Belgian Malinois Puppy with Ball

“I just can’t get him to focus. I’ve read your blog. I want to use play in my training but this is all he likes to do!” she said as she gestured over to the dog across the room.

The dog hovered over his toy in the distance, standing over it, alternating between grabbing it and repeatedly crushing it between his jaws, and spitting it on the ground, protecting it with his body.

We talked a bit longer and as we settled into the overstuffed chairs in the beautifully decorated living room, the dog followed suit, sprawling out on his bed, favorite toy in tow, watching our every move.

After hearing her plight, I issued a response I don’t think she was expecting.

“You know what you have to do?”

She looked at me inquisitively.  

“You have to get rid of that squeaky toy.” We both glanced over at the dog who tucked the coveted toy under one paw, seeming to know exactly what it was I was saying.

She was surprised at my suggestion. Shocked even. And for a moment, she couldn’t find her words.

“But…” she hesitated. “But those are his favorite.” She was pleading with me now. 

I was expecting it. It was the standard response. But I held firm in my conviction.

“Yes.” I explained. “But they are working against your goals. They aren’t good for him.”

She wasn’t buying it. “I can’t imagine taking those away from him. He loves them so much. I want him to be happy!”

“Yep. He does love them.” I responded. “And I love sweets. But I don’t obsessively eat them all day every day. Just because someone loves something, doesn’t make it good for them.”

My words resonated. And reluctantly, she agreed to hear me out.

Now, it’s no secret. I won’t be quiet about it. I HATE squeaky toys. In fact, there are a whole slew of well-marketed dog toys that I wish I could set fire to at the pet store when I see them.

Sure, there are plenty of easy-going dogs that can have squeaky toys and do just fine. But when you work with intense and drivey dogs day in and day out, and when you are constantly asked to help build engagement and focus because so many people struggle to achieve it, you quickly want to unleash your wrath on things like squeaky toys and their creators.

So if you’ve got a pile of squeaky toys lying around your house, here are a few reasons why you might consider ditching them…for good.

  1. They are self-rewarding – If you’re struggling with engagement or trying to use meaningful and strategic play in your training, your goal is to make your dog want to be with you. That means making play with YOU the best thing in your dog’s universe. For dogs who are obsessed with squeaky toys, every squeak is a tiny reward. So giving your dog something that rewards him for being away from you in a super awesome way, kinda defeats the purpose.
  2. They encourage chewing on toys – When you use strategic tug play in your training, you want your dog to grip a toy and hold onto it…calmly. But if your dog is crazy about the squeak, they’ll search for it in every new toy they find. And that can make their grip chewy and frantic in the future games you try to build.
  3. They promote hyperactivity, over-stimulation, and obsessive behavior – If you are trying to calm your dog down, if you want a less frantic companion, or if your dog regularly gets over-stimulated, squeaky toys can contribute to the problem. Give my dog Shank a squeaky toy for instance, and he’ll spend hours obsessively squeaking away…NOT something that is good for the work I’m doing to chill him out.
  4. They can lead to resource guarding – Our dogs love squeaky toys because they mimic prey – something our dogs instinctually love and react to, but something they don’t often get access to living in a domestic environment. So for some dogs, getting a hold of something that mimics prey is downright awesome…and they are going to protect it (like they would if they were wild). This can lead to a slew of problems down the road.
  5. They are annoying – Ok. Truth is the truth. I…can’t…take the sound of a non-stop squeaky toy in my house full of Malinois. It’s just too much for me to bear. And my sanity is important (and it’s barely hanging on by a thread 😉 ).

Of course, like I said, there are some dogs that do just fine with squeaky toys. They are happy- go-lucky by nature, aren’t obsessive, won’t tear the toy apart in search of the squeaker, and don’t struggle with engagement. If that describes your dog, you can stop reading. Squeaky toys will likely be just fine for you.

But if you plan to use toys in your training, and you struggle with engagement and building the correct mechanics of play, you might want to ditch anything with a squeaker…and fast!

Belgian Malinois Puppy Asleep with ToySo now what? You’ve got a dog that loves squeaky toys, and you want to give them things that are fun and safe, but that help drive you towards your goal of having an engaged and focused companion. You’re going to ditch the squeaky toy. What toys do you choose instead?

Here are some guidelines.

  1. Choose toys that are age-appropriate and dog-appropriate – This means choose toys your dog isn’t going to destroy instantly, but aren’t so hard that they aren’t comfortable for your dog to play with. Every dog is different. While some dogs can have a soft plush toy without incident, others (like MY dogs) would shred a soft toy in a split second, leaving behind dangerous pieces of stuffing that I don’t want them to swallow. So choose a toy that can stand up to your dog. I tend to choose softer toys for younger dogs, and tougher toys for adult dogs.
  2. Choose toys that promote engagement – Choose toys where the dog needs to interact with YOU as opposed to getting satisfaction on their own. Some of my favs – Starmark Foam Ball on a Rope and French Linen Tug Toys (In fact, those are pretty much the only two toys I keep around!). Both are sturdy and allow YOU to be part of the game.
  3. Choose toys your dog can’t swallow – Listen, I know you might think it won’t happen, and dogs play with tennis balls all the time. But I personally know multiple people who have lost dogs to choking on tennis balls. So please, I beg you, if your dog likes toys, choose something they can’t swallow whole. (If you go for the Starmark Foam Ball on a Rope, choose the Large one for big dogs.)

Listen, I know your dog might love his squeaky toy. And I know this might be hard. But I love cake (almost as much as my Malinois loves squeaky toys). And having it all the time isn’t good for me. On occasion, sure. It can be ok. But for the most part, it shouldn’t be a staple in my everyday diet. And even on that rare occasion that I do have it, it isn’t good for me. Something I have to remember every time I indulge.

Squeaky toys activate our dog’s natural prey drive in a way that can be counterproductive to our goals of boosting engagement and focus and using strategic play in training. So if that is what you are after, you might want to think hard about your toy choice. It might be difficult to ditch Fido’s favorite squeaker but I promise, his focus, your relationship, and your sanity will be better for it in the end.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    15 replies to "Using Play in Training: The Dog Toy You Should Ditch to Build Better Focus"

    • Diane

      I thank you for you ability to express these methods
      Are you able to share good breeders ?

      I personally now look for the obvious lineage ,health and longevity ,temperments and all that is necessary .

      But also what is important for me as a veterinary naturopath I need this and more, a breeder who is into a very clean raised dogs
      Naturally reared , fed prey appropriate , possibly no vaccines or any chemicals that hav been entered -or over done .
      It has become a important issue more now then ever, to get genetics but also to protect the genetics , thru lifestyle
      If this is not anything you can provide ,I understand .

      I still thank you for sharing your hearts code on training and great skills
      The best yet , love the socialization article .
      This is a real problem now a days with all the puppy classes and day cares ,I see so many over stimulated pups, plus added to it is the over vaccinated,so it is a close combination for disaster ,
      Looks like autism and addADD
      More aggression issues with the fear aggression . My clients have more then they can handle as pet owners .
      I can not convince them about the importance of bonding .connecting to a depth of a partnership,that their dog is like part of them.
      Do not worry about them and other dogs. It’s you first!
      I don’t see that bond. Which already is a no win situation for the dog and it’s owner.

      My father European breeder and trainer ,he is gone now, generations of skill handed down.
      It was done differently and the dog is a extension of them always .

      You make me very happy I finally feel I can share ,your education makes me believe e again,.

      I was starting to feel it’s me .

      thank you kudos, break a leash and continue the most awesome expressive wear on your sleeve
      Education in traning ever!!!!

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thank you so much for the very kind words. What breed? The breeder I have always turned to is Debbie Skinner at Les Ombres Valeureux Belgian Malinois. She does vaccinate but minimally and she feeds a raw prey model diet and raises puppies exactly how I feel they should be raised. I used to spend quite a bit of time at her ranch and I’ve always been impressed by how she manages her litters. She is phenomenal and I learned quite a bit from her.

    • Suzi Alexander

      I like the Kong Stuff a Balls. although i have never stuffed them. The medium seems to work well for my girls and the large for my big boy. I can throw it in the house without having too much bounce and the Kong Tires work well too. They also have Nylabones to chew on a nice calm activity. These they can have at any time then there are the “supervised toys” all the tugs. and the chuck it balls (which they tend to become obsessed over so that is a limited once or twice a week activity). No stuffed toys or squeaky toys. While destroying them two minutes after they have been given only hurts my pocket book and the mess i have to clean up, i have one that not destroys them but eats them.

    • ronny

      I use tug toys with my older Terv male when we train. He never was really food motivated, and I can get him to do just about anything for a tug! I make them usually out of old sweatshirts or old sweatpants. They are soft on the mouth and have a little give to them. My other dog is a ball dog. She will chase after anything and bring it back, so choosing toys was really easy for her. I understand about the squeaky toys. I was doing agility with my boy and a woman new to our class brought a squeaky toy to work with her dog. Mine about went crazy while watching! We had started using crates so I could get mine to focus better, because he likes to socialize, and this woman gets my dog all charged up while using this toy to work her dog through the obstacles. I thought our trainer would have said something to her but did not. So when it was our turn to run the course, the minute my dog was off leash, he went looking for her toy instead of listening to me! We ended up getting tossed from class because she complained that my dog was bothering her and her dog! Not a fan of squeaky toys!!!

      • Jennifer Fisk

        Your dog should not have left you and gone in search of the squeaky toy. You should not have been tossed from class as that was a teachable moment. Your trainer should have stepped in and guided you to regain and not lose your dog’s attention. If that was my dog, I would have gone after him and a less than gentle manner returned him to the starting place, run some obedience and restarted.

    • Kirsti

      Thank u Meagan for sharing your knowledge, l have a high drive border collie 2.5 yrs old. l bought so many different toys for her, plush squeakers, rubber balls, float toys for swimming ropes for tug. I have bought expensive toys that look cute & have been destroyed within minutes, a couple of cheap large soft balls that r kids toys from the cheap shop that my girl has never put a hole in but loves to chomp on. The doggy toy market has worked out that we love r four legged best friends & l am sure they design the toys for the humans, It has taken 2 yrs for my girl to learn to tug calmly with several cue’s, it makes sense now when she is grabbing the rope & chomping on it all the time it is due to squeakers she likes to chomp on balls, she does not like hard toys my girl will not give me the ball/toy &, is not interested in food when she has a ball or tug toy, l have created a monster. She loves tug & lost interest in chasing a ball thrown from a ball launcher, l can throw a ball by hand a short distance, l have her work for the ball by wrapping around poles, cones & me. I like throwing a rope for her to retrieve then tug, it bounces most times & my girl is not skidding, my favourite brand is mammoth, they r tough, not heavy when wet, & clean up well. Thank you for mentioning play styles my girl is a winner, she will carry her toy when on a walk , when she was young l found this really annoying as l wanted to wear her out,now l don’t l am not having to stop every minute to throw it. I Iike the foam balls too. Tennis balls combined with sand at the beach will grind the dogs teeth, vets can always tell by the teeth if the owners use tennis balls. My sister is getting a border collie pup this year thanks to you l will limit the amount of squeaker toys.

    • Jared

      Although I don’t argue your point, can’t you use that energy to refocus the dog? I know in working dog circles we use mainly a squeaky tennis ball as a training reward as long as the dog will take it. This last week my brother brought a dog he often dog sits up to the house and was complaining about the dog being ball obsessed and not being able to get him to do anything. An hour later the dog walked up to me with the ball in his mouth, so I took the ball from him and held it where he could see it and ran him through a series of tricks he knew and a couple he didn’t know according to my brother, all because he knew he wasn’t getting the ball back unless he did what I asked. I know this won’t work with every dog, but for me it has always been easier to get the dog to want what I have when I take something he wants already.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Yep! Great point. You can absolutely use squeaky toys very strategically as part of a training program and as a reward for dogs who love them. However, I tend to opt for toys that reinforce engagement and play with the handler and squeaky toys tend to reinforce engagement and play with the object instead. But if it works, if the dog loves it, and if you can apply it strategically without sacrificing engagement, go for it!

    • Sara

      My girl only gets her squeaky toy for short play times with me. I use it as a ball she gives it to me to throw and she catches it and returns. If she doesn’t return it the game ends and toy is put away. Now she doesn’t want it I’ve had issues with squeaky toys at agility obedience classes and even in conformation shows. They don’t belong anywhere but home.
      I limit playing ball to short once a day for exercise. She would retrieve for hours if I’d let her. I stopped tug toys. They over stimulated her.
      Great article!

    • C.marshall

      Great artical Megan,though could I just say I never leave my dog with a Kong toy now,in fact he hasn’t got one at all after having heard how at our local kennel a dog got his tongue stuck inside trying to get to the treat! ,his tongue started swelling,luckily he was found in time and rushed to the vet .he was lucky ,he made a full recovery.

      • Christina Swanson

        Kongs are made with multiple holes in them so they can’t get suction (unless someone puts so much peanut butter as to use a jar). This change was caused by this happening a few years ago!
        There are definitely many non-Kong brands that can do that though. 🙁

        To be honest, considering how I’ve seen Nylabones, black kongs and other chew toys shredded/broken, I believe all chew toys are “supervision only” 🙁

    • Barbra

      I live in a single wide mobile home and I am keeping my granddaughter’s black Lab for a few weeks…. he
      is SIX months old, and is like a bull in a china shop!!! ALWAYS looking for something to chew other than the chew toys I bought him this week…. Chewed a bit off the bottom rung of my bamboo chair .. jumps up on counters when I’m not looking to retrieve any and everything .. he is a gentle, gentle dog, and I am working with him using treats when I walk him to keep him in life … I mean .. we don’t know each other….

      I am 73 years young, and I hope my granddaughter can “retrieve” him soon…. he has no where to run ..
      we can’t have fenced yards because it is a retirement community, and everyone would have different fences !!! I use a laser light and call it the “fly” .. he chases that back and forth a little in my living
      room ……….

      Ugh …..

      Help !!!!!

    • Lisa Sims

      Do you have the same feelings when a dog is ball obsessed? Loves to fetch, will release ball but when he thinks the game is over he won’t release ball. Will take it to his crate and mouth it for hours. I think I know the answer…..

    • Gabrielle Elisabeth LaRoche

      For better of worse, my 6 year old Briard has always had free access to a toy basket. Most are soft stuffed toys. Some make an animal noise (chicken, rooster, duck, pig, cow) when you squeeze them. A few have squeakers but she will rarely choose these. She only uses the toys in two ways. 1) She will initiate “play” with me. She will bring a toy to me to squeeze so it makes the sound. Sometimes we then play a little indoors fetch. She is extremely gently with her toys and never mouths them enough to make the sounds herself. 2) When she goes into false pregnancy after her heat cycle, she will carry the toys around and arrange and rearrange them in her bed. Since this behavior is somewhat neurotic, I use this time to remove the toys and send them through the wash. I return them to the basket after her fall pregnancy is over.

      So, she generally does not chose a squeaky toy. When she brings a noise-making toy to me, it is to engage me, not because it is self rewarding. None of your 1-5 reasons to ditch these toys seems to apply to my dog. I wonder if denying open access to these stuffed toys will make any difference given how she interacts with them. I have enrolled in your 30-day engagement challenge and will remove the toy basket to see if this makes a difference. Just curious to hear your thoughts.

    • James Shelledy

      My dog shows no interest in toys whatsoever. One day, she was feeling playful and started playing with a piece of paper on the floor. I reached to take it out of her mouth. She resisted slightly. And what do you know we were playing some semblance of tug. I was so excited that I rushed to the local pet store to buy her a tug toy. I introduced it to her. Nothing. No matter how playful I tried to be, she wouldn’t engage. In fact, she left the room. How do I get her to engage? I’d love to add tug and eventually fetch to our repertoire.

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