Why do dogs need toys?
Most people that I know, who own a dog, consider their canine companion to be part of the family, and Christmas means presents for dogs, just as surely as it does gifts for children! So are dog toys more than just a momentary distraction? Do dogs need toys? What do our dogs get out of having toys and what would they choose if they could communicate their wish list?
Toys fulfil a number of purposes for a dog, and to some extent a dog’s individual approach to toys will be determined by their breed and its historical purpose. Who hasn’t seen a feisty terrier with a little rope toy in her mouth, giving it the death shake? Or a gentle golden retriever with a soft cuddly toy in its jaws; carried everywhere, but never damaged? The truth is that dogs engage with toys for a number of different reasons including:
- the instinctive drive to play
- the fulfilment of breed traits
- self comfort
- the desire to chew (can be driven by play, teething, boredom, anxiety, curiosity, separation etc)
- social interaction with a human
- social interaction with another dog.
With all those aspects of behaviour at stake, I think it’s fair to say that dogs need toys. Sadly, many owners stop giving toys to their dogs because those that they have given, have been destroyed. This isn’t bad behaviour; it’s simply your dog being a dog. The trick is to watch closely enough to work out what is driving your dog to interact with a toy the way they do? Then pick toys that can usefully fulfil your dog’s need.
The need to play
If your dog just wants to play, the chances are that (although they can – and do – play alone) this will go hand in hand with social engagement. Your dog may use toys to get your attention, dropping the ball at your feet, or waggling the tug toy in front of you to “ask” for a tug of war. The same dog (if he extends his sociability to other dogs), may wander around the group with one end of a rope or cuddly toy in his mouth, hoping that another dog will take up the offer of a game of tug. Some dogs can make a game out of anything and can tone down their play to suit smaller or more timid dogs. This doesn’t mean that they are the perfect social creature, who always plays with toys thoughtfully. The same dog can just as easily be found pulling the stuffing out of a soft toy, or squeaking a squeaky toy, over and over, because these actions give a big reward. And that’s the main reason your dog does *anything*!
As mentioned above, some breeds use toys to work out instinctive behaviours, so wherever possible try to consider what your dog was actually bred to do and then use your imagination to provide toys suitable for safely allowing them to pursue these inherent traits. Scent driven hide and seek, ball play, squeaky toys, tug of war and soft toys are all examples of this for different breeds.
If you leave your dog alone for large chunks of the day, especially if it is an ‘only dog’, toys can provide stimulation and comfort to your dog while you are gone. Comfort comes in make forms: the warmth of a large cuddly dog toy for a puppy to sleep with; a ball, bone or nylabone, that allows the dog to chew; anything that supplies food – from a stuffed kong to a treat dispenser. If you’re worried about giving too many treats, you can use your dog’s breakfast instead to stuff the toy. For dogs who need metal stimulation and like to work out puzzles, there are some excellent dispenser toys that require the dog to work for the treat/food by turning spinners and lifting lids.
This is a problem often seen in dogs who never learned to be alone as puppies, or in some rescue dogs. These dogs need comfort as well as distraction, alongside graduated programmes to train them to be content in their own company. A dog with severe separation anxiety can be very destructive (the act of chewing comforts and distracts them) and every attempt should be made to give them a safe space filled with things they are allowed to chew. This is just one part of treating the problem as a whole, and separation anxiety is something I will look at in detail in another post.
Dogs are social creatures and love to be engaged with a human or canine friend. Social play is always joyful to see – or be involved in – and dogs need toys for this reason perhaps more than any other. Dogs desire – and need – our attention, and play bonds a dog to their human and a human to their dog. Toys that provide easy, mutual play are usually those that can be thrown/chased, those that create variations of a tug game, or those that can be hidden and sought. It is a wise human who
- learns to play with their dog
- doesn’t allow their dog to become fixated on one item/type of play.
Fixation most often happens with ball play, perhaps because this is a common way for us to exercise our dogs without walking too far. It’s very sad to walk with a dog who is almost oblivious to being outside and to enjoying the sights, sounds and smells that this entails, because they are so fixated on having a ball thrown for them. These habits are easy to break. Just leave the ball at home and although it may take a couple of walks, your dog will soon revert to engaging with the environment. Ball play is great fun for your dog – just use it in moderation.
Hopefully you can see a number of reasons now why dogs need toys. Check out my own top ten toys.
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