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The Psychology Of Dogs and their Toys

I have spent a lifetime observing dogs and the things they do and have had many years at Holiday Barn…

The Relationship Between Dogs and Their Toys

I have spent a lifetime observing dogs and the things they do and have had many years at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts to channel that curiosity. The knowledge gained from working with Dog Trainers and other animal experts that we encounter through this business does not make me a dog psychologist, nor does it make me a dog behaviorist or trainer. But it has provided me a unique opportunity to gain priceless insight on some interesting dog behaviors. Dogs and their “relationship” to toys is one of those intriguing and sometimes puzzling behaviors.

It is rare to find a dog that does not like toys of some kind. Even if it is not the kind of dog toy we generally think of, i.e., the plush, stuffed variety, most dogs will gravitate towards one type of toy or another. Or they may make their own toy out of a non-toy item, like a balled-up wad of paper, or a stick. There could be a deep-rooted attraction to their toy of choice, which we will discuss, but sometimes it is nothing more than just pure fun. What are the reasons dogs choose the toys they do, and what are some of the more puzzling reasons a dog will act “peculiar” towards a particular toy?

5 facts about the psychology of dog toys. Learn why dog toys are vital to a pup's development because they satisfy their instincts.

Why Dog Toys are Important for Dogs

Toys are actually important to your dog’s development. We seem to know that instinctively, because one of the first things we do when we get a dog is go buy them a toy! Toys provide our dogs with mental and physical stimulation. If they are bored, they will reach for their toy. If they need to chew, they will go for a toy. And if they just want to rest, they may curl up with a toy. Toys satisfy a need in our dogs.

Helpful resource: Safe chew toys for dogs.

Often, I witness my own dog heading into the living room and interacting with his toys, whether he is shaking them, rolling over them, or just laying his head on one of them to take a nap. You should see his face when I start straightening the living room and putting his toys in the toy box. It’s like he’s saying, “Hey, those are mine!” I think he takes comfort in knowing his toys are all around him. Maybe it gives our dogs a sense of belonging to have their things intermingled with our things in the home.

Black Shiba Inu puppy growling and playing with rope dog toy

Toys often satisfy an instinct in our dogs. Retrievers, for example, because of their desire to “retrieve” may be instinctively attached to fetch a ball or frisbee. Many dogs, particularly hunting dogs, enjoy squeaky toys because they sound like prey when they pounce and chew on them. Then you have the female dog that can have an emotional attachment to a toy that reminds them of a puppy. And of course, some dogs just prefer a good-ole chew toy, just because they like to chew!

Sometimes toys will evoke a peculiar response to a toy. It is one of those things that make us cock our head to the side and say, “hmm.” Why is my dog acting that way? Is it normal? Should I take the toy away? Let’s examine some of these scenarios.

When your dog exhibits an emotional attachment to a toy

I remember giving our dog, Haley, a yellow stuffed baby chick. It was smaller than most of her plush toys, and it made the cutest little chirping sound. Normally, a new toy meant grabbing and running with it, shaking it, tossing it around, but not this toy. She gently lifted it and placed it in her bed, where she would sit with it like she was protecting it. She acted almost motherly towards it. Isn’t that unusual? Sometimes Haley acted like the baby chick confused her. Perhaps she too questioned her unusual attraction to this toy.

There is a lot of conversation on Quora from people whose dogs have had this kind of reaction to a toy. I didn’t find Haley’s attachment upsetting in any way, but some in the Quora conversation were disturbed at their dog’s behavior. Many people shared that their dog was showing aggression around the toy – growling at their owners or snapping at anyone that goes near their “baby”. It is easy to see why these owners would be concerned with that, but aside from showing aggression, many owners were concerned that their dogs were exhibiting some kind of behavior that – for lack of a better word – is just plain weird. I wouldn’t call Haley’s actions “weird”. She was not aggressive, nor was she obsessive. Haley just kept the chick in her bed and would move delicately around it. She didn’t hover around the chick, nor was she particularly consumed with it, but you could tell that it “struck a chord” in her.

Why is My Female Dog Babying Her Toys? 

This type of behavior is fairly common and is typically experienced by a female dog. Generally, the dog is un-spayed, but not in all cases. A hormone imbalance or even a false pregnancy can cause this kind of attraction to a toy in an un-spayed dog.  When this happens, the dog may also attempt to “nest”, perhaps even produce milk which would necessitate a visit to their veterinarian. It is even possible that a spayed female dog, as in Haley’s case, could feel strong maternal instincts. She may or may never have had puppies, but regardless, the toy reawakened her instinct to protect and nurture. Lastly, if a mother’s puppies were taken away from her too soon after birth, she may coddle a toy as if it were her baby. I can’t help but wonder if the dog feels a sense of loss or sadness in that scenario. I hope not.

Female Labrador Retriever babying her new dog toy.

We often have suite customers at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts bring their dog’s stuffed toys to leave with them while they are away. Some of them refer to a particular toy as their dog’s “baby”. My guess is their dog formed an attachment to that toy, as Haley did to the baby chick. Many of these sweet dogs carry their “babies” to bed with them each night. As long as their behavior is not compulsive, it’s sort-of endearing, if you ask me. And it certainly does more good than harm, as it provides the dog with a sense of comfort and security.

Understanding Dog Jealousy and Toys

Just as humans can be prone to feelings of jealousy, so too can dogs. Dog jealousy can often be observed around toys, especially when multiple dogs are in the same household. If one dog perceives another dog getting more attention or more access to toys, it can lead to jealousy. This can manifest as aggression or disruptive behavior, such as excessive barking or even stealing toys from other dogs. This jealousy is rooted in the idea of resource guarding, a natural instinct in dogs to protect what they perceive as their own valuable resources, including food, territory, and of course, toys.

When a dog is obsessed with a toy

One description of obsessive behavior is “an unwanted emotional pull that causes distress, anxiety, or disturbance”.  Obsessive behavior in a dog can manifest itself in many ways: tail chasing, incessant licking, pica, spinning, hoarding items, etc.. When it comes to toys, one such behavior that I find most peculiar is the “whiner”.

If given a toy, sometimes it appears to upset a dog in that he/she will begin to pace and whine or cry while carrying the toy around. Isn’t that unusual? There are a couple reasons for this type of behavior, one of which is just pure excitement. Maybe they are just super excited to have a new toy, right? I know its kind-of bizarre but whining and pacing may just be the dog’s way of expressing that excitement.

Maybe the dog is whining because he/she is unable to find a place to bury their new, most valuable possession. Historically, dogs buried food to hide it from other animals. They did it for their survival. The instinct to bury “valuable” things can be triggered for non-food items in our domesticated dogs. That is why we sometimes find bones and treats in couch cushions, or underneath things. If they can’t get outside to bury the item, they will do the next best thing. Whining may express a dog’s irritation at not being able to bury their new toy inside the home.

And perhaps there is no reason aside from obsessive behavior.  If possession of the toy is causing true anguish or distress,  it is a problem that needs professional attention.

Why Dogs Destroy Their Toys

Years ago, I had a couple of Jack Russell Terriers that destroyed every single toy we gave them, whether it be a rubber toy, a tennis ball, or a plush toy (they just had to get the squeaker out – and then chew it up and swallow it if Mom didn’t catch them in time). I never really understood that. One time I bought these two pups a toy that was “guaranteed indestructible”.  My first thought was, “I’ll bet they’ve never been tested on dogs like ours”. And I was right. Before the sun went down that very day, those toys were history.

I have since read that dogs will sometimes destroy toys as an outlet for pent-up energy or frustration. I hope my dogs were not frustrated, but in hindsight, they could have had plenty of pent-up energy. They were like the energizer bunny. We could never tire them out no matter how much exercise they had.

Jack Russell’s were bred to hunt. They have an innate impulse to capture and to kill, even if it is just a toy. Inherently, they need a job. My “jack’s” didn’t have a job, other than to be cute. It was a big mistake on my part by not making sure they had “work” to do. Maybe their need to destroy a toy was somehow a job to them. Tearing apart a toy can provide a sort-of mental challenge to a dog that has nothing else better to do. Working dogs and hunting dogs will most certainly act out in some way if their desire to work is not satisfied.

The Psychology of Toy Aggression in Dogs

Resource guarding is another interesting reaction in dogs when given a toy.  It is when a dog shows aggression by growling, showing its teeth, or snapping at a person or another dog if they get too close to something the dog considers valuable. It could be a treat, food bowl, even another person the dog is guarding, but for our purposes, it is the toy. The dog perceives the approach of another person or dog to be a threat to their toy – their valuable possession – and is attempting to keep others away.

Historically, resource guarding was pretty important to dogs that lived in the wild. It was their way of ensuring their survival, as it kept other animals away from their food. It is normal for a dog to protect what is theirs, but so sad that they feel the need to do it. Generally, resource guarding is thought to be inherited from one or both of the dog’s parents. However, a dog’s upbringing could also provoke the development of resource guarding, particularly if they live in an environment where they have had to squabble with other pets over food, toys, etc.

When to Take Action with Unhealthy Behaviors Around Dog Toys

Some of what we have discussed regarding dogs and their relationships to toys is harmless – and even cute. But you should not hesitate to take action when obsessive behavior, irrational/neurotic tendencies, and possession aggression are present in your dog. Resource guarding, particularly, can be a serious problem. If the situation escalates, you or a family member could be hurt. Attempts to correct the behavior can backfire and lead to an even more dangerous problem. If you are having problems with resource guarding in your dog, we recommend you consult our Professional Dog Trainers for help.

If your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviors with unhealthy consequences, take a look at their lifestyle and explore possible reasons for their actions. Are they bored? Do they get enough exercise? Do they need a job to do? Could they be in some type of emotional distress? Or in pain (in the case of the whiner/cryer)? If you answered yes or even “maybe” to any of these questions, let us help you get to the root of the problem.

Toys as a Coping Mechanism for When We Leave for work

Dogs are social animals and can experience feelings of loneliness or anxiety when left alone for long periods, like when we go to work. This is where toys can play a crucial role. Providing a range of toys for your dog when you’re away can help them cope with this separation. Toys provide mental stimulation, helping to keep your dog’s mind occupied and reducing feelings of boredom or anxiety. Interactive or puzzle toys can be particularly effective, as they require your dog to work out how to get to a treat or other reward. Soft toys can also provide comfort, particularly for younger dogs or those that prefer to snuggle. By rotating the toys you leave out, you can help keep your dog’s interest and make each day a little different.

Contact our Professional Dog Trainers today. In Glen Allen, call 672-2200. In Midlothian, 794-5400.

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