Figuring out a fun toy to get for your dog can sometimes feel like playing a game of charades. After spending hours on the supermarket aisles picking out what you think is the perfect toy for him, you could still end up with the toy discarded by your dog after a mere 2 minutes of play, or worse yet, he may decide to completely ignore it.
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Exactly what is it that determines whether a toy makes it into the list of a dog’s favorite toys?
Well, researchers from the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School think they have the answer to this all-important question. According to a study published in Animal Cognition, a renowned animal behavior journal, dogs get this trait from their closest ancestor — the wolf.
“Because we think that dogs perceive toys in the same way that wolves perceive prey, they prefer toys that either taste like food or can be torn apart,” says John Bradshaw, a researcher at the University of Bristol Veterinary School and co-author of the study.
During the experiment, Labrador retrievers were introduced to different toys in intervals of 30 seconds, during which they would play with the toy until they lost interest. Multiple toys of different colors and materials were used, ensuring they remained distinguishable from each other throughout.
What the study revealed may not come as a surprise to many dog owners – that after an initial period of intense interest, the dog eventually grows bored with the toy as he gets used its characteristics.
What the experiment revealed can be summarized as follows:
- Dogs, like their wolf ancestors, picture toys as prey and therefore go for toys that taste like food, or which make noises and can be torn to pieces.
- Most dogs would rather have softer toys they can chew and easily manipulate, rather than harder toys that don’t make noises.
- Dogs, like kids, only show interest in new things, otherwise, once they’re accustomed to their playthings, they quickly lose interest.
- Most dogs prefer their playtime when you take part in it. They become excited about their toy when you also show excitement, otherwise, there’s really no fun in the game if you’re not in the scene.
A Background on Dog Toys
Once upon a time, the only toys that were available for dogs to play with were homemade balls, bones, sticks, and ropes. The pets’ supplies and toys business did not truly take off until the middle of the 19th century when American culture became urbanized, stores purchases multiplied, and advertising of pet merchandise saw human interest in dogs skyrocket.
Developments in the pet industry saw rawhide chews and artificial toys such as the Nyla bone launched in 1955 in response to dogs’ instinctual need to chew, and almost two decades later, KONG, an almost indestructible food dispensing rubber toy, was launched into the market thanks to the efforts of toymaker Joe Markham.
What followed was the spawning of generic toy products inspired by KONG, and an eventual explosion in the variety of food stuffed toys available in the market.
Today there are all sorts of toys you can purchase at the pet store or supermarket; to help make sense of it all, we have tried to break them down into categories and study what their characteristics are, and how they affect your dog’s playtime.
Types of Dog Toys
Dog toys can be broadly categorized into 5 groups as follows:
- Interactive toys, which are designed to encourage bonding between you and your dog during playtime.
- Toys for self-amusement, which are usually tougher and more durable, for dogs to play with while alone at home.
- Training toys purposed to help dogs recognize what items are okay to chew on. They help with teething.
- Treat-dispensers or enrichment toys meant to stimulate your dog’s mind and fight boredom
- Comfort toys – which are often plush toys, although they can include any other item which your dog bonds with.
As much as dogs like chewing on something or chasing things around, what they really crave for is your attention. Interactive toys give you the opportunity to spend quality time with your doggy friend while allowing him to play, exercise, and get the attention he requires. Interactive toys come with unique features meant to sustain your dog’s interest that can include special sounds, movements or contents.
Dog Fetch Toys
One of the most popular and fun ways of spending an afternoon with your pooch is by playing a good game of fetch. Whether it’s a tennis ball, a stick, a bone, or Frisbee, dogs are always up to the challenge of retrieving these objects, and they simply love the opportunity to be outdoors engaging in healthy exercise while enjoying a one on one session with their owner.
TufToys have developed a line of interactive pet dog toys that also incorporate indestructible properties. Made of ThermoPlastic Rubber (TPR), these toys include the Big Tough 14″ Interactive Dog Tug Toy, and the Big 9″ Dog Frisbee Toy, designed to cater for both aggressive and semi-aggressive chewers. They come with the added advantage of floating on water, which makes them suitable for pool use and dock diving.
Tug toys are an ideal way of harnessing the energy in your hyperactive dog. They keep him occupied, helping him avoid destructive or unhealthy behavior, while at the same time engaging him physically and mentally. Although tug of war games have been blamed for bringing out aggression in untrained dogs, such a reaction only occurs when you cede control of the game to your dog. Taking control during playtime is achieved by stopping the game whenever things get out of hand.
The Big 14″ Tough Dog Toy is a wonderful choice for a dog owner who’s looking to have a good time with their dog and burn energy at the same time. Being practically indestructible, this toy made of TPR material is suitable for dogs of varying sizes and can take quite a bit of punishment from a dog’s teeth without ripping apart.
Nina Ottosson has helped develop this line of toys in a major way by designing interactive games that stimulate a dog’s brain, while at the same time reinforcing his relationship with humans. The puzzles are made in such a way that your dog has to use both his mental and physical dexterity to work through the challenges which enable him to access the hidden treats. And you don’t have to worry if your dog isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed; according to Ottosson’s website, there’s a game suited for every kind of dog, “whether you have a ‘Forrest Gump’ or an ‘Albert Einstein.’”
Dog Agility Training Kits
We all want the best for our dogs, and that includes physical fitness. Agility kits are obstacles designed to offer mental and physical stimulation and at the same time strengthen the human-canine bond. They help your dog build he’s eye-paw coordination and come in handy when training him for extracurricular activities such as hunting and showmanship.
Tony Lawlor, Senior Vice President of JAKKS Pacific Inc., makers of backyard agility sets, says the real reward you get from training your dog using agility kits is the time you spend with him. “You’re interacting with your dog, the dog has to think going over jumps and through tunnels and over jumps, and he’s also getting exercise.”
Self-Amusement Toys – Chewing Toys
Dogs love to chew – there is no doubt about that. We’ve already seen how they respond to soft toys that squeak, and how that is partially due to their wolf ancestry. However, the kind of chewing your canine displays also depends on whether he’s a soft chewer, medium chewer or aggressive chewer.
One of the reasons your dog gnaws at your favorite shoes or rug is that this action helps relieve him of stress. Chewing is said to calm down canines while releasing hormones, called endorphins, from their brain which leave them feeling good.
The next time you feel exasperated by your pup’s chewing habits, you should know that this is perfectly normal behavior which can be mitigated by gently directing his attention to more appropriate objects like specially designed toys.
If your dog is a gentle chewer like a Great Dane, you will find he is best served by a soft rubber toy that will yield to his teeth. However, if he’s a power chewer, like a Terrier, you’re much better off getting him toys made from tough rubber that can withstand the most aggressive chewing.
Thermoplastic Rubber Toys
TPR toys are suitable for indoor as well as outdoor games and are designed to take the toughest punishment meted out by a dog. They come in different shapes and sizes and are loved for their bright colors and ability to float. Sometimes they come with a treat inside or are designed to squeak when bitten. The best part is they don’t splinter and are therefore not a risk to your dog’s health.
Rawhide bones are made from the inner soft hide or skin of an animal like a cow, sheep, pig, or horse. They’re popular with dogs because being a ‘natural’ treat, they satisfy your dog’s urge to gnaw and clean his teeth.
Nicole Stebbins, writing for Canine Journal, warns that playtime with rawhides needs to be supervised, to prevent your pup from swallowing their treat too quickly, which can lead to choking or problems with digestion. She recommends rawhides which are long and cylindrical as these are harder to swallow whole.
“Rawhide bones could be an inadvertent source of harmful chemicals for your dog,” she adds and also cautions dog owners against getting their dogs rawhides that are too dry, as they can break their teeth.
Deer Antler Chews
Chewing on antlers is an excellent way for your dog to pass time because they’re made from a hard bony material which is long lasting and doesn’t have a strong odor. Antlers help your dog keep its teeth clean while enabling him to expend energy and stay out of trouble. They are loved by younger dogs and most power chewers.
Chew Toys Comfort Your Dog
Chew toys give dogs a “feel-good” factor and are used in dog shelters to offer comfort to dogs who spend most of the day alone. So if you know you’ll be gone away for the day, leaving your dog a toy to chew on is a good way to keep him busy. In fact, they are a great tool to use when teaching your dog to use his prearranged sleeping area.
Treat dispensers can vary in design from distractible toys made of rubber or fabric with the treats fitted inside, to puzzles of the Nina Ottosson kind that really work your dog’s brain. They can also be fully fledged machines which you control remotely to reinforce positive behavior in your dog.
Treat dispensers are ideal for dogs who tend to eat their food too quickly and are also good for expending mental energy in a positive way, which keeps your dog away from destructive behavior.
A word of caution, though. Most dispensers work well with kibble but are no good with homemade treats like raw meat which can end up jamming it.
Dog trainer Jolanta Benal contends that “For most dogs, getting hold of food is the single most interesting and satisfying activity in the world. It occupies their brains and their noses and leaves them happily relaxed.” She advises dog owners to look for dispensers which can soak up repeated punishment from their dogs and to be prepared to take the toy away if the rough play puts the dog at risk of injury.
Something else to be mindful of when dealing with dispensing machines is to resolve any issues your dog may have on guarding toys or food. Ignoring such behavior can lead to conflict if you have more than one dog in your household.
Useful tips you should consider when getting a food dispensing toy are:
- It should be easy to clean,
- You should use it sparingly, otherwise, he will refuse his regular meals
- It cannot replace regular exercise required by your canine. In fact, Jennifer Coates, a vet, recommends “combining the mental stimulation of a food-dispensing dog toy with daily exercise if you want a strong and healthy dog.
- You should be careful not to overfeed your dog which can lead to health complications, especially if you use high-calorie treats
Comfort toys are designed for the semi-aggressive chewers and are popular with dog owners because they’re safe, fun and come in all manner of forms and size guaranteed to keep your pet entertained for long periods of time.
Plush toys are made of soft material like leather, cotton, wool or synthetic fiber that are soft on your dog’s teeth, and which he can cuddle up to. Plush toys are currently the most dominant toys the dog market, a fact that is acknowledged by Rich Maccan of My Dog Brand, who says “Plush is the number one category in the world thanks to impulse buys.”
Plush toys are great for your dog to carry around, shaking vigorously or sniffing at, while others are loved by your dog simply because they give him the opportunity to “kill” them. Whatever the reason, you should make sure you choose the right toy for your dog, and that it doesn’t leave a fine mess in your living room when dismembered. More importantly, it shouldn’t pose a health hazard by having stuffing inside, or parts that are sewn on (such as beads for eyes), which can cause him to gag, or block his digestive system. For this reason, the preference for stuffingless toys are growing in popularity to stuffed ones.
Plush toys come in a wide assortment of designs including plush balls, stuffed animals, and squeaky toys. Some plush toys which are marketed as durable have double stitching and hidden seams to make them more resistant to tearing, although the jury is still out on whether this extends their lifespan significantly.
Just like toddlers love the smell of their blankets, our furry friends have the same affinity for our stuff – whether it’s a T-shirt, towel or scarf – because it’s full of our scent. This kind of comfort toy is designed for dogs to cuddle up to and to help them cope with separation anxiety while their owners are away. Some toymakers have even gone the extra mile of designing blankets with a pouch inside, where you can place an old piece of clothing with your scent, to encourage your dog to snuggle up to while you’re away.
Basically, all the toys we’ve covered so far have the potential of acting as training toys depending on how you use them to bring out certain behavior from your dog. However, when it comes to using treats as a way of reinforcing certain behavior, dog experts have different opinions regarding such practices.
Linda Martuch, former President of Genuine Dog Gear, and self-proclaimed agility addict, advocates using of toys as opposed to only treats when training dogs. “If you’ve used food successfully in your training program,” she says, “you might wonder why you should move outside your comfort zone and start using a new type of reinforcement.”
Toys have certain advantages over treats such as the ability to turn practice sessions into fun and games. Linda believes that by linking work and play, you create a stronger drive in your dog, more confidence and reduced stress, leading to a happier dog overall.
When dogs think of their obedience or agility exercises as play tend to find work as reinforcing, even in the absence of the toy. Moreover, training with toys takes away focus on the food which can act as a distraction when you’re trying to teach the dog something.
The best part about using a toy is that unlike treats, you will never run out of toys to train your dog with.
How to Keep Old Toys New
Dogs like new toys. Researchers from the University of Giessen in Germany and the University of Lincoln in the UK have proven this, and they call it neophilia. As a dog owner, your best bet for keeping your dog interested in his toys is by keeping them new. And you don’t necessarily have to do this by buying new ones in a store or exchanging your old ones.
Instead of leaving your toys out all the time, which causes them to lose their appeal, you can always hide them from your dog and bring them back into circulation after a while. By rotating them this way you can maintain the novelty of the toy in the eyes of your dog, and therefore sustain his interest over a longer period of time.
You may not know this, but YOU too can contribute in making old toy new to your dog. How you play with your dog using the toy changes its meaning, and can increase the amount of interest shown by your dog as demonstrated by Patricia McConnell an applied animal behaviorist.
When both the owner and his dog engage with a toy it brings an entirely new meaning which helps enrich playtime and allows more turnaround time before a toy has to go out of circulation.
Different dogs have unique levels of energy and personalities, which is reflected in the preference they show for their favorite toys. So before you decide that a toy has outlived its usefulness, you may want to ask yourself if you have used it in the best possible way when playing with your dog. Equally, if you can’t be available to play with your dog, then you’re best off picking a toy that can be chewed, or easily manipulated, to keep your dog interested.