All dogs love to play and toys can be an important means of fighting boredom in dogs left alone and in preventing behavioural problems, such as destructive chewing or digging. However, as most dogs will play with just about anything they can get their paws on – regardless of injury to themselves – you must be very careful in deciding what items to allow for play, particularly if the play is to be unsupervised.
The first thing to remember is that any toy should be appropriate for your dog’s size and strength, as well as activity level and personality of your dog. Thus, a chew toy that might be safe for a whippet is not going to withstand the crushing power of a Rottweiler’s jaws. Similarly, a tennis ball which might be fine for a collie could lodge in the throat of a St Bernard. Naturally, there are big dogs who are very gentle and small terriers that will “kill” and tear any toy apart, so it is best to watch how your own dog uses (or abuses!) his toys to get an idea of how he interacts with them. For example, some dogs will treasure a soft toy for the rest of its life, carrying it around like a baby, whilst others will de-stuff that same soft toy in 5 seconds. This often has nothing to do with the breed but rather with the individual personality of the dog.
Generally speaking, any toy with small, detachable parts (such as glass eyes) is unsafe. You can make them safer by removing ribbons, strings, eyes, or other parts that could be chewed or ingested but if you are unsure, it is best to avoid them.
Even soft toys without small parts can be dangerous if your dog likes to rip and tear as he could ingest the stuffing which might be toxic or cause intestinal blockages.
Many of the toys commonly sold in pet stores can actually be dangerous, particularly if left unsupervised. Toys with a squeaker embedded inside may cause dogs to “search and destroy”, thereby ingesting the squeaker which then becomes a choking hazard.
Another potentially dangerous toy is rawhide chews. These are pieces of cow skin which have been chemically treated, stretched and then dried into a variety of shapes (eg. knots, sticks, rings). Not only can the rawhide break off into small chunks which can scratch or puncture your dog’s gastrointestinal tract, it can also be a severe choking hazard once it is thoroughly wet, as it becomes a thick, sticky mass that could get stuck in your dog’s throat.
Pig’s ears and trotters can also be dangerous: the pressure from chewing often breaks the fourth premolar tooth. Bacteria then work their way up the fractured tooth into the root, resulting in abscess.
Most household items do not make good toys. These include things like socks, shoes, treated wood, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, etc. Not only does this teach dogs bad habits and the wrong things to chew, some of these materials contain toxic chemicals; others can be easily shredded and swallowed, causing intestinal blockages. Wood and plastic can become lodged in gum tissue, causing painful injuries and infections.
Sticks found in the park are actually very dangerous – they can easily snap and sharp ends or splinters embed themselves into your dog’s mouth. They can also bounce back when thrown and impale a dog that is running to catch it. Do not play fetch with sticks – use a properly designed rubber dog toy instead.
Providing that they are the right size and material, balls make great toys for dogs and most canines love a game of fetch. Nowadays, pet stores stock a variety of rubber balls, tennis balls and even footballs specially designed for your canine friend.
Kongs® are a fantastic dog toy – these are hard rubber chew toys in a variety of shapes, all with a hollow centre which can be stuffed with treats and peanut butter. They keep a dog entertained for hours and have been made to withstand even the toughest chewers. They now come in a range of types – from floating Kongs for play in the water to special teething Kongs for puppies. Nylabone®-type products are a similar toy which comes in a variety of shapes and flavours but without the stuffing element.
Puzzle toys, such as Buster Cubes or treat balls, are another wonderful source of entertainment for your dog. You fill the hollow centre with dry treats (eg. dog biscuits) and then your dog has to roll the toy around, with treats falling out at random from strategically-placed holes. They can keep a dog occupied for long periods of time and – together with a stuffed Kong – are especially good for dogs which have a problem with being left alone.
Cotton rope toys, usually twisted and knotted at both ends to make a bone shape, are also popular and generally safe although a poorly-made rope toy may not withstand constant tugging and pulling and your dog may swallow a string or two. So it is best that they are used under supervision.
Remember, always check toys regularly for wear and tear. Even the best-designed dog toy in the world will not have a limitless expiry date!