“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
So 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.