FF460: Brain Games - Puzzles for Canines

Instructor: Donna Hill

Course Details

It is always fun to play brain games with our dogs to see just what they can do! Games build our relationship, teach them that we are fun to be around so they eagerly do what we ask of them. Puzzles keep them challenged so life has meaning for them. Doing both drains extra energy that makes them easier to live with-- and makes them smarter too!

Both interactive and independent games help you learn more about your dog's behavior, preferences and abilities of dogs doing sports and tricks. Some of the daily activities take just a few minutes, while others will take several sessions. Some are simple, others are complex. All of them need only a few things that are found commonly in homes. For the keeners in the group, we'll be covering both cognitive and behavioral approaches to learning. 

Choose to spend time on activities that are of interest to you and your dog. By the time you are done with this course, you are going to be absolutely amazed at how well dogs adapt to living with us humans, as well as get a better idea of your dog's specific learning abilities. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and just like learning in humans, we can improve the weaknesses if we want! This class will help you do that.  


  • using human social cues, such as pointing and making eye contact 
  • cooperative problem solving 
  • mapping
  • memory-how long and what kind?
  • applying existing skills in a new context to solve problems
  • playing by the rules
  • deception (cheating) as a way for dogs to get what they want
  • mimicry 
  • language learning-cues and naming objects

Who should take this class:
This class is for anyone who is fascinated by dog behavior and armchair scientists. Anyone who does therapy and trick presentations will love it, as well as dog training instructors who teach advanced classes. There are many ideas you can use with your students! You'll have fun with your dog while learning a little science about them, too. Dogs of any age, skill level and fitness ability can play these games. Ideal for dogs recovering from surgery and senior dogs too.

Each week, I offer some playful brain draining games and puzzles with simple materials. The intent with them is an easy way to entertain our dogs on those days when we don't have the time or energy to do so.

Each week, I will also post some games that have been researched by scientists to give humans a better idea of the breadth of what dogs are capable of. In other words how intelligent are they? My goal is to have you try them with your dog, recording the results (both on video and on computer) and add your data to a class summary. This will give us an idea of how our dogs rate against the dogs being tested in the studies. My bet (or in scientific terminology, my hypothesis) is that we will come to some surprising conclusions about what our dogs are capable of!

This is why I am hoping most people will sign up at silver. Denise has suggested I make it clear that there may be only a few golds to watch, but there will be much fun and thoughtful discussion from the silvers.

I am also offering the option of gold spots since some students may want to follow up on teaching their dog to actually do some of the behaviors that were attempted. I suggest you sign up at silver and upgrade after you've had a chance to look around the class and see how it is run and the topics we are covering. Even if your dog(s) cannot do some of the behaviors, they can be taught incrementally how to do most of the puzzles. In the class, I offer a step by step break down of how to teach the behaviors so you and your dog can better communicate and problem solve together. 


There are no scheduled sessions for this class at this time. We update our schedule frequently, so please subscribe to our mailing list for notifications.

Registration will begin at 10:30AM PST.

Enrollment limits: 6 gold, 15 silver, unlimited bronze. If you are interested in a bronze level spot, you can sign up any time during the registration period.


Introduction-Games and Puzzles for dog sports

Getting to Know your Dog

  • right or left pawed physical traits predict temperament stability
  • preferred visual side
  • direction of fur patterns
  • social nature 
  • problem solving 
  • creativity

Puzzles to Improve Problem Solving

  • trial and error learning
  • using toys
  • homemade puzzles
  • cooperative learning

Role of Memory in problem solving Mapping

  • Solid Barriers-how to go around
  • Open Barriers
  • 4 Bowl memory game
  • L7 Mapping
  • Short Cuts-Landmarking

Problem Solving Using Social Learning 

  • building eye contact for dog sports
  • maximizing the use of natural ability to follow a point 
  • can dogs use deception
  • using mimicry to help dogs learn
  • theory of mind (recognition of self vs others)

Language Learning in Dogs

  • How fast does your dog learn cues?
  • Naming Objects Can your dog do it?
  • Ready, Set. Go!
  • Watch and Listen
  • Size Discrimination: more, bigger

Prerequisites and Equipment

A dog that can sit or down on a mat and stay there until released to do a behavior. This will be the default position for many of the tests. 

Nose target of an object, Paw target of an object or an informal retrieve from about 6 feet.
Other skills such as playing tug with a favorite object are helpful to vary reinforcers.

Materials: (all materials will be items found in most homes and offices)

treats or toys
open rubber ball with 6 sided openings (Holee Roller by JW Pets) or a waffle ball (plastic ball with holes in it) available at Dollar stores)
a ball, or tug toy
high value food bits
3 plastic cups or bowls
duct tape
set of 3 to 6 metal or plastic containers that fit into each other (pots, mixing bowls, pot lids etc)
4 deep buckets, bowls or boxes big enough for your dog to get her head into

16 open containers the dog cannot easily see into (boxes, egg cartons, plastic bowls)
4 pieces of cardboard the same size and shape at least 1 foot by 2 feet and something to lean them against to keep them standing up. Agility jumps or free standing stantions would work. As would posts driven into the ground for those who can do the tests in the yard. Free standing boxes would also work.

two pieces of white card or white paper glued onto cardboard 3 inches by 8.5 inches
felt pen

at least 6 lightweight cardboard boxes and tubes of various sizes that fit into each other (collect after Christmas)
sheets of newspaper
other easily available materials as needed

an extra helper for a few of the games
digital camera with tripod, cell phone with stand or webcam to film the games

Course Testimonials

A sampling of what prior students have said about this course ...

This is a really unique course, and applicable to all dogs regardless of age or ability. We explored so many fascinating aspects about how our dog thinks and problem solves. Where else would I learn my boy is right-pawed, has a memory to match his social nature, identifies his cues by their end sound, and takes more notice of what my elbow or toes are doing than my eyes? This course made me think about my dog in ways I never had before, and I had so much fun doing it. As did our pup. He was in heaven, with a new challenge coming his way every couple of days. Kudos to Donna for coming up with such a creative and clever course, and for supporting it with a wealth of written and video information. Not to mention her generous and always helpful feedback. Anna K          

Brain Games opens your mind about the dogĀ“s cognition. It is other world, full of great games and puzzles. Donna Hill did a wonderful job show us things that are hidden for the normal people. Sergio R          

This was a thought provoking class full of games and puzzles that helped me understand how my dogs learn! Donna is a great instructor and her classes are fun!! Tracy R.          

This is a wonderful class for both home and out on the road. All the instructions give ideas for enlarging on the puzzles and games if I find one that I like especially. I am so glad that I enrolled in this one.           

I enjoyed your class very much and am viewing my dogs with a more open mind. I have signed up for you next class at the bronze level. It appears that this next class will be fast paced also, so I am prepared to follow all the class members and proceed at my own pace.         

Donna, my dogs and I thank you for another awesome class! You kept it challenging and fun! Each time I take one of your classes, I come away with mind blowing ideas and a deeper knowledge of my dogs.