By Nina Ottosson

Why do show dogs thrive with puzzles and brain teasers?

Dogs as well as humans need activity. But it’s important to find a balance of activity and inactivity, so the dog does not get stressed by under- or over activity.  Finding that balance is easier said than done. It’s difficult to determine when a dog had too much or too little activity. You need to keep an eye on your dog and determine when he or she is acting that is not in sync with their normal behavior. Walking is a great activity, but dogs also need mental stimulation. All dogs need to use their heads in order to feel good, and some working dogs like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois have a greater need. If energetic dogs don’t get to channel their energy into an organized activity, they can create their own “fun”, which is not always appreciated by the owners.

Keeping your dog engaged can consist of anything from tracking in the woods to hiding treats in a room. Everybody loves a challenge and your special dogs are no different. In good weather it’s easy for dogs to get more stimulation, but in bad weather it is often hard to vary the activities indoors and think of fun activities that are entertaining, simple and stimulating.

Mental activation is something many dog owners may not have time for, or have difficulty coming up with ideas for, and they may not realize how important it is for the dog’s overall health. It would significantly reduce the number of “problem dogs” if everyone understood how important it is for the dog to use both its head as well as its legs. My philosophy is the dog has four legs and one head, and all five need activity in different ways – every day.

When my two kids were born a year and a half apart, I didn’t have time to activate my dogs the way they and I were used to. I had two Bouvier des Flandres that I used to train and compete with. I began thinking about how to activate them in a simple, fun and varied way indoors.

Thea pawing her DogPyramid

Thea pawing her DogPyramid

Brain Teasers

Since 1990 I have worked with development and design of dog activity toys and games that stimulate the dog mentally, or “brainteasers” for dogs. The toys are fun and creative, easy to play with indoors or outdoors, and are developed with the dog’s natural movements and instincts in mind.

The activity toys and games, which most dogs love to play with, are designed for the dog to work with problem solving in different ways, finding hidden treats by lifting blocks, turning discs, etc.

The purpose of these games is that the owner can activate the dog in an easy and fun way at home. While using the games, the dog and owner will get a chance to have more contact with each other and strengthen their relationship. At the same time, they can train everyday obedience in a fun way, such as: sit, stay and wait.

Wild animals get natural mental stimulation when hunting for food, which has inspired me when developing the games to match the dog’s natural movements and instincts. The dog has to work to get food or treats, not just have it served from a bowl. Dogs love to know that they have earned what they’ve gotten. They take pride in it, and it also won’t take it for granted since they know they’ve put effort into it.

Creating Activities

Dogs have different drives to be susceptible to praise when teaching them different actions or movements.

Some dogs are motivated by:

  • Toys
  • Treats
  • Yourself
  • Smells
  • Hunting
  • Exercise or Movement

Eating is the primary driving force, since it’s important for survival, which is what I have based my products on. I added other things like movement, hunting, object interest and touch, since the dog will get praise and pets when it works to find treats in the games. All of these components mean that most dogs regardless of their size, or if they belong to the Toy, Herding, Hound, Sporting, Non-Sporting, Terrier, or Working groups can use the games.

Thea playing with MixMax

Thea playing with MixMax

Levels of Games

However, dogs, like people, have different levels of intelligence. The good news is that they can develop their skills by starting off with basic tasks then progressing to bigger challenges. I realized early on that to suit as many dogs as possible, my games must have different difficulty levels. In addition, some dogs with a genetic disposition for fetching will find certain games easier than dogs that first have to learn how to fetch.

All dogs enjoy a variety of activities and appreciate trying new things. The same goes for these games – some dogs are happy with games that are simple and easy, while others need increasingly difficult ones. It’s the same for people and crossword puzzles. Some people are happy with simple ones, while others continue to challenge themselves with more difficult crosswords.

Starting Out

I recommend starting games with puppies, which is what I have done with my dogs.

Begin with:

  • Simple games
  • Play for a short time
  • Play together
  • Be positive
  • Give lots of praise

My dogs learn words like wait, sit, etc., extremely fast because it’s fun, they get treats and we’re doing something fun together. These games are also excellent to use for senior or injured dogs.

Games for Injured Dogs

I have a lot of experience with older dogs that were not able to go for walks due to worn-out hips and joints. Despite this, they were very alert because we played games together daily. I am convinced that their final years were enriched because of this. With injured dogs I place the games on a chair, so they work with their noses and not with their injured paws.

No doubt it’s challenging to keep a recovering dog still for several weeks, but the games give the dog an outlet for their energy. The games also help dogs who are underweight and don’t like to eat. Many dogs will eat more when the food is put in the games instead of in their bowls.

Thea tackles the Dog Fighter brain teaser game

Thea tackles the Dog Fighter brain teaser game

Using Games With Treats

Activity games and toys containing treats should always be used under supervision. You can increase the difficulty by locking with blocks or pegs the dog has to lift up to find the hidden treats. These should only be used when the dog understands how the game works, and that it should work its way to the treats and not bite the parts.

When starting out, it’s best not to use games that are too difficult, and to give the dog some time to understand how they work. Most dogs quickly understand that they have to work to get to the treats and that it pays to listen to directions from the owner. This communication between the dog and its owner is very rewarding and leads to a deeper understanding while having fun.

My puzzle games and toys are made of eco-friendly wood and toxin-free plastic. The wood has a heavier design, excellent for dogs that get excited and tend to get rough. The plastic is stable, easy to clean, which is great for dogs that drool, and can be used with both wet and dry food.

This means that you can use most of the plastic games to make “doggie ice cream”: Mix meaty dog food with water, pour some of the mixture in the compartments, put the game in the freezer and let it set. This is perfect for hot days or when the dog needs extra activity, but always supervise and remember to have fun! We hope that this piece has helped you to stimulate your dogs mind. Sharing stories and questions is important so that we can all learn from it. Please don’t hesitate to let us know what’s on your mind.

Since 1990, Nina Ottosson’s award-winning puzzle toys and games ( have improved the lives of pets and pet parents all over the world. Named one of “45 People Who Changed The Dog World” by Dog Fancy Magazine, Nina Ottosson has pioneered the development of Puzzle Games & Toys that utilize reward-based play patterns to keep pets stimulated.

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