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Which Toys Do Dogs Prefer?

Why do dogs get bored so quickly with most of their toys?

Rhiannon McCluskey photo -- Creative Commons license
Source: Rhiannon McCluskey photo -- Creative Commons license

All dogs like to play, which is one of the reasons why humans find dogs so entertaining. We all seem to get a kick out of the excitement which our dogs show when we wave a newly purchased toy in front of them. The average dog owner in the US spends nearly $50 a year on toys, according to a 2015 national survey of pet owners by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). However, despite the intense interest that a dog may show for the new toy, most typically, perhaps only 15 or 20 minutes later you usually find the toy lying in the middle of the floor being ignored by your pet. There are some exceptions, and some dogs may find a particular favorite toy that they carry around with them for days on end, and they may even carefully tuck it into their bed and sleep beside it. However, as a general rule the interest that dogs have in most toys is short-lived.

Sometimes we can get a clue as to what is going on in the dog's mind by looking at the behavior of human children. For the most part, children (and many adults) like to interact with new things. This preference for newness is a tendency that psychologists call "neophilia". That means that often it is the novelty of the toy that is most attractive, rather than the specific nature of the toy.

The importance of neophilia in dogs' preferences for toys was demonstrated in an experiment published in a report in the journal Animal Cognition*. Patricia Kaulfuß from the University of Giessen in Germany and Daniel Mills from the University of Lincoln in the UK familiarized 17 dogs with two different toys. To begin with the experimenters played with the dogs using the toys. This was to ensure that the dogs were interested in them. They then presented the dogs with a lineup of three toys — the two that they already had played with plus a novel toy. Each dog saw three different lineups and was exposed to three different unfamiliar objects over the course of the study. The dogs were allowed to approach each lineup and to sniff or pick up any one of the toys that they were interested in. The results were unambiguous — the dogs chose the unfamiliar new toy 76% of the time. For dogs new was clearly better and more interesting.

The fact that dogs show neophilia explains why they become bored with toys so quickly. New objects can't be new forever so the interest based on novelty is often not very long-lasting. This was demonstrated by Anne Pullen and John Bradshaw at the University of Bristol Anthrozoology Institute, and Ralph Merrill at the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition. Their report was also published in the journal Animal Cognition**. They conclude that dogs "show intense but transient neophilia towards novel objects" with the important word being "transient".

In this study the researchers used 16 adult Labrador Retrievers (taking advantage of the fact that Labs are very playful dogs). A variety of toys were used. In the test sequence the dogs were given one toy for 30 seconds. Then the toy was taken away and after a brief interval the toy was brought back. This continued until the dog stopped showing interest or interacting with the toy. On average after only five 30 second exposures (that is a total of 2 ½ minutes of actual playtime with the toy) the dogs lost interest. The researchers did test a variety of different things to see if they could lengthen the dogs' time at play with the toy, however this was without success. It appears that once a dog is completely familiar with the sight, sound, feel, and smell of a toy it becomes rather boring.

However, since this experiment used toys that were of different types, with different colors, different textures and different smells, some comments could be made about the dog's initial preference for particular types of toys. Co-author John Bradshaw suggests "Because we think that dogs perceive toys in the same way that wolves perceive prey, they prefer toys that either taste like food or can be torn apart," which, as all dog owners know, can lead to messy outcomes (click here for an example).

Co-author, Anne Pullen, added that they should be "soft, easily manipulable toys that can be chewed easily and/or make a noise. Dogs quickly lose interest in toys with hard unyielding surfaces, and those that don't make a noise when manipulated." [For an example of how the texture of something affects a dog's interest in it click here.]

The conclusion that we reach from these two pieces of research is that if dogs had their way they would get new toys every day. Although that solution would make the pet product industry very happy, the good news is that it is possible to have old toys still maintain enough "newness" to make them interesting. The best solution involves not leaving toys scattered around all the time so that they ultimately lose their appeal. Instead toys can be tucked away, out of sight, for a period of time. These old toys can then be rotated back into service and thus will serve as somewhat "new" objects. It is like being once again fascinated by "Star Trek" reruns when you come across them on the "oldie" channel on your TV.

Another possibility is to make the toys seem different when you present them to the dog again. This often can be done by changing its scent by rolling it in leaves or grass, dabbing it with a drop of perfume, or giving it a quick spray with some fabric freshener. However, perhaps the best way to keep a plaything from becoming boring relies on the fact that you personally can make a difference in the interest value of the toy. Playing with your dog using that old toy can change the plaything's worth and the dog's interest in it. A toy can take on an entirely new meaning when it becomes the focus of interaction between you and your dog. In this way that old toy becomes a new way of having fun again.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from:

* Patricia Kaulfuß and Daniel S. Mills, (2008). Neophilia in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and its implication for studies of dog cognition. Animal Cognition, 11 (3), 553-556.

** Anne J. Pullen, Ralph J. N. Merrill, John W. S. Bradshaw, (2012). Habituation and dishabituation during object play in kennel-housed dogs. Animal Cognition, 15 (6), 1143-1150.

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