Dogs choose favorite toys based on play with humans

Why do dogs prefer some toys over others? A recent study found the critical component was human interaction with the dog and the toy. Other features of the toys offered to the dogs such as size, shape, color, texture and sounds were important points of interest, but they mostly resulted in only transient attention. “For an animal as social as a dog, toys only become really exciting when they are part of a game with a person,” said John Bradshaw, a researcher in the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School. For dogs left alone, the most appealing toys are those that make noise, or chewy toys, especially those meant to be eaten.


Ever bring a new toy home for your dog — only for the gizmo to end up neglected and ignored on the floor?

It turns out there could be a way to avoid such flops in the future with new research detailing which toys will either interest or bore canines. The study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, sheds light on why dogs ignore some toys after just a minute of investigation, while other toys become coveted favorites.

“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, however the latter can cause health problems if the dog accidentally swallows some of the pieces,” co-author John Bradshaw, a researcher in the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, told Discovery News.

Co-author Anne Pullen, also at the University of Bristol, added that dog toys should be “soft, easily manipulable toys that can be chewed easily and/or make a noise.”

As for what toys cause many dogs to grow bored, Pullen said, “Dogs quickly lose interest in toys with hard unyielding surfaces, and those that don’t make a noise when manipulated.”

The team, including colleague Ralph Merrill of the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition, has studied canine play and dog toys for some time. Their latest study involved presenting multiple kennel-housed Labrador retrievers with one toy for 30-second periods until interaction ceased.

Prior research has looked at other dogs, but Labradors were chosen for this study “because they’re are very popular pets,” Merrill told Discovery News.

Bradshaw added that Labradors, due to their breeding, are one of the most playful breeds “and we had to be sure that the dogs we studied would play with the toys for a few minutes at least, otherwise we couldn’t have measured what would get them playing again once they’d lost interest in the original toy.”

They presented the dogs with toys of varying types, including different colors and odors. The researchers then gave the dogs a unique toy that contrasted with whatever one the canines were playing with first.

It was clear that all of the dogs showed intense, but transient, interest toward nearly all new toys. Dogs appear to be hard-wired to explore any novel object — toy or not. In the case of toys, the problem is that dogs can become habituated to them quickly, which leads to boredom and neglected toys.

Changing the delay from habituation to presentation of the second toy, between 10 seconds and 15 minutes, did not affect the dogs’ duration of play. No single toy characteristic altered the test results much either, suggesting that getting used to the stimulus qualities of a toy — be they through smell, sound, color, texture — is the clincher for canine boredom.

If that happens, there’s only one solution: the owner needs to jump in and play with the dog and toy too.

“For an animal as social as a dog,” Bradshaw explained, “toys only become really exciting when they are part of a game with a person. Few toys will sustain a dog’s interest for long if the owner is not around to offer encouragement.”

He added, “If a dog has to be left on its own, it is most likely to enjoy toys that can be chewed, make a noise when played with, or are designed to be eaten as they disintegrate (such as a chew).”

At least one of the many reasons why dogs make such good pets is that they are renowned for routinely engaging in play, even as adults. Certain other animals mostly only play when they are juveniles, growing out of the behavior as they get older.

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