From squeakers to bouncers, everything you need to know about dog toys
By Gina Kim
We love to spoil our pets, and today’s pet industry is making it easier and more fun to do so. Just search for “dog toys” on Amazon.com and you’ll find over 42,000 options. And while we love presenting gifts to our dogs, it can be disheartening to spend over $10 for brightly colored, supposedly indestructible toys only to have a puppy tear it apart in minutes. Or even more frustrating: dogs often ignore the fancy, new toy for the dirt-stained limbs of what was once a stuffed animal.
So what’s going on? What makes our dogs go nuts for some toys and disregard others? Why do some dogs go bonkers for tennis balls, while others stare at us blankly when we suggest they fetch? To get to the bottom of understanding toys and the dogs who love them, NOVADog spoke with local, dog-savvy trainers.
Why do most dogs like to play with toys?
The trainers at Always Pet Care tell us: “Dogs communicate with their mouths. Chewing on toys is a great pacifier for boredom and chew toys are great for teething puppies. It all depends on the dog or the breed as far as what their needs are.”
Local canine behaviorist Mark McCabe explains some of the psychology behind dogs and their toys. “As puppies, play is a not only a way of burning off energy but also, very importantly, a way of learning about the world: what things taste like and feel like. Toys help dogs develop the coordination to chase things down, but they also help with things like teething and developing the muscles in their jaws as well as the rest of their bodies.”
Why do some dogs like toys more than others?
Trainers at Old Towne Pet Resort believe, “Some dogs, especially rescues, may not be familiar with toys and not enjoy them. That’s perfectly normal.”
Mark McCabe adds, “Assuming a healthy upbringing (i.e., they had good access to appropriate play with toys and people or other dogs), the differences mostly come from first breed differences (herders and hunters tend to be the biggest players) and then just differences in individual personalities and energy levels. For dogs who don’t seem to ‘get’ playing with toys, food-stuffed toys can really be great for helping them to learn to engage.”
NOVADog talked to some local dog trainers to get the scoop on various toys available for our pups—everything from traditional balls to more innovative, mentally stimulating items. Here’s all you need to know about the most popular toy options:
Hard rubber toys
Best for: Dogs who love to chew, most dog breeds
Common brands: Kong, Goughnuts
Mark McCabe: “In addition to their substantial durability, another big plus for these toys is that they don’t smell, feel, or taste like any of the stuff in our house that we DON’T want the dogs to chew on. This helps the dogs learn discretion between toys and other items.”
Trainer Tammy Rosen at Fur-Get Me Not: “Goughnuts are more expensive [than Kongs], but worth the cost for added durability. They make extremely tough toys. The green products are made with a red inner lining to indicate when the toy should be replaced, if the dog is chewing off pieces. The black products are able to withstand even the toughest of chewers.”
Old Towne Pet Resort: “Hard rubber toys are best for power chewers, and some toys can be filled with canned food or peanut butter and then frozen for a long-lasting treat. They engage the dog mentally and physically, and make the dogs ‘work’ for their treats.
Stuffed/Plush Animals, Squeaky Animals
Best for: Hunting breeds, dogs who crave security
Common brands: Kyjen, Crazy Kritters
Trainer Lisa Tudor of Kissable Canine: “Dogs like to act out parts of the predatory sequence with toys, such as chasing, biting, shaking, etc. A tough squeaky toy can be a great outlet for a dog to be a dog.”
Trainer Michele Fisher from Always There Pet Care: “The fun of tearing into the fabric and pulling out the stuffing and finally getting to the squeaker is a victory. On the other hand, many dogs like stuffed animals as a security blanket and like to take them everywhere or even suckle on them.”
Tammy Rosen: Kyjen has a great line of plush toys. “Egg babies are very popular. Dogs that like to shred plush toys or like digging are a great fit for these toys. The toy itself is just a shell and inside there are 3 little plush squeaker eggs that the dog pulls out. The toy becomes an activity rather than just chewing on something. And if they shred the squeaker egg, they sell replacement eggs.”
Best for: Retrievers, herders, dogs who love to run
Common brands: Jolly Pets, Boomer Ball
Lisa Tudor: “Every dog has a ‘tendency’ or a predisposition to explore their environment. For retrievers, it tends to be with their mouths and naturally, balls can be a real thrill and a natural outlet for them. Playing fetch can be great exercise.”
Michele Fisher: “Make sure to get the correct size ball for your dogs’ mouths because they can choke on balls that are too small for them. Large Jolly Balls are indestructible and made of a hard plastic; most dogs love to chase them around the yard in a soccer fashion.
Best for: High-energy, well trained dogs
Common brands: Knotted ropes, Kong, Zanies
The trainers had some differences of opinions regarding the use of tug toys, but all agree that a dog should know certain cues before playing tug.
Michele Fisher: “Tug toys are a challenging toy. They are not recommended for dogs that are aggressive or have the leadership role.”
Mark McCabe: “Especially for high energy, playful dogs, these can be a great way to get a lot of exercise in a short amount of time indoors on bad weather days! There is a very common thought in dog-training circles that tug-of-war games are not a good social exercise for dogs, particularly believing that playing tug can really exacerbate a dominant personality in a dog. The real issue is: does the dog let go when you ask him to and re-engage when you tell him he can? If you teach these simple rules, that idea of exacerbating the dog’s dominance tendencies gets flipped right on its head… and for many dogs, this isn’t an issue to begin with, but teaching a stop (release) and start (take it) cue is a very helpful exercise for building communication and self-control in the dog.”
Lisa Tudor: “I encourage teaching an ‘out’ cue that asks the dog to spit out the tug toy when requested.”
Best for: Dogs who love to run and catch
Common brands: ChuckIt!, Dogobie, Hyperflite
Old Towne Pet Resort: “Frisbees give the dog a challenge of seeing ‘prey’ in the air and figuring out how to catch it. They’re a great way to tire out dogs with lots of running.”
Michele Fisher: “Frisbees are similar to balls. They are great for exercise and a great way to burn energy, and the dogs are very happy with the sense of accomplishment that they can catch it.”
What toys should every dog have at home?
Tammy Rosen: “Every dog can benefit from having interactive toys at home. Food-dispensing toys like the Original Kong, Buster Cube, Kong Wobbler, and Kyjen puzzle toys are great. They provide something the dog can do every day and requires low effort on the owner’s part to incorporate these into the dog’s daily mealtime.”
Lisa Tudor: “I’m a big fan of the puzzle toys on the market: the toys that feed a dog a meal while expecting them to use up brain power.”
Old Towne Pet Resort: “Have a wide range of textures to chew on. This will keep dogs from becoming bored and seeking out less desirable items to chew, such as a shoe or the table.”
Mark McCabe: “As puppies, they all should have appropriate chew toys. As very young puppies, that means pretty soft and pliable things. As the puppy grows, somewhat firmer chew toys become more satisfying, especially through teething… For not-so-playful dogs, or dogs who are left alone a lot, especially who have some challenge with that, toys that release food as they are played with are the best way to give dogs breakfast just as you leave the house.”
Advice on Dogs and Toys
Michele Fisher: “It is always a good idea to see how your dog interacts with any toy before you trust them alone with it.”
Tammy Rosen: “One size does not fit all. Continue trying new toys as your dog matures. Rotate toys to keep them interesting, rather than having all of them available at once. You can easily create a new-found love for an old toy. Variety is key.”
Old Towne Pet Resort: “Toy play is infinitely better for the dog when the owner takes an active role. Without you, the owner, the toy just lays on the ground lifeless. It’s the owner that brings it to life, running along the ground, flying through the air, and offering resistance when the dog tries to pull on it.”
Lisa Tudor: “Having trained hundreds of families, the strongest relationships I’ve seen are between the dog and dog owners that play together. And as a mentor once said, ‘The leader of the pack is the one that knows how to have the most fun!’ ND
An intern for NOVADog Magazine, Gina Kim is a recent graduate of George Mason University with a B.A. in English and minor in Film and Media Studies. She absolutely loves dogs, especially her spaniel-mix Ellie. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.