One of the things I like most about living with dogs is seeing them play. Let’s define play first.
Most experts will agree that play is an activity which the sole purpose is to have fun. Play can have rules or not and, of course, it covers a wide range of activities. However, the fun as the goal is present in all play. Now that I we have a definition and even a purpose for play, we can dwell into the more specific aspect of (some) play.
One can divide dog play by categories, perhaps other categories will come to mind to some of you, but here are mine in this rainy and windy, wintry afternoon:
- Dog/dog play
- Play with humans
- Play with other animals (say a dog and a crow, a dog and cat, for example)
- Play with toys
- Alone play
So let’s look at play with toys.
Toys which I will define as any object that brings pleasure, a sense of security or even joy to a dog. A toy as a Xmas stocking for your pup? Here are several things to consider.
The obvious ones:
Safety: Not all dog toys should be dog toys, and sometimes kid’s toys are unsafe for dogs too. Think here about the small parts that either party can consume.
Price: It is amazing to me how expensive some dog toys can actually run! And the truth is that there is no guarantee that your dog would prefer a “fashionable” and expensive toy over a soiled sock to carry around. A lot of dog stuff is geared toward the ones writing the check.
Some of them I would argue are just that, a pricey object to make a pet parent feel good but really a not good choice for their dog. One that comes to mind are those huge – really huge, rawhide bones! Yeah, impressive in size perhaps but a sure choke hazard.
But what makes a toy a good dog toy? The answer might surprise you… I would say that a good dog toy fulfills one or a few of dog’s ethology and needs.
For example: For dogs that love to fetch, balls, sticks and the like are great toys. Tug toys and their companion activity tugging, which by the way, is one of the absolute best games one can play with a dog in spite of the ill advice sometimes given that playing tug will make a dog aggressive or even a “predator”! Both unfounded and lame reasons behind the advice.
The reason tugging is such a great activity to engage with dogs is because it directly targets predatory behaviors (and all dogs are predators) such as the grab and shake components of the game. In addition tugging is done between either two dogs (yeah, okay perhaps even three, but this is not the norm) or between person and dog. So now, you have something that both parties can truly enjoy as they are enjoying each other. Yes, indeed there must be some rules (email for them if you a curious) that will keep the game safe, enjoyable and under the person’s control.
For some dogs, carrying something in their mouths is the rave. It could be a soft toy or a ball.
Chaco, one of my Springers, would find little milk cartons on our walks and walk with it in his mouth. I got stopped many times by people wanting to know if I had trained him to do that. I never did, he just decided that walking around with a tiny milk carton in his mouth – was either a very cool thing to do or perhaps it gave him so measure of safety.
Another one of my favorite dog toys, are toys that are meant to have the dog extract something. I am thinking here of the plush squirrel “house” that comes with three super adorable little squirrels that the dog has to pull out thru one of holes on the “house”. Some dogs will totally spend time investigating how to get those cute little squirrels out and afterwards they might just run around carrying them in their mouth squeaking a storm away. The interest in or behind the extracting of the squirrels out has to do with another natural dog behavior that is also part of the predatory (food acquisition) chain of behaviors… dissecting. This is what predators do to their prey just before consuming.
Another one of my top 10 dog toys are pretty much any toy that serves as food dispensing toy.
Again, what I love about these toys and the vast array that we now can find in the market is linked to dogs being scavengers thus having the “look for your food” chip pre-installed.
You might be thinking that your dog does not engage in some of the activities above. And while it is true that the predatory sequence is the same for ALL dogs, our pet dogs are not hunters in the strict sense. Also, some of the behaviors that form the predatory sequence happen to be more on the “surface” of a given dog’s repertoire than others. This will depend on the breed, and of course, on the individual dog.
So, how can you find the perfect toy(s) for your pup? Perhaps you have some idea as to what he likes to do. Maybe he is one of those very playful ones that have lots of “interests”. Whichever the case might be, you can begin by observing how your dog uses its toys. For example: Does he walk with a slobbery ball in his mouth but will not bring it back? Or maybe he tosses the plush toy up on the air and tries to catch it? Does he sleep with a cozy blanket or plush toy? Etc.
The second clue to this toy puzzle would be to audition for your dog several kinds of toys- remember; they do not need to be expensive! And see how your dog interacts (or not) with them.
Sometimes they need a bit of coaxing (another interesting topic). Sometimes what they if for you to play with the toy…
Once you have some idea of what kind of toys your dog enjoys you can even make them even more desirable by rotating them. This will not only save you some money but it will also bring a sense of novelty to an old toy.
I sure hope you spend some time shopping for your pup this holiday season! I will leave you with some of my favorite shopping sites for really cool dog toys. If you have one to share, don’t be shy and let me know about it.