Your active dog probably loves to play with toys. Toys + adventure = best ever. But how do dogs know what objects are toys in the first place? If you bring home a shopping bag, and your dog goes immediately for the soft stuffed toy, how is it that he or she knows that thing is meant for play?
There are certain toys that interest dogs more, according to science (or just common sense really, if you read the study here Why Dogs Find Some Toys Boring). If your dog seems to know what a toy is, he or she has probably picked up on a pattern of what shapes, smells, colors and “fun-ness” are common in toys. Patterns are very important to dogs.
Mort likes toys. A lot.
Our dog Mort does tend to favor actual dog toys as well, but I can make anything into a toy through behavioral cues. Mine are exaggerated and on purpose when I want to turn something into a toy.
Awhile back, for a trick I wanted him to do (and to prove to someone I could do it), I turned my car keys into a toy. It is a very displeasing and unnatural item for a dog to pick up, but by making this object highly desirable (get excited, gasp, play with them myself, make them seem like the most important thing EVER), Mort wanted those keys for the first time in his life and fetched them the first time I threw them on the ground.
It took him awhile to figure out how to even pick them up in his mouth, but he did it… and it suddenly became fun and the keys were now a toy. I repeated this action with a cell phone (yep… nuts).*
Why would you do this?
You can make this behavior useful for training purposes. Imagine training your dog to go find your lost car keys, or your cell phone that lost its charge and is somewhere in your house, or pick up items and put them away in a bin.
I have also employed this tactic to distract Mort on walks and similar when he suddenly became fearful of something – I picked up whatever I could find (say, a leaf) and made it into an amazing toy he could focus on instead of the feared object.
And as you can see in the photo above, it can be useful for training dog adventure activities like Barn Hunt.
Instilling that objects can be “fun” at a young age
I think we teach dogs what are “classic” toy patterns when they are young, through our subtle behavior movements, emotion, and repetition (no, the cord isn’t a toy! this tug is a toy! fleece good, electrical plastic bad… toy plastic good!). Dogs will have natural preferences about what objects are more fun than others. Dogs know the pattern, but it’s also easy to teach toy motivated dogs new ones too.
An interesting show on dog learning from human movement (one of many) is “Dogs Decoded” by NOVA, which is also a fascinating look into the science of dog behavior and you can watch for free online. This could help provide some clues on the matter.
What do you think?
Do you have anecdotal or scientific evidence about how dogs know what objects are toys? Let us know in the comments!
*Note: These items are not good for dogs teeth, or your keys/phone or whatever “non-natural toy” you choose, so I don’t recommend turning these into a regular play item. And make sure you safely store them when you’re finished experimenting. However, on an irregular basis it can be very handy to train a word association with these items – so if you misplace your phone or keys, you can ask your dog to go fetch it for you. His nose (and ears for electronics) will find it when ours cannot.
Join the Adventure Dog Blog Hop and #AdventureDogChat
DOGthusiast and Tiffany’s Diamond Dogs co-host the Adventure Dog blog hop every Tuesday. We’re also partnering with YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner.com who hosts a monthly Twitter Chat called #AdventureDogChat. The blog hop and Twitter chat focus on doing stuff with your dog: adventures, activities, training, sports, and more!
How to join the Twitter Chat:
- Join the Twitter chat on the third Wednesday of every month at 5pm PST.
- Use the hashtag #AdventureDogChat to join!
- How to participate in a Twitter chat? Check out this post for how to participate in one. More questions? Ask in the comments below!
How to join the Blog Hop:
Here are the details on how to join the hop. For more information about this blog hop, and blog hops in general, see our page about the Adventure Dog Blog Hop.
- Grab the badge: Download (right-click to save) or Link to it using the following code, your choice!
- Link to your hosts, DOGthusiast, YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner.com, and Tiffany’s Diamond Dogs. For ease of use, copy this code (there’s a copy button in the top right corner of the code box!):
This post is part of the Adventure Dog blog hop, hosted by DOGthusiast, YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner.com and Tiffany's Diamond Dogs every Tuesday.
- Add your link to the hop! Click “Get the Code” below, add your information and link to your post, and you’re in the hop! Promote your post on your social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest! Optionally add #AdventureDogChat to your tweets or post title to help more people find your post!