Why isn’t my dog interested in her toys? Why does my dog not play with her toys? Why is my dog bored? My dog has 100 toys but doesn’t play with any of them! Sound familiar?
I’m often called to a behavior consultation or dog training session and asked one of those questions. The scenario is typically one of the following:
1. The dog has many toys (for the sake of a number let’s say 30+) and is completely disinterested in all of them.
2. The dog has very few toys <5 (or none) and is not interested in playing with them.
Dogs are neophiles; they love new things and experiences. Novelty is great and they often get bored with the same 5 block walk, backyard jaunt, same dog friends, same people/family friends and same dog toys on a daily basis. Because dogs become bored quickly with old things, people, toys and experiences, it behooves pet parents to take advantage of a dog’s neophile qualities and expose a well-rounded, healthy dog to many new experiences on a daily basis. Dog toys are an easy way to ease boredom and to stimulate, enhance and enrich a dog’s life experiences.
In a study by researchers at the University of Bristol Anthrozoology Institute and the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition published their study on dogs and their interest in toys in Animal Cognition. They researched 16 adult Labrador Retrievers and presented each one with a toy for 30 seconds. The toy was taken away and then returned to the dog after a short time. They repeated this exercise until the dog became bored and no longer showed any interest in the toy. The dog was then given a new toy that either had varying odors or colors and the exercise was repeated.
A variety of toys were used but it didn’t seem to matter. On average, the dogs lost interest in the toys after five 30-second intervals of exposure. If we synthesisze it, that’s just 2 1/2 minutes of playing with the toy!
I am not suggesting you change toys every 2 1/2 minutes but this study gives you an idea into the toy preferences of a canine and the need to switch up your dogs toys daily.
Though there are many behavior problems and health manifestations that result from being under stimulated, under enriched and/or boredom, the solutions are often similar.
Possible reasons a dog is disinterested in toys:
- He’s bored, has no one to play with (human or nonhuman animal)
- He hasn’t been taught and/or motivated
- He unemployed
- He’s under/over stimulated
- Negative association
- He’s stressed and/or afraid
- Medical issue (old age, general pain or discomfort, arthritis, tooth cavity, gum disease, hip dysplasia, luxating patella…etc.)
- Parents do not change toys daily and leave all toys accessible at all times
Pro Dog Training Tip
A dog should have enough enrichment opportunities to keep them fulfilled on a daily basis. I like to provide a few dozen toys for my dog. But here’s the catch. I don’t give them all to him at once. He gets about 5 toys a day, every morning, and then I pull up the ones I gave him the following morning, put them out of site and inaccessible to my dog and swap them out with 5+ “new” toys. I typically do this in the morning with my morning routine of training, walking, feeding…etc. It doesn’t really have to be a “new” toy, just not ones he was not playing with the previous day. And make sure you are providing a variety of toys at a time, not 10 tennis balls.
What type of dog toys should I give my dog?
There are as many dog toys as you can dream up. However, I like to cover all of my dogs somatosensory senses which may be remembered by the acronym (GOATV) Gustatory, Olfactory, Auditory, Tactilely, and Visually. When I am brainstorming on what to make or buy my dog I think of what I can do to stimulate all of my dog’s senses and wholeness, to fulfill, challenge, teach and maximum fun.
What size toys should I get my dog?
The toys should be different, shapes, textures, smells, sizes, softness/hardness and should cater to your individual dog’s unique preferences. If my dog loves soft, gushy, cuddly toys I am not going to get him a few elk antlers. I’ll buy and/or make many toys, and experiment with him to see what motivates him the most and what he prefers and doesn’t. In this fun exploration, I’ll donate the toys my dog doesn’t like or is less interested in to a responsible animal shelter and then as he gets older I will focus more on making or buying what he likes the most.
Do I have to buy toys or is it safe to make them myself?
Making toys may be a fun and stimulating hobby for us. It doesn’t matter if your dog loves recycled plastic water bottles, a tennis ball stuffed in a sock, or a flirt pole you make yourself. The key is, when buying or making toys please keep the earth and your dog’s health in mind which means, staying away from bad plastics and leaching toys, PVC pipe, non-sustainable materials and using upcycled and recycled ecofriendly materials like environmentally sound stuffing (which dogs sometimes ingest by ripping open a dog toy and eating the insides.) After all, what dog doesn’t like to decapitate their favorite stuffed animal at the earliest convenience (the day after you but it!)
I want my dogs addicted to Kong toys (and many others)
Time is finite. If your dog is doing a “good” desirable behavior, it’s less time your dog will be practicing something “bad” undesirable. When you create great chew toy habits, you don’t have to worry about “bad” undesirable habits such as your dog chewing on: your bed, coffee table, new rug, clothes, shoes, linens, or anything they are not supposed to. But it is your responsibility as a pet parent to teach them what is appropriate and what is not. Good dog trainers focus on teaching dogs appropriate behaviors, not by punishing (euphemistically referred to as “corrections” by animal abusers) inappropriate ones. If your dog is performing behaviors to please you, there is little reason to get frustrated or to punish a dog, right? Remember, dogs do not come into this word speaking French, Spanish English or Chinese, and they also don’t know what is acceptable to humans to chew on and what is not acceptable. Unless your pup was taught otherwise, it’s not his fault he chewed your new Jimmy Choos, which look like just another (expensive) dog toy! Go on, yell at yourself in the mirror, I’ll wait. OK, now that you are done, one of the most effective and efficient ways we teach dogs is through motivation and primary reinforcers – food! Nom, Nom, Nom, which is science jargon for delicious food!
How do I teach my dog to like his/her toys?
This is much harder to write about then to demonstrate so based on the comments I receive I will contemplate making an accompanying video. It is important to note, positive reinforcement (R+) dog training is not about bribing your dog. It is about rewarding your dog for appropriate behavior and making positive associations between things, others and life experiences with great noms! Of course there are other ways to reinforce dogs but we will focus on what motivates the majority of dogs – food! Smelly, sticky, pungent food is the gastronomic cuisine of choice. So throw away your dog’s food bowl and start stuffing Kong toys and other stuffable chew toys when feeding your dog.
There are many ways to teach your dog to love their toys and these methods are similar to the ways in which we teach dogs to love learning, interacting with and bonding with us. I don’t buy a dog toy, take it out of the bag and perfunctory toss it on the floor and say, smell you later Fido, have fun! Instead, we engage the dog, act silly with the dog toy, toss it, run after it, and energetically play with your dog. Raise the tone of your voice a few octaves (especially men who sound like Barry White), think soprano (Julia Child), not bass. If you are thoroughly embarrassed if someone saw you behaving in this manner you are on the right track! If need be, rub some food scent or grass or your own body odor on the toy to engage the dog and entice him towards the toy. This is about bonding, interacting, engaging and teaching. Not disassociating, ignoring and isolating. Yes, your dog may eventually love playing or chewing their now prized possession in the comfort of their doggy den (crate) or under the bed, however that is their choice. Your responsibility is to teach them as you would any member of your family, how a mom and dad want their family to behave and equally important, to teach a dog that it is OK and encouraged to be independent and able to be left alone with their toys in happiness while being fulfilled, enriched and stimulated.
Dog Toy Summary
Dog toys are mandatory for a dogs health, a joy and great way to enrich your dog’s life and change behavior. Dogs also have to be taught to love toys and what is appropriate and inappropriate to play with and chew on in life. However, if you invest the time and effort when you first adopt a dog into your family, you will be happily rewarded with a well-adjusted, happy, nondestructive dog and a long symbiotic life of homeostasis for years to come. Dog toys are fun, let’s build those great habits and extinguish those undesirable ones! What are you waiting for, your dog is learning (or not) at this very moment.
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