Nope, negative, no and definitely not!
At least that’s how it is in our household. I can’t resist the tug (pun intended) of a newly discovered toy and neither can our dogs. Usually the latest one is the most exciting, but there are some old favourites, especially with my Mastiff cross Giraffe. She really appreciates Petunia, her plush pink pig, playing with her, throwing her in the air and even using her as a pillow. Well, she used to, until another rescue pooch came into our lives like a tornado, wanting to steal everything from her, leaving an unattended Petunia, Petunia MII and Petunia MIII in pieces on the floor. Needless to say tougher toys are now in residence at our house.
So what toys to use at what age?
For puppies it is advisable to start with soft toys, such as longish plush toys, or a sock with a knot tied on it, so we can start tugging with the puppy without damaging his milk teeth. During teething we should pay special attention not to yank the dog too hard when playing, but he might even refuse to play during this stage.
Avoid soft squeaky toys made of rubber, because pups can easily pierce these with their needle-sharp teeth. Generally, they don’t stop at that point, but go on to chew on it, ending up swallowing pieces, in which cases you will have to keep checking if all pieces have passed through their system… not a fun job!
Toys that keep the dog occupied for a longer period of time can be especially useful for puppies when you are getting them used to being left alone. These are usually made from more hardy rubber, and can be covered in something like liver paste, or filled with treats. The puppy will try to lick every last piece of food out of it, giving them something else to focus on rather than you not being there.
Be careful what balls you buy
Probably every dog owner has bought some kind of a ball for their puppy at least once. There are some puppies who are crazy about anything round in shape, whereas others need a little more time to understand how fun these toys can be. Be careful though, because too much playing with a ball could make a dog practically addicted to it, especially some of those wee terriers.
When choosing the suitable ball you should consider its material, rather than a tennis ball which erodes the teeth too much, you can try natural rubber ball. The size of the ball is also important, as, if it is too small, the dog might accidentally swallow it, in which case it can only be removed surgically. If it is too big, it is not comfortable for him to pick it up.
For young adult and adult dogs you can use toys that are made of a harder material and must be held more tightly, such as tools used in protection training, so called tugs or bite pads with a handle. You can tug these without having to worry about them ripping, unlike the good old plush toys.
How to Play with Your Dog?
Never force the dog to hold a toy in his mouth! Instead, try acting like you have something very interesting with you and play with it in front of the dog to make it look like a prey to raise his interest.
If your dog is being cautious, don’t lean over him to touch him. Instead, kneel down to his level, slowly moving the toy around in front of him to call his attention. If your dog likes it and gets it, do not run after him, stay where you are, because he might fetch it. If so, don’t take the toy away from him immediately, praise him.
You might also want to try tugging, and let him win. Playing with you should always be a positive experience for your dog. If he really hangs on to the toy and does not want to fetch it, then just prepare two of the same toys, he will probably exchange the first one for the second one.
If your dog is a little bit more pushy and likes fighting for the toy, putting all his energy into getting it, don’t be afraid to play more intensely with him (you might want to try protection training). If he likes not only getting but also holding on to the toy, you can also try exchanging it for another toy.
At times, try playing with your dog without toys. Playing together creates a better bond and can also be very useful. For example, if you get into a situation when your dog gets tense, you might be able to relax him by playing a little.
Don’t be afraid to use a toy during training
If you have different kinds of toys you will notice after a while that there are some favourites that your dog likes better than others. He might even be motivated more effectively with a toy than with treats, or a combination of both such as a treat tube or Aqua Food Dummy® where you can put the treats inside the toy. Therefore, keep these most beloved toys for training situations and only give them to your dog when he has done something extremely well. This will make learning much more exciting for him, and the toy will also become more valuable.
However, it is important not to leave toys out for the dog all the time, because they will be really valuable for him if he can only play with the toys on special occasions and only with us. This way you can also avoid the case of “exploding toys” when your dog or dogs are bored.
Tip for training, building confidence and having some plain old fun!
‘Treasure hunt’ is an excellent game to build confidence and have some fun. Most dogs like finding their hidden toys and this is a complex exercise: it provides challenge, ensures a sense of achievement and builds confidence. First, you need to make your dog stay where he is and wait for you to hide the toy. This is an excellent obedience exercise: the command ‘Stay!’ works perfectly with your dog in this case (and can be quite useful in other situations as well). The dog will be excited searching for the hidden toy with the ‘Find it!’ or other short commands. Since we use this exercise to build confidence, the toy, naturally, should not be too difficult to be found.
You can make the exercise easier by letting the dog see where you hide the toy – this will not spoil the experience or his sense of achievement and will still build confidence while having that good old fun!
This is also a great game for fearful or easily distracted dogs. Whether it is the traffic, children, noises or other dogs, if you can catch your dog’s attention and direct him consistently with the help of dedicated games or toys, you will succeed in helping change your pooch’s behaviour.