Keeping your puppy mentally stimulated and occupied doesn’t have to cost a lot. Here are some free or inexpensive homemade DIY brain games for dogs to help your dog’s brain grow and develop while keeping them busy in a fun way.
Why is Mental Stimulation Important For My Puppy?
Research on canine brain development has shown that mental stimulation for your dog is just as important as physical exercise for various reasons. Mental health and cognitive functions in dogs can build confidence, strengthen your mutual bond, and release stress in your puppy. Mental stimulation in canines can even increase the lifespan of your puppy!
Exposing your puppy to unique and novel experiences helps your puppy build necessary connections and pathways in its cognitive development. Studies have even shown that “the combination of sight, scent, and spatial orientation required to solve the puzzle helped make connections between different parts of the brain.”
Boredom leads to destructive behaviors
A bored puppy can be an extremely destructive, anxious puppy leading to severe behavioral issues. They will look for something to do if they don’t have an appropriate way to exercise their brain. Puppies may choose to act out in the following ways:
- Chewing all objects in sight, including their own paws
- A general destruction of your property or yard, including digging
- Escaping a confined space
- Licking their own paws and lips raw
- Excessive, incessant barking, whining, and howling
- Becoming aggressive, snappy, and frustrated
Keeping your dog mentally engaged can help reduce puppy separation anxiety and improve behavior.
Make These Fun Brain Games & Toys For Your Dog
Incorporating mental enrichment for your puppy does not have to be expensive or elaborate. In fact, some are downright free using items you have already around your house or purchase inexpensively. Most of our suggestions here are totally free using objects most people already own or can easily borrow.
A word of caution
Because all puppies are different, always supervise your puppy when playing a DIY cognitive dog game with them.
Some puppies can be skittish or scared of regular objects, so easing them into games should be fun and not stressful for them. Pay attention to any distress signs and end the activity right away. You may need to work with them to show them that the game can indeed be fun.
As many of these games involve treats, don’t give too many to contribute to dog obesity or ruin your puppy’s dinner. Make sure your puppy does not ingest anything that could be toxic to them or cause gastrointestinal issues. For example, some dogs may be fine with a DIY rope toy while others will shred it to bits and eat the strings, causing a possible blockage. Be sure to pick up any leftover pieces of materials or food.
Cardboard boxes and tubes toys
Every household will eventually produce a stream of empty cardboard toilet paper and wallpaper tubes. Likewise, if you’re like many Americans, you have lots of empty boxes from online purchases. Before you break them down for recycling, why not put them to good use?
Go for a ride
Coax your puppy into the box. Have someone push or pull it around the floor. If your dog is small enough, you can pick up the box with your dog in it and play “airplane.” Just make sure your dog is not scared, causing her to jump out and hurt herself. Your puppy may even learn to run over to the box and jump in, waiting for a ride!
Free the treat
For this activity, you’ll need an empty box, like a tissue or cereal box, or a paper towel/toilet paper tube. The key is to use destructible flimsy cardboard meant to be ripped up. Cut holes in the box a bit larger than the treats. Fill the box with a reasonable amount of treats and seal it. Then watch your pup try to figure out how to get the treats free! Both you and your dog will be entertained watching him flip over the box, fling it around the room, and other funny antics to reach the delicious treats.
You’ll need newspapers, junk mail, school papers, magazine pages, etc., and treats for this easy activity. Place some treats at the bottom and cover them up with crumpled-up paper pages. Watch your pup enjoy digging through them to reach the treats.
Set up cardboard tubes in a pyramid shape at one end of a room or hallway. Take turns knocking them down with a ball.
Toys made from old clothing
Most of us have some clothes that are not good enough for donation, but you may feel wasteful throwing them away. Give them a second life as a dog toy!
Braided tug toy
Playing tug-of-war with your puppy has several benefits, including increasing your bond, relieving teething pain, and tapping into natural instincts. If you want to make your own tug-of-war toy, it’s easy with old t-shirts. Cut off the parts above the armpits and the bottom seam. Then cut the remaining t-shirt pieces into strips, pull them tightly to make tubes, and braid them together into 3-4 different braided bands. Then braid those bands together, tie at the ends, and you’ve got a substantial, sturdy tug rope.
Jen Clifford of FiveBarks's DIY Braided Ball Tugger
Braided ball tugger
Jen Clifford of FiveBarks shows how to make a ball-wrapped DIY braided ball tugger with dangling “arms” using a squeaky toy and a t-shirt. Your puppy will have fun grabbing the trailing arms and swinging the ball around, playing tug of war, or running after the ball when you toss it.
Lina of Sew Historically's DIY Donut T-shirt Dog Toy
Donut t-shirt dog toy
Instead of giving your puppy a real donut, why not a DIY cloth donut? If you have a cut-off leggings leg, sleeve, or socks with the toes cut off and a strip of cloth, you can make this fun toy puppies will love to carry around, chew, and retrieve. Lina from Sew Historically gives a tutorial showing you how to craft a DIY Donut T-shirt Dog Toy she made for her pooch, Khaleesi.
Toys made from household objects
Muffin tin puzzle game
You’ll need a 6-well muffin tin, 6 balls, and 6 treats. Place a few treats in some wells, leaving others empty. Place a ball on top of each well. Watch your puppy try to push the balls over to reveal the treat. For the next round, switch up the treat locations.
Laundry hamper hide-and-seek with the kids
Playing hide-and-seek is a thrill for both kids and puppies! Have your kids fold and put away the clean laundry in the basket first (which is every parent’s dream, right?) or empty the hamper’s dirty clothes in the washing machine. Have your child climb inside and crouch down in the hamper. They can call the puppy’s name to entice the puppy toward them and then surprise your puppy with cuddles. Hide the basket all over the house until one of them loses interest.
Hide-and-seek games help your dog stimulate his natural instincts for scent work with a wonderful reward at the end. It also encourages your puppy to learn come-when-called commands.
Indoor agility course for smaller dogs
When you think of an agility course, your mind may go to medium or large-sized dogs like Border Collies and Australian Shepherds performing amazing feats outside at great speed. However, little dogs like to have fun, too in a casual way inside! Check out how Muttineer Dog Training made an inside DIY dog agility course at home using an end table, an empty box, and a laundry basket.
Build a homemade outside agility course in the yard
A solid DIY outside agility course for dogs will have all sorts of fun, mentally stimulating obstacles to let puppies figure out how to solve problems while learning commands with physical activity. It’s an all-around win!
For items to run and jump through, try your kids’ toybox. You may find play tunnels, hula hoops, or a box with the bottom and top removed.
Look into building a ramp with cinder blocks from the garden and old plywood pieces – or even extra doors if you've remodeled recently.
Jumping obstacles can be constructed with plain or painted broom handles or dowel rods, kitchen chairs, cinder blocks, hula hoops, pool noodles, or yardsticks.
Play practice cones or vertical PVC pipes make great weaving obstacles.
After your pup has mastered the course, it is fun to time them to see if they can beat their own personal record. Be sure to switch up the order and type of obstacles to keep your puppy solving new challenges and building those cognitive skills to strengthen both their brains and bodies.
Pawrade Will Help You Find a Puppy to Play With
If you’re ready to make fun games for a puppy but need the actual puppy first, Pawrade has you covered! Find puppies for sale that will have so much fun playing games with you for years to come.