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DIY Brain Training Game For Dogs

Canine enrichment, brain games for dogs, mental stimulation for dogs

Here’s a great DIY brain training game for dogs that helps build confidence and reduces negative reactions to novel sounds and situations. It is also a great activity to make your dog work for their daily food, which is much more enriching and mentally stimulating than eating from a bowl.

Do you have a dog that reacts to strange noises? Perhaps your dog is sensitive or can be nervous? Would you like to reduce barking in the home? Would you like to help your dog be more confident in new situations? Or are you just looking for a different DIY brain training game that you can easily do at home? This engaging activity can help with all that and more.

Recycling Rummage

Before you start, for this DIY brain training game you will need the following items-

  • Large cardboard box or laundry basket. It should be shallow enough that your dog can reach inside easily.
  • Random clean pieces from your recycling bin- small empty cardboard boxes, different sizes of plastic bottles, cardboard tubes, scrunched up paper, plastic food trays. Obviously nothing sharp, made of glass or potentially toxic from food residue.
  • Additional items for training progression- different materials to make louder and different noises. For example, smooth metal objects such as lids or spoons, popcorn kernels, dried beans, plastic balls.
  • Part of your dog’s usual daily food. This activity can be done with raw food or kibble.
  • Some higher value food- something other than your dog’s usual daily food.

Brain training for dogs

Step One

Drop some food in to the bottom of your empty box and let your dog find it. Throw a piece of food away from the box so your dog moves to get it, then add another piece to the box. Repeat a few times.

Step Two

Add a couple of small, quieter pieces of recycling to the box. Good first items are toilet roll tubes and cardboard fruit trays. Add some food and let your dog search for it.

Step Three

When your dog is happily sticking their head in the box with a couple of items, gradually add more along with some food. Use different sized objects and different materials. This is where you need to adapt the game to the individual dog in front of you. Some need to go slowly, they may need several sessions with just the box or just a couple of quieter additions. Others skip through steps one and two in a couple of minutes and you can add more pieces of recycling quite quickly.

Step Four

Once your dog is readily engaging with the box and you have several cardboard and plastic items in there, some dogs may benefit from making the task more difficult by adding ‘noisier’ objects. Again, do this gradually, one at a time and only add more if your dog is showing no signs of concern. Examples of noisier objects include metal spoons, metal lids, cardboard containers with dried beans inside (taped up) and plastic bottles with popcorn kernels inside (lid on tight).

How do you know your dog is ready for you to make the activity harder?

Look at your dog’s body language. If they are straight in the box with no hesitation, then they should be fairly confident. If your dog is slow to go for the food, leaning backwards, jumpy or leaning forwards and then stepping back, you will need to go more slowly as these are signs that your dog is concerned. Do not be tempted to rush, there is no time limit and the whole point is for your dog to enjoy the experience and gain confidence. Making the task too difficult serves no purpose. Remember that the goal is a happy, confident dog, not how much recycling you can fill your box with!

A couple of minutes doing this game may be enough for some nervous dogs to begin with. More confident dogs can be kept engaged searching for their whole meal hidden amongst the recycling. Adapt your ‘ask’ according to the individual dog. It is usual for it to take several sessions before your dog will happily eat from a full box and this may be spread out over days or even weeks.

Using Higher Value Food

With all but the most confident dogs, it is a good idea to use the occasional piece of higher value food in the box whilst you are introducing this game. This will help keep your dog’s interest searching and also provides a different smell for them to look for. Having higher value food ready also ensures you are prepared, should your dog need some extra help. For example, if the dog isn’t progressing with their confidence despite not making the task harder or if they seem worried by added noise, use some higher value food to reward those small steps of confident moments that you want more of.

Higher value food is whatever your dog particularly enjoys, such as cooked chicken, small pieces of pate or our training treats.

Here you can see our Collie enjoying Recycling Rummage.
He is choosing to search for some kibble rather than eat the free roast pork on the mat beside him.


As an added bonus to building confidence and reducing reactions to strange noises, this game helps to keep dogs mentally content and less likely to engage in unwanted behaviour. How? By something called contrafreeloading, which is a sometimes unexpected phenomenon.

Contrafreeloading is when dogs prefer food that requires effort to obtain. This means that given the choice, they would rather earn their food than be given it for free and this leaves them happy, tired and much more likely to behave in a positive way. How cool is that?!

Thank You For Reading

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE 

Further Reading

Here’s a video of another simple DIY enrichment activity from Niki at Twickenham Dog Services. WATCH.

This blog HERE introduces passive calming activities. Lisa from Quibells N Bits explains how to help your dog decompress and relax.

Nikki from Unleashed Potential talks more about contra freeloading HERE.

Whilst Laura from Constructive Canines writes more about canine enrichment HERE.