5 Indoor Dog Games for When You Can’t Go Out

Here are some of our favorite brain activities to help you and your dog survive the coronavirus shutdown.


As coronavirus confinement stretches on, dogs and humans are getting buggier by the day from lack of exercise. While there are limits to the physical exercise you two can do while shut-in, there are many indoor dog games you can enjoy together. 

In recent years, behavior scientists have refuted prior thinking that dog brains were pretty limited. (Scientists now acknowledge that canines have extensive cognitive abilities, which has given rise to a whole new range of canine toys, games and training protocols.. Because thinking is very tiring (remember studying for that chemistry exam?), the really good news is that brain exercise can be as tiring and fun as physical exercise.

Here are some of our favorite indoor dog games to help you and your dog survive social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic:

Interactive DIY Dog Toys

While there are commercially-available interactive toys, you can also make toys from things you have at home. Here are some DIY ideas:

Muffin Tin Game: Take a muffin tin and as many tennis balls as your tin has cups. Place a treat in each cup, and press a tennis ball into the cup. Show your dog there’s a treat under the ball if necessary, then hold the tin while she works to recover the goodies.

Tootsie Rug Roll: Let your dog watch you roll up a carpet runner as you drop treats into the runner every six to twelve inches. When the carpet is completely rolled up say “Find it!” and let her figure out how to nudge the roll open to get to the treats. Sometimes feed her meals this way!

Watch Closely: Put three opaque drinking mugs on the floor (wood or vinyl floor works best). Show your dog a treat and place it under one mug. Say “Find it!” and wait for her to nose one of the mugs. When she does, pick up that mug. If the treat is there, let her eat it. If it’s not, cheerfully say, “Too bad!” reset the treat and mugs, and repeat. When she noses the correct mug reliably 8 out of 10 times, take the next step: put the treat under one mug, and shuffle two of the three mugs once. The treat is now moved by one spot. Say “Find it!” Pick up the mug she noses. If it’s there let her eat it. If not, say “Too bad!” and repeat. When she’s successful 8 out of 10 tries, increase difficulty, first by shuffling all three mugs briefly, then shuffling for longer periods.

Cognition Games

Cognition means “mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension, including thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving.” As we learn more about canine cognition, we add even more creativity to our training. 

Related: Are Canines Cognitive?

Here are some simple dog cognition exercises:

Choice: Let your dog watch you close a treat in one fist. Offer him both closed fists and say “You choose!” Open the fist he sniffs first. If the treat is there, let him eat it. If it’s not, say “Too bad!” and repeat. When he chooses the treat-fist 8 out of 10 times, generalize “You choose” to other situations and let him indicate his choice. Go the door and say “Inside or outside? You choose!” Let his body language tell you which he wants, and honor his choice. Take him for a walk on leash, and when the path divides, say “This way or that way? You choose!” Do these (and many more) as frequently as possible, and he’ll happily understand what it means when you are giving him a choice. 

Want More Tips? Read Pro-Choice from the November 2016  issue.

Object Discrimination: Start with objects your dog already interacts with. Say “Ball, touch!” and invite him to touch it with his nose or paw. Repeat until he does this promptly and reliably, then do it with a second known object: “Fluffy, touch!” Now hold out both objects with one much closer to him, and ask him to touch the one that’s closer. Repeat, randomly swapping the closer one. Gradually decrease the offset until both are the same distance and he can touch the requested item reliably 8 of 10 times. Now add other objects to his repertoire, including new objects that you name.

There are many more cognitive and interactive games you can teach your dog, including reading, color discrimination, imitation and painting.

These days, the fun you can have with your dog indoors is limited only by your imagination and creativity. Time to get busy!

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.