like a DIY dog IQ test. Now, there are even more academic studies of the subject with some universities, like Yale, setting up their own centers for canine cognition. According to the New York Times, people are flocking to them to find out how smart their dogs are.
But you don’t need to travel miles to a university lab to help improve your dog’s intelligence. Here are eight simple games you can play to help increase your dog’s smarts, fulfill her need for discipline, and tighten your bond with her.
Old dog, new trick
The simplest way to boost your dog’s intelligence is to teach him a trick or command he doesn’t know yet, while ignoring the tricks that he does know. As with teaching a dog any new tricks, the most important props are positive rewards and patience and your best tool is instinct.
That is, if you’re trying to teach your dog to shake, don’t grab their paw to try to make him get the idea. Instead, wait for him to move his paw, then reward that. As he associates a reward with the action, he should become more definite with his paw movements, until he’s performing “shake” and thinking it was his idea.
A variation on this one which is good if your dog already knows a lot of tricks is “no repeat.” That is, reward your dog for performing a trick he already knows, but then don’t let him repeat any tricks during the training period, which should last no more than thirty minutes so you don’t overtax your dog’s mind. This will also help him improve his memory, since he has to remember what he’s done already and try something else.
In case you’re looking for new tricks to teach your dog, here’s a list of 52. That’s a new trick every week for a year!
Creating a mental challenge for your dog doesn’t have to that complicated or expensive. For this one, you probably have most of the part already around the house or can find them at the local dollar store. All you need is a muffin or cupcake pan, some tennis balls, and treats.
Start by hiding a few treats in some of the cups in the pan, then filling them with the balls, which should be just the right size to fit the openings and cover the treats. Then, let your dog try to find the treats and figure out that she’ll have to move the tennis balls to get to them. Best of all, this costs a lot less than commercially available hide-a-treat toys.
Nose, eyes, ears — that’s the order in which a dog perceive the world, and this game is all about the sense of smell. It can also be a good starter if you ever want to get your dog into search and rescue training.
Basically, your dog is going to be using his nose to find the hidden treats. When starting out the game, begin by having your dog sit and stay, and then show him where you’ve hidden the treat amongst a few small boxes. Once he gets the hang of finding the treat that he’s seen you hide, make it a little more difficult. Don’t let him see where you’ve hidden the treat, increase the number of boxes, or find a hiding place that can mask the smell, like with an old sock.
If you want to vary things or add more incentive, reward your dog with a high value treat for finding the hidden regular treat.
This is exactly what it sounds like and a variation of hide-and-seek, although shells are strictly optional and you’ll probably want to use something bigger. The important part is that you have three covers that your dog can’t see through.
Hide a treat under one of the covers and start by just letting your dog figure out that she has to knock over or move only that one cover to get the treat. Once she’s mastered this part, then you can shuffle the covers after you’ve hidden the treat. Note that she doesn’t get a reward for cheating by knocking over the wrong cover or more than one. She only gets the treat when she picks the right one on the first try.
Hide and seek
This one doesn’t require very much explanation because it’s exactly what it sounds like, although you can choose between hiding a treat or other scented object somewhere or by hiding yourself and seeing how long it takes your dog to find you.
Depending on how easily you can get your dog to sit and stay while you go hide, you may need another person to help with the game. It also works indoors or out, so you can play no matter what the weather is like.
Name that toy!
There’s still some disagreement on how many words the average dog can learn. A lot of estimates put it at around 165, although several dogs have tested higher, with the current record-holder, a border collie named Chaser, demonstrated knowledge of 1,022 words. Fortunately, you probably don’t have that many toys lying around, so your dog is probably perfectly capable of learning the names of all of his.
The goal is to teach your dog to bring you a particular toy when you ask for it by name. The secrets are repetition and consistency. You have to repeat the name in association with the particular toy until your dog will select the right one every time, but you also have to use the same name for each toy every time. You can’t say “Bring be the blue ball” some times and “Bring me the ball” others, because this will confuse him.
Incidentally, while dogs don’t see color the same way that we do, they can still learn to associate a color with an object if there are other differences — for example, if one ball is very bright and the other is dark, if they’re different sizes, or smell different because of the material they’re made of. And they can distinguish the colors themselves if they are different enough in dog vision — for example, a red ball and a blue ball. Dogs are particularly adept at seeing blue.
Pick a hand
This is a good trick for teaching your dog to pay attention to you and follow your instructions, and is fairly simple to teach. The idea is that you will show the dog which hand you have a treat in, but teach her that she has to pick the hand you name regardless of where the treat is hidden.
This trick is a bit more advanced, so it shouldn’t be the first one you teach, but if your dog is sufficiently motivated by the reward, she should pick it up eventually. Show the treat and hide it in your hand, then hold both of your hands in front of the dog while repeating which hand you want her to choose — for example, your left. When she touches the correct hand with her nose or her paw (your choice), then she gets the treat. Try to vary it so that sometimes you’re naming the hand with the treat and sometimes you’re not.
Keep in mind that this trick can be very confusing to your dog at first, so watch for signs that she’s becoming frustrated, in which case you’ll want to start with the treat in the hand you name most of the time until she seems confident on the difference between right and left.
Stop and go
Before this game, your dog should already have a mastery of the commands “sit,” “stay,” and “come.” Work in an area where your dog can safely be off-leash, or at least where you don’t have to hold his leash if you’d prefer to have a quick way to step in and stop him.
Next, get your dog to chase a toy — ideally, one with some kind of rope or line attached so that you can pull it from a distance. Then, while your dog is chasing the toy, give them the command to sit or stay. If they ignore the command, withdraw the toy and put them in a sit. If the dog does sit on your command, then give him the okay to go immediately.
The idea is to train your dog to focus on you even during the distraction of play, as well as the idea that the faster he sits the faster you’ll release him to chase the toy again.
Remember that our dogs like to make us happy and they like to figure things out. With the games above, you can help fulfill your dog’s need for a job and discipline, while improving her mind.