As an advocate of canine enrichment, ‘my dog destroys his toys‘ is something I hear a lot. I can certainly understand the frustration. Some of the toys are not cheap and to have them not even last the day is disappointing, to say the least.
Looking around the pet shops, I often see notices displayed beside the toys, stating something like ‘THESE TOYS ARE NOT INDESTRUCTIBLE’. They obviously have a fair few disappointed customers. So the first thing to note is that if your dog destroys his toys, you are not alone. The reason you are not alone is that chewing is an innate behaviour of dogs, it’s a genetic predisposition. Your dog isn’t faulty, naughty or bad; he’s good at chewing, he’s good at being a dog.
You can stop there if you like and just not buy things he is capable of chewing to destruction. Maybe try some of the toughest toys like Nylabone, Kong Extreme, GoughNuts or West Paw (these are tough but nothing is truly indestructible). You may also like to take a look at what people are recommending in the Canine Enrichment group post dedicated to tough toys
However, there’s also plenty you can do to reduce the likelihood of toys being chewed to destruction.
Don’t just give the toy to the dog and walk away. Watch how he interacts with it. If he thinks the fun is in chewing it up then that’s what he’s going to do. Maybe stick around and make the toy fun in other ways, like chasing it around, playing fetch or tug.
If you have difficulty getting the toy back from the dog, have two identical toys. Play with your dog using one toy. When you want him to leave it, make the other toy the interesting one by playing with that one and paying no attention to the dog’s toy. They often want what somebody else has and will leave their toy to play with the interesting one (it’s your job to make it the interesting one). The toy, therefore, is not being destroyed and you can keep swapping in this way without ever having to take the toy away.
Often it’s enrichment feeding toys that people report their dogs are destroying. Strictly speaking, they are not really toys because the dog isn’t playing but he’s getting something interesting to do (enrichment) as he works out how to access the food. We will stick with the term ‘toy’ for ease. We need to ensure that the dog is introduced to this type of feeding in an appropriate way. A way which gets him focusing on the food rather than destroying the toy. The idea is that we start off as easy as possible for the dog to be successful (you can always build up the challenge later on).
Let’s take two examples of how this might work.
Example 1: Using a Kong
Start off by filling it with loose food, such as kibble. This will fall out very easily allowing him to be successful and learn that the idea is to get the food. Over time the challenge can be increased by adding wet food, then compacted wet food and then wet food, compacted and frozen. If at stage one the dog didn’t show any interest then we could make things even easier by smearing a favourite food on the outside of the Kong (cheese, peanut butter (ensure it doesn’t contain Xylitol) or Kong easy treat paste perhaps). Once the food has gone you should remove the toy. Leaving it down risks the dog chewing it. I don’t like the idea of dogs thinking I’m taking their things (it can induce resource guarding) so I save some of their food and sprinkle it on the floor. Whilst they are occupied with the extra game of finding all the sprinkles I remove the Kong trouble free. This depends largely on the dog. One of mine is very happy to bring me the empty toy and I exchange for a few pieces of food. The other prefers the former method.
Example 2: Using a snuffle mat
It’s been reported to me that some dogs ignore the mat or they pick it up and all the bits of food fall out. For either problem, you can make it easier by placing the mat down but just putting food on the edge, a few inches from the mat. Over a period of time, you can move the food closer to the mat. Then onto the edges of the mat, then all over the mat, then just under the top pieces of fleece and finally right into the depths of the mat.
As with the Kong, you should remove the mat when it’s not being used. Throughout the process, the dog is learning that the toy represents food. The food is very easy to acquire so that becomes the focus. The toy is really only a cue to the dog that food is available.
If the dog shows little interest interacting with enrichment feeding toys it is most likely to be that the task is simply too difficult because it’s not been introduced slowly or the dog simply thinks that the reward isn’t worth the effort compared with getting food, effort free, from his feeding bowl. Changing to feeding more of his food from enrichment activities and much less from a bowl can help with this problem. It’s worth the effort when you are not getting it for free. I personally don’t feed any food from a dog food bowl because I strongly believe that dogs need more enrichment in their lives. See my blog on why dogs need enrichment for more info on that.
Enjoy your dogs, give them something interesting to do, let them enjoy life.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read