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Dogs are incredibly smart, and they need mental exercise just like they need physical exercise. This is particularly true during times of the year when dogs find themselves stuck indoors. Boredom in dogs leads to frustration and destructive behavior. But giving your dog a cognitive workout burns off excess energy, provides entertainment, and prevents problem behavior. There are lots of fun cognitive training games you can play, but toys can challenge your dog’s brain as well.

There are tons of fun puzzle toys on the market; however, some can be quite expensive and others are simply too small or too large for a given breed. Do-it-yourself cognitive dog toys not only save you money but allow you to tailor the toy to your dog’s size and preferences. Here are some easy DIY toys that will help fire up (and tire out) your dog’s brain on days when you’re stuck inside!

Toilet Tube Treat Dispensers

Cardboard containers make great destructible treat dispensers. Empty toilet paper tubes or paper towel rolls can be stuffed with soft treats. For example, spread peanut butter or cream cheese along the inside of the cardboard tube. Your dog will have to lick the treat out while preventing the tube from rolling away or being squished flat. To increase the challenge, fold down the ends of the tube so your dog must rip into the cardboard to get at the goodies inside. And for a longer-lasting treat, freeze the tube and its contents before giving it to your dog.

If a paper towel roll is too small for your dog or you want to use hard dog treats or bits of kibble, try using an empty box. Poke holes in the box slightly larger than the size of the treats, place the treats in the box, and seal the top. Your dog will have to toss the box around in order to get the treats to fall out of the holes. To alter the challenge, simply change the size of the container. Your dog will need to manipulate an empty tissue box differently than a cylindrical potato chip tube or a pizza box.

Because these cardboard dispensers are destructible, ensure your dog doesn’t eat the bits of cardboard that fall off. As with any puzzle toy, these are meant to be used under supervision. And because these toys were destined for your recycling bin anyway, there’s always a fresh box or tube waiting to be filled.

Muffin Tin Shell Game

This version of the shell game requires a muffin tin and a ball for each cup in the tin. Tennis balls are a great size for a standard muffin tin, but any appropriately sized ball will do. And if your dog is a Toy breed, simply use a mini muffin pan and miniature tennis balls. But don’t ever use balls too small for your dog’s size, as they can pose a choking hazard.

To help your dog get the hang of the game, leave the cups uncovered at first. Fill each muffin cup with treats or kibble and let your dog lick or paw the goodies out. Now that your dog knows good things can be found in the cups, it’s time to cover them with the balls. Your dog will have to remove each ball to get at the treat underneath.

To increase the difficulty, only bait some of the cups with food but continue to cover all the cups with balls. Now your dog will need to use scent to locate where the treats are located. This will help prepare your dog for other scent-related games like hide and seek.

Shoebox Hide and Seek

You don’t have to participate in an AKC Scent Work trial to have fun with your dog’s nose. Try doing some indoor scent games for dogs. All you need is a set of empty containers like shoeboxes or yogurt tubs. Place the containers in a group on the floor and bait one or a few with smelly treats. Then allow your dog to sniff all the containers to search for the hidden treasure.

Pharaoh Hound doing scent work.
©Nathan Brower

In the beginning, you can make your dog’s job easier by poking holes in the tops of the containers. Once your dog has the idea, start increasing the challenge by only baiting one of the containers and spreading them out around the room. The more containers your dog must search through, the greater the effort required.

Doggy Ball Pit

If your dog enjoys playing hide-and-seek, this toy will really up the difficulty level. All you need is a plastic kiddie pool and tons of balls. Fill the kiddie pool with the balls, then sprinkle kibble or treats on top. As your dog walks through the balls to retrieve the food, the balls, and therefore the treats, will keep shifting positions, keeping your dog occupied for a long time.

This can be a great way to feed dogs who tend to gulp their food. It slows them down and provides lots of mental stimulation. And for dogs who are easily frustrated or nervous about new situations, start with only a few balls in the pool and slowly increase the number as the dog gets comfortable.

Tea Towel Snuffle Mat

Snuffle mats are pieces of fabric with lots of loops, flaps, or pockets that can be used to hide treats. The point is for your dog to sniff for treats hidden in the fabric. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can make your own snuffle mat out of sturdy fabric. Simply stitch pockets and flaps all over the material to allow you to hide bits of food.

A simpler, sewing-free alternative is to buy a plastic mat. Look for one with a grid of holes already in it, like a rubber sink mat, or poke holes in the mat yourself. Then tear fleece into strips that are six to eight inches long. Tie a fleece strip through each hole in the mat until the top of the mat looks like a fleece forest. Once you’ve filled all the holes, toss a handful of treats on the top of the mat, then watch your dog snuffle through the fleece to retrieve them.

An even easier version of the snuffle mat can be made from a tea towel. Lay a towel flat on the floor and place some treats in the center. Then fold the towel lengthways across the treats. Next, tie the towel in a loose knot so the treats are in the middle. Your dog will have to figure out how to untie the tea towel to get at the treats inside. Easy for you to make, but not easy for your dog to undo! To add to the challenge, tie several tea towels together in a row, placing treats in each one.

Related article: 9 Ways to Make Valentines Day Special for Your Dog
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