When I first adopted Chance, I went straight from the adoption event to a PetSmart. It was the first time I'd ever visited a pet-store toy aisle with the intention of buying something, and as I approached the solid walls of toys, my jaw dropped.
There were as many toy options for this dog I just picked up at a fair as there were for 3-to-5-year-olds at Toys-R-Us.
WHY WERE THERE SO MANY TOYS? I though. WHAT DO THEY ALL DO???
Completely overwhelmed, I said, OUT LOUD: "Well. Dogs like...bones, right?" And reached for a little orange-and-ivory Nylabone toy in the shape of a bone.
My mother, who had been a pediatric nurse and had raised three children, knew better than I did, and the first toy she bought Chance was this ridiculous monkey thing. It was as big as Chance, had a squeaker and a velcro'd compartment and crinkly arms and all this weird string-hair. Honestly, I just thought how ugly that would look sitting around my apartment.
But Chance LOVED. IT. Fell madly in love with that stupid thing.
Chance did love his bone, too, and his love of chewing on it saved most of my shoes. But he was able to play with that monkey in a million different ways (before he hit his final teething stage and just ripped it to shreds--R.I.P. monkey).
And by the time I headed back to PetSmart's toy aisle, I'd learned quite a lot about dog toys and that one of the most important things you can do as a dog-parent is provide your pup with fun and enriching activities that focus on exercising the brain more than the body. Toys and games can redirect a dog's favorite destructive behaviors (like chewing on doors) to more appropriate targets (chewing on a toy) or even prevent the destructive behaviors altogether! The mental stimulation toys and games provide can also substitute for physical exercise on days when inclement weather prevents your usual walk or run, or during a frustratingly long crate-bound recovery period after surgery.
Taking the "Destructive" Out of Destructive Behaviors
First of all, it's good to know that many destructive behaviors your dog may engage in--like chewing, excessive barking, or pacing--can be due simply to boredom. This is especially true for highly intelligent and/or active breeds, like Border Collies. Boredom behaviors don't only happen when a dog is left alone; they can happen any time you're not actively paying attention to your dog (like, for example, when one is blogging). Providing a toy or game can be an easy fix for boredom! (I, however, highly recommend not giving your dog "people stuff" to play with, until you are confident he won't get confused. For example, don't give your dog old shoes to chew on--he probably can't tell the difference between "shoes my human was going to throw away" and "shoes my human just got a great deal on!")
Instead of avoiding "destructive" behaviors altogether, you may want to simply channel your dog's desire for certain behaviors. If your dog loves chewing, but he's chewing on a TOY instead of your kitchen door (ahem CHANCE), it's no longer "destructive" chewing! As Casey McGee writes on the Upward Hound Blog:
...Giving animals the chance to indulge their inherent drives is called enrichment... Dogs who regularly get a chance to indulge their inherent drives are happier, calmer, and less troublesome all around.
So if your dog is a chewer, a good Nylabone can be really satisfying. Does your dog love playing chase? Try a flirt pole! And if nothing makes your dog happier than digging, you could even build them a sandbox in the backyard! Working with your dog's favorite behaviors can give you some great ideas for creative enrichment activities AND make him super happy, too!
You can also incorporate food into toys and games. Kathy Sdao, an applied animal behaviorist, suggests on her blog that you should "use your dog’s food productively. Every kibble you pour into your dog’s bowl is a lost opportunity. That bit of food could be used instead to reinforce any behavior you like, or to entertain your dog." She also points out that "whether your dog’s food is reinforcement for good behavior throughout the day or a component of a mental enrichment 'puzzle,' you’ll be better off than if he had gulped down his daily rations in a few seconds. Consider swapping your dog’s food bowl for two or three of the myriad food-dispensing toys [available]."
Mental Exercise Can Sub In For Physical Exercise Sometimes
While physical activity is crucial for all dogs and you should always make it a priority as a dog-owner, there will be times when physical exercise isn't an option.
For example, I live in Los Angeles, where we may not have your typical four season, but we do have "fire season." And during fire season, massive wildfires can rage quite close to the city, and the already-not-great air quality takes a serious hit. Honestly, it can smell like a campfire when you walk outside. Citizens are advised to keep themselves--and their pets--indoors.
The same thing can happen during inclement weather--you shouldn't exercise your dog outside on very hot days, or on very cold or snowy days either.
If you've got an active dog who's used to getting a walk or two every day, or maybe getting some fetch time out in the yard, suddenly being cooped up inside all day long can be maddening.
Toys and games to the rescue! Mental stimulation can help drain your dog's energy as much as physical exercise. In addition to chew toys, squeaky toys, and tug toys, you can try puzzle games like the Trixie Poker Box that Chance is playing with in the photo at the top of this page. This article from Cesar Millan's website has some great suggestions on options for different ways you can challenge your dogs mind in addition to toys and games (and if you have a problem with me mentioning the Dog Whisperer's name, you should read my article on why I think you're hurting, not helping).
If your dog is recovering from a major surgery and is exercise-restricted or crate-bound (like Chance was when he was recovering from his TPLO), toys and games will SAVE YOUR SANITY. Chance went from daily walks, dog park outings, and regular agility classes to being stuck in a crate all day when he tore his CCL. We went through a TON of toys during that 2-3 month period.
The caveat here is that if your dog can't be physically active, you'll need to pick toys and games that don't get him riled up. The flirt pole, for example, is out. And for Chance, we had to wait on using the Trixie Poker Box until the 2nd month because it would just amp him up so much he'd start bouncing around. But he DID get a squeaky toy (with 19 squeakers!!) the day he got home from the hospital because he tends to just sit there and gnaw on them until he's "killed" every single squeaker. It all depends on your dog's particular behavior.
Also, if you intend on incorporating food into puzzle games, such as a treat-dispensing ball or compartment game, remember to watch your dog's caloric intake. Since he'll already be needing less food because of the decrease in activity, you may want to decrease meal portions--or feed ALL of his meal calories in treat-dispensing toys!
Our Favorite Toys & Games
Chance has always loved toys and games, and we've tried A BUNCH. So here are our tried-and-true favorites:
Skinneeez Stuffing-less Squeaky Toys
These are great if you're worried about your dog eating the stuffing inside regular squeaky stuffy toys.
Cheap Stuffed Toys
You can find cheap off-brand stuffed toys with squeakers or grunters at Costco, HomeGoods, Marshalls, TJ Maxx...the list goes on. If they're cheap, they're probably not high quality, which means any dog with a penchant for eviscerating stuffed toys will have NO PROBLEM getting them ripped open. In my opinion, that's a fun treat for your dog once in awhile, if you're sitting right there and can make sure he's not eating any stuffing or the squeaker mechanism.
Nylabone Chew Toys
Chance has enjoyed (at least for a little while) pretty much every Nylabone product I've ever gotten him. I don't know WHAT it is about the dinosaurs in particular, but I keep replacing them when he gets them down to amorphous nubs. Even my mom's dog, Murphy, who isn't really crazy about toys, loves her stegosaurus.
Busy Buddy Dental Brush Toy
This thing doubles as a chew toy AND toothbrush. Make sure you get the rings that are called "dental treats," not "rawhide rings."
Trixie Poker Box Level 2
Some dogs are really smart and actually learn how to open each different compartment with precision. Not my Chanceypants! He just pokes at it with his nose and smashes at it with his paws until he knocks them open. Keeps him occupied!! No Ivy League for him, though...
Outward Hound Hide-A-Squirrel Tree
Oh man, this was THE BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT CHANCE HAS EVER GOTTEN. And I picked it out!! So proud. So it's a plush tree trunk with holes in it, and it's filled with tiny squirrel squeaky toys. Chance made short work of the squirrels (they do sell replacements on Amazon), BUT I actually just take a BUNCH of Chance's old toys, cram them in there, and act like he's getting a new toy. He inevitably is overcome with excitement and cannot wait to dig them all out! It comes in a couple different sizes--I got him the BIG one (just like the one above) and it fits a lot of toys.
Remember that bit about incorporating food into your dog's toys and games? This is our favorite food-dispensing toy!!! We've tried the Starmark Bob-a-Lot and the JW Rockin Treat Ball and both are fine (the Bob-a-Lot has an adjustable treat window which is nice if your dog's treats and/or kibble are very tiny), but there's something about the Wobbler's action that Chance goes nuts for. I think it may be because the motion of a ball is not very new or exciting to him--it just rolls, until it stops. But the Wobbler--he CANNOT predict what it will do next!! It's a lot of fun. COMPLETE HELL if you have hardwood floors though, so I recommend putting down some old towels or a rug first.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
- If your dog is displaying "destructive behaviors" like chewing or digging, he may be bored.
- Boredom can be solved with toys and games!
- Channel "destructive" behaviors into enriching activities by giving your dog a toy or game that can be an appropriate outlet for his favorite behaviors.
- Incorporate food into toys and games, but watch the overall caloric intake.
- If your dog has to stay indoors for some reason, your dog can expend the energy he'd normally use in physical exertion with the mental stimulation of toys and games.
- The same is true for dogs who need to be exercise-restricted or crate-bound because of medical recovery, but make sure you don't offer toys and games that can whip him into a frenzy.
I hope this post has been helpful! I'd love to hear about your favorite toys and games--leave a comment below or come join the discussion over in the Patchwork Dogs Facebook Group! And don't forget to subscribe to the newsletter to be notified when we post new content and to be eligible for raffles, promotions, and more!