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Good advice to empower every dog owner to have a happy, rewarding relationship with their four-legged friend.

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Dog friendly toys

When it comes to keeping your dog occupied, some people might ask, “What’s wrong with a stick?” Most dogs would find chasing, retrieving, and chewing a stick rewarding but we need to find toys to occupy and entertain our dogs that are safe for them to use.

Puppy Iris with flower toy

However tempting it may be to throw a stick for our dog, this age old pastime has been proven to be extremely hazardous. When carrying a stick, your dog will not stop to balance it carefully in their mouth, and can easily impale themselves if one end of the stick catches on the ground. Sticks may have sharp edges and protrusions, or can easily splinter, causing substantial damage to the dog’s mouth and, even more worryingly, potentially fatal injuries to the gastro-intestinal tract.

Toys come in all shapes and sizes and for different purposes. Like children, dogs have a need to play as a form of learning and as relaxation. Many dogs have a drive to chew and, in the absence of something safe to chew, will inevitably find something else to settle down with.

When choosing a toy, the golden rule must be that dogs should not play with anything that could be dangerous; that includes toys that have been designed for other purposes (and not with dogs in mind) – such as children’s toys. Even a small dog can exert a powerful bite pressure when chewing and, as this is even more pronounced in larger breeds, children’s toys are not designed to survive such treatment. 

What makes a toy safe for our dogs?

1. It must be designed specifically for dogs and be the right size for your dog

2. It should not be damaged or have any sharp edges

3. It must be non-toxic

4. It should not be stuffed with, or contain, any filling that is toxic

5. It must be designed to suit the play activity

Toys for accompanied play

When out on a walk, many dogs love to chase and retrieve an object, and there are several different toys available that meet this need. 

Balls: The first and most obvious would be a ball but, like all toys, we need to check that it is suitable and the right size. If it fits within your dog’s closed mouth, it could be swallowed and therefore is too small. If the dog cannot hold it with their mouth, it is too large.

Make sure that it is not a hard, rigid ball as this may shatter, particularly in cold weather, and can cause dental damage if caught at speed. Tennis balls are popular for medium or larger dogs and some pet shops sell slightly smaller versions. However, be aware that ingesting any part of the tennis ball can be dangerous and cause life-threating blockages, so never leave them out when the dog is unsupervised. Don’t allow chewing on the ball as its surface is hard enough to wear down your dog’s teeth. 

Firmer balls made of a softer rubber come in different sizes and can be more resilient. ‘Chuck-it’ balls are immensely popular, durable and safe. They will usually float on water and can produce a good bounce which appeals to most dogs. However, be aware that jumping for a bouncing ball, while great fun, does introduce an additional risk to your dog’s joints, which can result in serious injury. As with tennis balls, the biggest concern can be that when catching the ball, it can get caught in your dog’s throat and cut off the air supply – so extra caution is needed if we decide to allow play with them. At Dogs for Good we would not advocate the use of tennis balls as a play item. 

Frisbees: As well as balls, there are rubber or plastic throw sticks available, as well as some heavier plush toys and, of course, the frisbee. Frisbees made for children are rarely safe for use with dogs, and most pet stores will offer specially designed ones that have soft edges which do not crack or splinter. Just like with balls, caution is needed when throwing frisbees as dogs can seriously hurt themselves when jumping and catching them in the air. Rolling them so that the dog does not need to jump to catch it is a lot safer.

Other toys: Other interactive toys that can be useful when we play with our dogs can be tug ropes and rubber variations of a similar design, Jolly balls which are firm rubber, slightly misshapen balls in different sizes which bounce unpredictably, and flirt poles which are like over-sized cat toys (consisting of a long pole attached to a rope, which has a lure at the end for the dog to chase). Be careful to only buy toys of this nature that have been produced and safety-tested with dogs in mind.

Toys for solitary play

When left alone with a toy, many dogs will want to chew it to the point of destruction, which means that we always need to be vigilant in checking that the toys we offer to our dogs are still safe and don’t have damaged edges or bits missing that they can inhale or swallow. This becomes particularly important when dogs are given a toy when left alone.

Interactive toys: Like humans, our dogs do have a need for mental stimulation and enrichment. Most owners have found that an interactive toy can be both satisfying and intellectually stimulating. Interactive toys are often accompanied by food so that our dogs earn a food reward through play (e.g. the Nina Ottoson range). These vary from resilient rubber chew toys (such as a Kong) that can be stuffed with a form of food reward (either kibble, paste, or frozen yoghurt) that keeps the dog focused and occupied for far longer, through to “snuffle mats” which are made of knotted fabric, creating a grass effect, where treats can be hidden between each strand; or “licky mats” which have a raised patterned surface which trap a paste or other substance that is spread across the surface, requiring the dog to work on the surface to obtain all the reward.

Kongs: Kongs come in a wide variety of sizes to ensure that you get the correct one for your dog. They offer different levels of resilience to cater for the variety of power that dogs can exercise during chewing, and are available in different shapes. Some will bounce like a rugby ball while others topple or run along the ground, requiring the dog to work at reaching the treats. They are properly designed for all kinds of dogs and are universally recognised as being safe, durable and fit for purpose.

Soft toys: Many dogs like a soft, cuddly toy too. Some will carry them around for months without inflicting any damage, while others will not rest until the squeaker inside has been exposed and dealt with, leaving a flurry of nylon wadding across the floor. Any soft toy must be safe; free from buttons, plastic eyes, or zips but should not be left unattended for any period of time. While the expectation of our human need for something to cuddle is easily transferred to our dogs (and especially so when they are puppies), extra care must be exercised when leaving any dog with a soft toy when contained in a crate and unsupervised.

Toys should be puncture-proof and washed regularly in warm soapy water. If made of a soft material, they must be dried thoroughly before being reintroduced to your dog, to minimise the risk of mould or fungi.

Finally, you should inspect any toys regularly to ensure that any damaged ones are discarded.

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