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Toys: Choosing the Right Toys, Using Toys for Physical and Mental Stimulation


* The Value of Toys
* Toy Selection Criteria
* Types of Toys
* Creative, Economical Homemade Toys
* Toy Access List
* Playing Smart
* Other Related Tipsheets

The Value of Toys

People tend to underestimate the value of toys and play for their companion animals.

Toys -- the right toys -- serve a greater purpose than to simply entertain a dog. Thoughtfully chosen toys are not indulgences, but necessities. They're essential equipment for managing, socializing and bringing out the best in your dog.

Playing with appropriate toys ...

* Safely occupies the dog's paws, jaws and mind

* Channels pent-up physical and mental energy into something productive instead of destructive

* Gives the dog "legal" items to play with, distracting the dog from off-limits items such as shoes, plants and knickknacks (however, it is still wise and fair to put such items out of your dog's reach when you cannot supervise him, otherwise he may eventually be tempted to give novel items a chew)

* Reduces stress

* Alleviates boredom and loneliness

* Distracts and engages dogs who are prone to separation anxiety

* Provides jaw exercise necessary in the physical development of puppies and young dogs

* Provides environmental enrichment when dogs are confined or otherwise left alone

* Even helps prevent many behavioral problems

* In addition, you can use access to toys as a reward for good behavior, to motivate and reinforce desired behavior during training sessions, and to regain your dog's attention when he is distracted (for example, on walks or in a stressful situation).

What is an appropriate toy?

One that suits the individual dog in terms of appeal and interest, size, safe construction, relative durability and ability to exercise body and mind.

But owner responsibility involves more than shopping. It requires supervision. Nearly any toy can pose a hazard in one way or another, so you must monitor your dog's interaction with every toy. Over time, you will learn which toys your dog can handle without close supervision ... which toys are fine for short periods ... and which toys your pet gets carried away with, and thus should be removed.

Toy Selection Criteria

The right size:

One size does not fit all. Toys should be appropriate for your dog's size. If a toy is too big, the dog will have trouble handling it with her mouth or paws. Toys that are too small could be swallowed or become lodged in her throat.

Appropriate materials and construction:

Know your dog's activity level, temperament and instinctive behaviors. Is yours a gentle dog who carries around or cuddles objects? Or does she like to bury things? Or does she have a strong prey drive or inquisitive nature that inspires her to tear things apart? These dogs will have different toy preferences -- and will need toys whose material, design and construction matches their individual needs. And as a dog ages, his or her preferences and needs usually change. The vigorous pup will need toys that can withstand teething and adolescent chewing, which is necessary for his physical development. As he ages, he may become less intense in his chewing, or even lose interest in chewing. How aggressively your pup or dog chews is one key factor in choosing the right toys.

Adequate and appropriate stimulation -- mental and physical:

One dog's definition of "stimulating" may be a tennis ball to chase and retrieve, while another dog thrives on the challenge of a complex food-dispensing puzzle toy. Usually, it's best to provide a variety of toys to entertain, exercise and mentally engage your dog.


Make sure you select safe toys made well and made expressly for dogs.

And since even safe toys can possibly pose a hazard in the paws of some dogs, you need to observe and monitor use of each individual toy. If the dog turns out to have a hankering for squeakers, you want to find out long before he has the opportunity to extract and choke on a squeaker. If a dog chews off a piece of the toy -- which some dogs can easily do -- the dog can swallow too much of it, resulting in gastrointestinal problems, or choke, or sustain a gum, mouth or tooth injury.

After monitoring use, you'll probably want to control access to most toys to avoid choking, ingestion of pieces and other potential hazards. This means limiting the dog's access to certain toys to times when you or another responsible person are present, so that you can act fast before a risk turns into a reality.

Watch your dog. If he tries to shred or eat a toy, take it away and give him a different toy.

Realize that nearly any dog toy can become a problem if the owner or caretaker does not monitor how the dog is handling the toy. Some dogs are not voracious chewers, so they don't have to be monitored as closely. But avid chewers, and any energetic dog for that matter, should not be left unattended with any toy except those that you believe, based on personal observation, are low-risk, such as an appropriate size and variety of Kong. Kongs and other toys are described later in this guide.

More safety tips:

Check labels. If you want to try children's toys, choose only those labeled as safe for children under three years of age and that don't contain any potentially hazardous fillings, such as polystyrene beads. Remember, however, that even "safe" fillings are not totally digestible.

Avoid use of children's toys for children if you have young children in your household.

Discard toys that start to crack, break into pieces, has pieces torn off, or get small enough to choke on.

If your dog has shown any tendency to guard his or her toys or food, avoid letting him play with toys when other pets or young children are around. Resource guarding is a serious issue that merits personal guidance from a canine behavior specialist.

Modifying toys for safety:

Take note of any toy that contains a squeaker. Many dogs feel compelled to dig out and destroy the source of the squeaking, and in the process, some dogs choke on or ingest the squeaker. So you should remove the squeaker (and sew or seal up the hole), unless you closely supervise your dog or are absolutely sure your dog will not try to get to the squeaker.

Another problem with squeak toys is that the dog may form an association between the noise and chewing fun ... and eventually transfer his chewing and pawing enthusiasm to other small pets in the home, such as birds, rodents, ferrets, even cats.

Dog-proof toys as needed by removing ribbons, strings, buttons and other things that could be chewed off, choked on or swallowed, leading to stomach/intestinal problems.


While toys that last a long time are easier on your wallet, realize that many toys are not designed to last very long ... and that an aggressive chewer can and will go through a lot of toys. The list below includes notes about the durability of many types of toys.


Soft toys should be machine washable. Wash rubber, vinyl, resin and other toys with warm, soapy water from time to time. Be sure to rinse the soap off, or your dog could get sick.

Off-limits items:

Many items that appeal to dogs can pose a hazard. Dog-proof your home by safely putting away any knickknacks, string, ribbon, rubber bands, pantyhose, and anything else that could be ingested. Dog-proof your yard as well.

Particularly if you have young children, we recommend not letting dogs play with children's toys since it's extremely hard for them to learn to distinguish between "my toys" and "your toys". (Although a tip for helping them sense the difference appears later in this guide.)

Types of Toys

Kongs and similar thick, solid rubber toys. These multifunctional, super-durable toys are ideal for chewing, games of catch, toss and retrieve, and other forms of play. They are appropriate for dogs of all breeds and sizes. These toys come in various sizes and weights, but all use a rubber that "gives" a little, minimizing the risk of tooth damage. The hollow varieties are extremely versatile and functional: they can be stuffed with soft foods, kibble and biscuit bits for a long-lasting distraction. They can even be used in place of a food bowl at mealtime. These are extremely durable, long-lasting toys even for strong, dedicated chewers.

The Kong manufacturer makes an easy-to-use edible Stuffin'. Of course, you can make your own stuffings with healthy and tasty items you may already keep at home. For example: combine kibble with peanut butter...cottage cheese...low-fat plain yogurt...low-fat cream cheese...mashed white or sweet potatoes...steamed carrots cut in bits and mixed with one of the above, or even mashed...mushy brown rice...moist dog food...raw foods diet...whatever healthy foods your dog likes.

If you freeze the Kong after stuffing it, the dog can spend hours playing with the toy as the food inside thaws. So it's a great choice for occupying your dog when you leave him alone during your workday. This trick has helped many dogs with separation anxiety learn to adjust to their owners' departure.

Kongs and some of the other choices that follow do not make a mess or posing choking, splintering or gastrointestinal hazards like real bones and rawhides.

More info about Kongs

How to stuff and use Kongs

Note: other manufacturers make fine food-holding and food-hiding toys similar to Kongs.

Busy Buddy Twist 'n Treat. Another great, multifunctional choice. This relatively new treat-dispensing toy is manufactured by Premier. It unscrews for easy loading of treats and fast clean up. The adjustable opening allows for a wide range of treats from peanut butter to cheese bits to kibble. The opening can quickly be widened for easier access to treats -- or narrowed for longer playtime.

Puzzle boxes. These are designed for mental as well as physical stimulation. You put kibble or bits of treats into the toy, and the dog has to work at turning the object with his mouth, nose and paws to get the food out. You can smear biscuits with peanut butter, plain yogurt, or cottage or cream cheese to keep them inside the toy and enhance the appeal. Choices include:

Buster Cube. Available in a couple of sizes, this super-sturdy, innovative canine brainteaser challenges your dog to find the exact angle at which the cube will release tasty bits of kibble hidden inside. Start with an easy setting, and when your dog figures it out, adjust to increase the difficulty. Note: in rare cases, an extremely strong chewer can chew off bits of the hard plastic shell. For such dogs, you would want to monitor use.

Molecuball toys are large rubber molecule-shaped toys with hiding places for treats. By moving the cube around with his nose, mouth and paws, your dog can access the goodies.

Hide A Bird Plush Puzzle Toy and other soft puzzle dispensers. These come with plush toys shaped like birds, squirrels and balls that stuff into a larger toy, such as one resembling a birdhouse. Another choice is the I-Qube Plush Puzzle Toy. These are not recommended for dogs who destroy plush toys.

Nylabones and other rugged, sturdy, inflexible toys made from nylon, hard-packed rubber, resins and other synthetic materials. Available in various sizes and shapes, and sometimes flavored, they're good for chewing, tossing, hiding. Monitor use -- if your dog is a very dedicated chewer, limit time spent on gnawing such hard toys. In particular, dogs with delicate teeth, or teeth weakened due to poor nutrition, injuries, dental problems, etc. should not gnaw on hard toys or rough-surface toys. Even for dogs with apparently healthy teeth, limit chewing time with these treats if the dogs are avid chewers. Furthermore: any advertising claims that the synthetic materials are fully ingestible should be taken with a grain of salt. The toys can still shred, and when swallowed, the pieces can cause discomfort and possibly even a trip to the vet.

Nubby, knobby heavy-duty chew toys such as Plaque Attackers. These offer advantages of durability, long-term enjoyment and stress relief. Some claim to have teeth cleaning and gum massage benefits. These are often great additions to the doggie toy collection. But if your dog tends to pull off and ingest chunks, you may want to monitor to avoid choking and digestive problems.

Super-durable toys such as the Indestructible Buddy, made of ballistic nylon, and the Hurley, which is made of a totally recyclable material called Zogoflex and which bounces, floats and bends. Like Kongs, these are engineered to last, even with aggressive chewers.

Rope toys. These are available in the shape of figures and bones, and for safety reasons should have knotted ends. Good for fetching, chewing, teething, and carrying around. Some dogs rip them to shreds, so monitoring is necessary to avoid potential problems.

Rubber balls. Versatile and easy to clean. Some are very durable; others are not. Ideal for fetch, toss and rolling. As with other toys, make sure you choose an appropriate size. Too small, and the dog could choke on it; too large, and the dog can't play with it. Balls on ropes are also a lot of fun.

Tennis balls. Used ones offer an advantage over new ones, since the rough outer fabric surface has been worn down. For tossing, retrieving and chewing. As recommended for other toys, monitor use. Time spent in vigorous chewing should be limited, and once a ball shows signs of cracking or tearing, the ball should be taken from the dog and discarded. Otherwise, pieces can be choked on or ingested.

Floating toys, such as buoyant dumbbells, balls, bumpers and disks for water-loving dogs.

Stuffed toys. Plush and other soft toys tend to be better in the paws of gentle dogs than in the jaws of voracious chewers and dogs with considerable prey drives, who tend to tear open the items and pull out the stuffing and any embedded squeakers. The stuffing and especially the squeakers can pose choking hazards. They can last years or nanoseconds depending on the dog, and can be used for toss and retrieve sessions as well as carrying around, nuzzling and pure comfort. Some are now covered in berber and other tougher fabric for enhanced durability.

Talking toys. Good for lonely, gentle dogs, these include the Look Who's Talking series of plush toys. Dogs with high prey drive may be prone to pulling these toys apart.

Vinyl toys. As with soft stuffed toys, some dogs will play nice with them -- and others will quickly reduce them to pieces. Wash them with warm soapy water from time to time. Don't give them to dogs who might pull or tear them apart. This isn't a good habit to encourage.

Dental chews, such as DentaBones and Greenies, often recommended as safe and satisfying choices. A good and healthier alternative to rawhide flips and other chews. For example, Greenies are designed to satisfy a dog's natural desire to chew while cleaning teeth and freshening breath. Studies indicate that Greenies can decrease tartar accumulation by 87 percent and that feeding Greenies with meals increases digestibility of food. All ingredients are claimed to be completely digestible. DentaBones, made by Pedigree, are also frequently recommended. As can be expected, these highly satisfying chews do not last as long as other kinds of toys, but they serve a different and important purpose.

Edible bones (also see Dental chews). The plethora of edible bones available today include those made from pressed cornstarch, vegetable, potato and fruit matter. Nylabone is among companies manufacturing these edible toys. Many varieties are fairly solid and challenging for dogs who like to chew. Be prepared for a little clean up, since these bones can get gummy and can leave gooey deposits in a dog's fur and paws. A really strong chewer can finish edible bones off in minutes, so it might take some shopping around to find bones compatible with your dog's chewing vigor.

Note: while most reviews of these edible bones have been positive, a few have reported serious digestive problems. As always, monitor your dog, particularly when you start giving him new treats, and watch for any effects on digestion.

Natural bones. These can make a good, durable chew. However, choose and use with caution. People who use bones typically recommend shanks and knucklebones, and stress to use only those that are thick, solid and free from cracks. Make sure the bone is large enough so that the dog can't choke on it. Some folks freeze marrow bones as a long-lasting chew treat.

Never use any bone that can possibly splinter, and do not use cooked bones. Splintered bones can damage the mouth, throat and digestive tract. If you use any real bones, be sure to supervise closely and take the bones away after they begin to crack or the ends are chewed off. Another caveat: avid chewers can wear down and even break teeth on bones. In any case, if you give your dog bones, monitor. And when the bones start wearing down or cracking, dispose of them immediately -- in a can that the dog cannot access.

Synthetic bones: see Nylabone listing above.

Rawhide toys and chews. Rawhide is cured animal hide shaped into various objects. Though they tend not to last very long, dogs often take to them as a cat takes to catnip. But many dog owners and veterinarians have reported problems associated with use of rawhide toys and chews, such as stomach upset and intestinal blockage. In addition, rawhides soften when chewed and can lodge in a dog's throat. If you give rawhides to your dog, supervise and immediately remove the item if the dog is getting too intense and/or ingesting more than a little at a time.

Another downside: Rawhide bones, pig-hooves and other highly coveted treats can incite a dog to guard or attack an approaching dog or person in order to protect his prize. So these are not good choices for multiple pet situations, or for dogs prone to resource guarding.

Layers of rawhide pressed into tougher bones and shapes that last longer than the flat and rolled rawhides. In addition to providing a longer-lasting chew, pressed rawhide is typically safer than regular rawhide since it disintegrates. However, it can still be reduced to small chunks that can choke a dog. Also, pressed rawhide can make a mess if left on furniture or rugs. If you do buy rawhides, get ones made in the United States or another country that regulates processing. Rawhides made elsewhere may contain harmful chemicals used in processing.

Pig's ears and hooves. Some people have let their dogs chew these hard, curved chew toys without problems, but many others have reported serious problems from chipped teeth to gum injury to digestive track blockage. More of an edible treat, they don't last very long.

Wiggly Giggly Balls and rattle balls. Some dogs fear them, some dogs love them, and some dogs love them too much. For the latter group, the small parts inside the ball can be choking hazards or can be inhaled. And some dogs have been known to shred and eat the ball itself. But other dogs immensely and safely enjoy these items.

There are also oversized hard-shell balls that can be filled with gravel or other materials, so that they create an intriguing, self-rewarding sound when the dog rolls the ball.

Jelly Balls. These large, durable balls by Jolly Pets come with sturdy built-in handles. They're very appealing to many active dogs.

Light-up balls. These visually stimulating balls include Flash n Fetch, which blinks and floats, and Buddy's Glow Ball, which glows in the dark without batteries.

Fun bouncing balls. These include the Holee Roller and Nobbly Wobbly balls, which enchant and exercise dogs by bouncing in unpredictable directions.

Cardboard and paper. Cheap, fun, and usually not a good idea. In sufficient quantities, paper-eating can lead to bowel obstruction.

Socks. Some owners recycle their old socks into dog toys. The advantage is that their texture and their embedded scents-of-mom-or-dad hold great appeal. That's also their disadvantage; encouraging your dog to chew on old socks may well lead to her chewing your good ones, since dogs can't be expected to tell the difference. Our suggestion is to save the old socks for cleaning up messes.

Children's toys. Some work well for dogs. However, if you have children, it is best not to have your human children and your pets share toys for safety and other reasons. And since it's hard for dogs to tell the difference, teach your children not to leave their toys out where the family dog can get to them. (Also see the mouthwash tip below.)

Creative, Economical Homemade Toys

Money-saving toy tip. Many of the adorable stuffed toys from pet supply shops are destroyed -- eventually or quickly -- by overenthusiastic chewing canines. You can save money and reduce the chances of the dog choking on stuffing, embedded squeakers and toy bits by making your own. It's not hard. Buy some heavy duty fabric such as canvas. Gather fabric scraps, old socks, etc. to serve as stuffing -- but launder the socks first. Sew the fabric into some basic shapes -- square, rectangle, triangle, circle -- or if you're more ambitious, into the shape of a bone or a gingerbread person. Leave an opening through which to stuff the old socks and nylon. After stuffing, securely sew the opening shut. Your homemade toys may not look as cute as the store-bought ones, but your dog will like them just as much.

Suggested by Los Angeles trainer/behaviorist Cinimon Clark:

* Turn an empty plastic scoopable litter jug into a toy for large and rambunctious dogs. The jugs are big, pliable and make noises that canines find appealing. If and when the dog tears up the jug, just toss it into the recycling bin. Again, you'll want to monitor to see if your dog tears pieces off the jug; if so, dispose of it before he can ingest any pieces.

* Tasty bottle toys. Cin uses plastic water and drink containers with spouts as toys. She fills them with water or broth, then lets her dog play with one or two in the yard.

* Chicken-sicles. It's easy to make these popsicles for dogs. Fill a food storage container with chicken, vegetable or other broth, then freeze it overnight. The next morning, you'll have a fun, refreshing toy-treat to plop out of the container and give to your dog.

Toy Access List

Particularly if other people reside in your home, it helps to make a toy list after carefully observing your pet with her toys:

1. Limited access. These are toys the dog can play with as long as someone responsible is there to monitor. This way, such hazards as choking and fights between pets can be prevented.

2. Unlimited access. Toys the dog can play with at times when no responsible person is there to watch. Few toys will fall in this category. And if you have more than one pet, you'll want to make sure that when you're not there to supervise, either you separate the pets in different rooms, or you make sure the toys chosen for one animal are not of interest to the other. Sometimes it's hard to be certain.

3. No access. Toys that are not good choices for the individual dog, due to tendency to tear the item into pieces on which he can choke or a tendency to get way too riled up by that particular toy.

Share this information with everyone in your household, and with petsitters and visitors, to avoid potential toy trouble.

Playing Smart

* Play with your dog. Toys are not a substitute for companionship and interaction with pack members. Make the toys part of your daily interaction, which will strengthen your bond ... give you fun opportunities to reinforce the concept that you are the leader/alpha (by starting and ending the play sessions, for example) ... safely and productively engage your dog's energy so that he's more likely to behave and be calm when you can't be with him ... exercise your dog to maintain and improve her health ... and get some good exercise yourself. Interactive play also helps you socialize pups and mature dogs, and maintain socialization; you have the opportunity to turn playtime into lessons about acceptable and unacceptable behavior with people as well as with other animals. For instance, playtime is a good time for teaching dogs not to jump (you would give your dog his desired toy only when he sits calmly) and to discourage mouthy behavior. Fun games include hide and seek, hide the toy or treat, scavenger hunts (hiding multiple treats around the house), catch and fetch indoors or outside, Frisbee and flyball.

The more energy that you put into teaching your dog to fetch, the less desire he will have to burrow and chew. As the saying goes, "a tired dog is a good dog." In addition, a well-conditioned dog is less likely to develop diseases and joint problems.

Avoid tug-of-war games with dogs who have dominant personalities or if you have leadership issues. Also, avoid wild roughhousing and any form of combative play, which encourages aggressive behavior and can result in injury.

* Use toys as rewards. When teaching your dog new behaviors or retraining to eliminate a bad habit, an appealing toy can be used as a reward for good behavior. You can use a favorite toy to regain your dog's attention on walks, or in place of edible training treats. You can use the toy in socializing a pup or dog, and to help a dog get comfortable with a new person.

* Assemble a variety of safe and stimulating toys for your individual dog.

* Rotate your dog's toys every few days by making only two or three toys available a day. This practice will help each toy maintain its special appeal to your dog. * If you end up with toys your dog can't or won't play with, donate them to a local animal shelter.

* Use toys to promote good manners. Teach your dog to greet you and guests at the door with a toy in her mouth. This gives her something positive to do with her energy, instead of directing it into jumping or other unwanted pestering behaviors.

* No free goodies: instead of just tossing toys and treats on the floor, instruct the dog to do something good and desirable, such as "Sit", and then immediately offer the treat. This enables you to use toys to teach and reinforce good behavior, and dogs are happy to show off their skills. In addition, teach dogs not to grab toys or other items out of your hand.

* Some people dab small amounts of mint mouthwash on the child's toys so that the dog can immediately smell whose toys are whose. If the dog doesn't seem to get the message, dab a small amount of the mouthwash on his nose -- it typically just takes one time. Then the next time the dog encounters the child's toys, he probably will be repelled by the mouthwash scent. Note: some dogs will go for the toys regardless of the unappealing scent and taste.

* Check your dog's teeth regularly. You should brush your dog's teeth daily or at least every other day, which will give you the opportunity to check for any undesirable dental developments. We occasionally hear about dog owners who suddenly notice cracked or worn-down teeth and jump to the conclusion the problem stemmed from a particular toy. However, dental problems result from a variety of factors, from poor early or ongoing nutrition, genetics, accidents or injury, rough play or fighting with another dog, chomping on hard or rough objects. Don't wait until damage suddenly becomes obvious. Supervise your dog, get to know early on about his chewing habits, limit his access to certain toys if he tends to chew too vigorously for too long, remember to choose the right size and kind of toys for your individual dog, notice if his chewing habits change, brush his teeth daily, and examine his gums regularly.

Other Related Tipsheets

Playing Indoors

Exercise Benefits

See Robin's other Dog Tips on training, leadership and management accessible directly from the easy-search index at


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Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport