Using Toys and Play to their Best Potential
Updated: May 31
Sometimes, when working with my students, I have to ask what might seem like an obvious question: "Does your dog know how to play with their toys?". Sure your dog may play with their toys, but are they utilizing them to their best ability? Are they performing inappropriate actions with toys? Do they try to play with the toy in a way that it wasn't designed for? The list goes on, but the main idea is that helping your dog learn what their toys' purpose are, can help them and you in different ways. Not only are we going to be talking about how to use their toys to their best potential but also how to structure play times to benefit both you and your dog!
Just like many dogs need to be taught how to eat, many dogs could also benefit from learning how to play!
First let's discuss the kinds of ways you can play:
Toys can a variety of purposes, such as fetching, tugging, and chewing. There could be more specific purposes, however these three are the main purposes a toy is going to fulfill.
As you can see in the above image, this dog has a variety of toys many for different types of play. These toys are left out all of the time in a toy bin, meaning the dog has full access to them. We recommend you do the same!
Now, how do you teach your dog which toy fulfills which purpose? That's easy, simply engage with your dog performing the appropriate type of play with that specific toy. If your dog tries to use a toy to engage with you, and doesn't perform the appropriate type of play, don't engage however, do provide them with a toy that serves that purpose instead.
Example #1: Your dog brings a ball to you (you've decided this is a fetch toy), but tries to tug with it instead, do not engage with the tug game. Instead, go grab a tug toy and offer this to your dog to play tug.
Example #2: Your dog brings you a chew toy and wants you to throw it. Do not engage with this type of play. Again, go grab a fetch toy and play with that toy instead. Another option is ignoring your dog when they bring you chew toys. They should see that these toys are for them to entertain themselves only. Completely ignoring your dog can cause frustration in the beginning, so it's generally recommended you redirect to an appropriate toy in the early stages.
Example #3: Your dog grabs a tug toy, goes to their bed and begins chewing on it. You want to redirect their chewing to an appropriate chew toy right away! Trade the toy they are chewing on, for the toy you want them to chew on. Never take something from your dog, always trade for the item.
An important thing to keep in mind is that you may find your dog truly doesn't want to engage with the toy in the manner that you want them to. It's possible your dog doesn't like to play fetch, and would rather chew on or chase these toys. This is okay! You do not need to be so strict that you accidently ruin play for your dog. Simply going into play with a more structured mindset can help teach consistent and appropriate play.
Job toys and their purposes:
A job toy, as I like to call it, is a toy that releases food as the dog interacts with it. Puzzle toys are similar but require less physical work to get the job done.
Job toys and puzzle toys are used for meal time, enrichment time, and are generally used at specific times. This means that when not in use, you should have these toys put up and away so you dog cannot access them.
Job toys are wonderful for ditching the bowl exercises and for mental enrichment. More info on mental enrichment can be found on one of our past blogs. Not only do they tire your dog out by provided much needed mental exercise, they also provide physical exercise as your dog pushes, rolls, and throws the toy around (this does not apply to puzzle toys). Finally, they slow down your dog's eating helping them to eat their full meal slower in turn helping with digestion and reducing the risks of bloat.
As you can see there are so many different kinds of toy options available, and we didn't even cover them all in this blog! There are also toys for chasing, such as a flirt pole or even a ball, and toys for destroying, like a clearance stuffed animal (always supervise during this play). However, hopefully you see the general idea that categorizing and structuring your dog's toys can be helpful!
Creating play routines in the home:
Now let's discuss the benefits of creating play routines in your home and throughout your day. Creating routines in the home keeps everyone happy! Designating certain areas of the home as play spaces for the dog helps reduce confusion on where we can and cannot play for your dog. Communal areas of the home, spaces that are shared by everyone and where you would like to see calm behaviors, are generally not for playing. We do not play or play
rough with the dog in these calm areas. Overtime and with consistency, your dog will begin to understand where play takes place and where it doesn't.
Example: You have a living room on the main level of your home, but also a large open basement. The space your family uses most often to relax, watch TV, and get together is your calm space. The other room can be your play space. Or perhaps you would rather a bedroom be the playroom? Another great play space is your backyard! What you decide depends on your space and your lifestyle. You can have as many playrooms in the home as you'd like.
Finally, designate appropriate times for play too! Tug, for example, can be a great game to play however it arouses a dog and can get them to become overly excited. If it's getting close to bedtime, or if guests are coming over soon, don't play tug with your dog as they will not likely be able to settle as you would like them to. If you work from home, and your dog is bringing toys to you and you engage, you're teaching your dog that playtime can happen at the same time as work time. If your dog begins to ask for attention too much and you scold them or don't always engage, you're causing confusion and making matters worse.
Add an "all done" cue to let your dog know when playtime is over. Do so by rubbing your hands together, like you would when rubbing sand off your palms, and saying "all done". Once you do this, calmly walk away from your dog and disengage from the play. Be consistent by not given in to temptation if your dog tries to get you to play again. Over time, your dog learns that this means playtime is over. You can help bring your dog's arousal down after a play session by scattering food on the floor for them to find or giving a job toy or frozen Kong.
By simply have designated play times and play areas of the home, you will see a much more peaceful and purposeful relationship blossom between you and your dog!
Things to consider:
Here are a few more points to keep in mind when creating routines and structure for your dog.
Do you have multiple dogs in the home? Each dog is going to have their own needs. Consider these needs, and what they like/don't like when creating routines. Also be sure to provide individual play away from the other dog. Your dog needs and deserves alone time with you!
Does your dog have a higher drive than most? Constantly chasing animals or objects, always seeking out play opportunities, or always on the go are a few examples. If so, a serious and consistent routine can drastically help create peace for you and your dog. These kinds of dogs can become frustrated easily, so be careful to not falter from the routine.
Are there other humans living with your dog than just you? Get everyone on board and make sure they know the routines just as well as you do. Frustration, confusion, and anxiety can happen if even one person decides to ignore the rules and routine. The same goes for guests! Don't let them confuse your dog. Show them how to play appropriately with your dog if you've decided guests can play with your dog (in some cases they shouldn't).
Everything mentioned so far in this blog will be dependent on your dog's personality, play type, and drives. Letting your dog dictate how play goes can be beneficial as it shows you what your dog prefers. Once you learn this, you can then begin to create structure and routine around their joys and desires (like destroying a stuffed animal!).
Ultimately, let your dog be a dog and do dog things. They'll love you for it!
Happy training! (and playing!)