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In Search of Doggie Puzzle Toys

Promoting peace and quiet through canine self-entertainment .

If you were one of my dog training students, you might think that I thought puzzle toys for dogs were the answer to the world’s problems. 

While puzzle toys might not save our world, they might just be key to success and happiness in your dog’s world.  I find myself recommending them as part of the solution to a whole host of common canine behavior “problems.” 

  • Does your dog feel a bit anxious when left alone (we’re not talking panic here, but run-of-the-mill “gotta keep the pack together” anxiety that most dogs feel until we teach them to feel otherwise)? Get your dog hooked on a few great puzzle toys, and then present a different one for your dog to work on each time you’re away.  Better yet (and assuming that your dog no longer needs to be crated when unsupervised), combine this with a hunting game, and then plant all the puzzle toys in different places every day so that your dog has something fulfilling to do while your at work.  He’ll hunt for his toys and solve the puzzles, tiring himself out enough to rest easier until you return. 
  • Does your dog demand the constant and undivided attention of human family members, making it hard to cook dinner, entertain guests, do homework, watch the news, work on the computer and do the laundry?  Develop an addiction to puzzle toys in your dog, and then present a puzzle toy that is the right level of difficulty to keep your dog self-entertained and out of your hair long enough for you to get stuff done. 
  • Does your dog chase the kids when they romp and play?  Puzzle toys can give your dog something fun to do on his own when the kids are playing games that might tempt your dog to playfully nip or jump in ways humans don’t appreciate. 
  • Does your dog dig holes in the yard?  Puzzle toys…and a doggy digging sandbox may help.  Even better, try puzzle toys half buried in a doggy digging sandbox. 
  • Does your dog gulp down his food too quickly and then beg for more?  Puzzle toys will slow him down and help him get more enjoyment out of each bite. 
  • Does your dog like to tear the stuffing out of your sofa?  Specific puzzle toys will help direct that natural canine de-gutting instinct into a more productive and less costly endeavor. 
  • Are you sold on puzzle toys for dogs yet?  If so, you might wonder where canine puzzle toys are sold. 

As recently as a couple of years ago, you would have needed to really hunt for puzzle toys in local pet stores, or just shop online.  Lately, most pet stores carry at least some puzzle toys.  To test that idea, I stopped in at Petco Unleashed at 1406 Mass Ave in Arlington to see what they had in stock. 

It was the traditional Kong toys that first caught my eye.  No dog’s toy collection is complete without an old-fashioned, stuffable Kong.  For those of you who haven’t seen one, imagine a curvy hunk of red rubber with a hollowed-out center.  You can lace the edges with something tasty like peanut butter and shove a small dollop far into the tunnel to keep your dog working at it for a while, or feed them their entire meal of dog kibble (wet down and frozen in the Kong for added challenge.) 

Why give dinner away for free when you can have your dog work at it?  It’s fun for him and keeps him busy a little longer for you!  And with just that simple toy, there are so many other stuffing options of varying degrees of challenge to suit just about every dog. 

It now appears that there’s a specialized Kong toy to suit every dog, too.  Tonight, my quick survey of the shelves of Unleashed yielded all these different Kong toys:  Stuff a Ball, Goodie Bone, Genius (interlocking Kong toys in fun shapes and colors with the same stuffability as the original) and Dental.  There were also Kong treats and goop meant to be stuffed in these toys, although I still prefer my old standbys including peanut butter, wet dog food, wet kibble, frozen mixed veggies, small dabs of cream cheese  and the like. 

I was disappointed not to see my new favorite Kong toy, the Wobbler.  (Perhaps they were just out of stock because I keep sending my dog training students out in search of them.)  Imagine a self-righting Weeble toy with a hollow center for dry dog treats and dog food.  The dog is meant to bat the toy around until a tasty bit tumbles out. 

I’ve recently seen the Wobbler available in a smaller size for little dogs in addition to the more commonly available large dogs version.  When Skylar is still feeling hungry after dinner, I give him “dessert” (a few more dry kibbles) in the Wobbler so he has to really work to get at them, making him think harder about how badly he wants more food.  By the way, has lost 4 pounds with the help of this trick in the month and a half since I first wrote about him joining my pack!  The National Borzoi Rescue Foundation will be happy to hear it. 

At Unleashed, I found another old standby—the Plush Puppy series of soft puzzle toys with squeakers.  Tatsu still plays with his Hide a Squirrel toy.  Although it takes him no more than fifteen seconds flat to pull all of the squeaky toy squirrels out of the plush tree trunk, he never seems to get tired of the game.  Also available along similar motifs are Hide a Bee, Hide a Bird and I-Qube (squeaky plush balls stuffed into, you guessed it, a cube).

All of these puzzle toys are pretty straightforward, but there was one toy in stock that reminded me a little of the ingenious line of doggie puzzle toys available through Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training site.  The “Smart Dogs Treat Wheel” is somewhat similar to Dog Magic.  Although it’s a better price, it doesn’t look as sturdy to me as Dog Magic. 

While you’re at Karen Pryor’s site, check out some of my other favorite toys to recommend: Tug-a-Jug, Kibble Nibbler, Dog Tornado and Dog Spinny.  My favorite doggy puzzle toy, the Wobbler, is also available through the site, although I only see one size listed. 

Now, these toys are pricey, so you may wish to hold them in your hands before shelling out your cash.  I often stop in to Sunshine Books (which is actually the headquarters of Karen Pryor’s www.clickertraining.com operation) at 49 River Street in Waltham to purchase class supplies including dog toys, clickers and dog training books) in person.  Every time I’ve asked if it’s really ok for me to keep sending my students over to stop in although the space seems to be more of an office-based warehouse than a storefront, staff have enthusiastically encouraged me to continue.  If you do happen to stop in and learn otherwise, please leave a comment! 

Another consideration, particularly because these toys are such an investment, is how to teach your dog to love their new toys.  I compare it to the day I was gifted a Rubik’s Cube instead of a Barbie.  At first, my heart sank.  A boring plastic cube.  I couldn’t comb it’s hair or dress it up…what was I meant to do with it?  Then someone showed me some strategies to get me started towards solving the puzzle, and I was hooked!  I must have carried that hunk of plastic around with me for a year!  Likewise, you’ll want to help your dog learn some strategies to get them hooked on their new puzzle toy.  For help with that goal, see my article titled, “How To Get Your Dog Hooked on Puzzle Toys.” 

It will take some time and money to find your dog the best puzzle toys to suit their needs and get them hooked on their new toys before you’ll be able to rely on the puzzle toys as diversions to manage their behavior, but your efforts will pay off!  I think both you and your dog will have a great deal of fun with this project.  Happy training!

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