These are some of the toys I use for my dogs to keep them mentally active.
Food dispensing type toys come in two general varieties - the puzzle and the chew toy. Both kinds of toys are frequently recommended for distracting and amusing the dog when it is left alone. One should note that there is no toy that is 100% safe, so unsupervised use does have some risk. Select a toy of an appropriate size and degree of sturdiness for your dog and you can minimize the risk. Balanced against the usually low risk of danger from the toy itself is the higher risk when a bored dog makes something into a toy that was never intended to be one. Growing in popularity is the idea of feeding the dog's entire meal using these toys.
Examples of the puzzle type include the TreatStik, Buster Cube, Tricky Treats Ball or Talk To Me Treatball This kind of toy requires the dog to push, shove, roll and bat the toy around to get the toy to drop or dispense the treats. The toys are not designed to be chewed on, although some are resistent to being chewed on. But the point is that chewing doesn't get the dog the treat, at least not without damaging the toy. Perhaps not a good choice for a dog that is heavily mouth oriented but other dogs can go crazy for them. Watch your dog at play. If your dog tends to use its paws to hold, stop, catch or bat a toy then it will likely enjoy this type.
The treats are typically dry and in small pieces, e.g. kibble, small biscuits, small cubes of hard cheese. I like to use long thin bits which are easier to load then to dispense back out, like pieces of beef jerky (doggie or human style) about 1/4 inch wide and an inch long. I will often mix what I put in, say 1/2 cup of O shaped cereal and one strip of cut up jerky. That keeps the calorie and salt content down while every so often dropping something extra tasty.
There are a lot of variations of this kind of toy. Be careful. Some are poorly made and can end up being dangerous. One type had just a thin piece of plastic covering the opening. My dog snapped that piece off leaving a hole large enough to get a jaw stuck into. Another had plastic that was too soft and the surface was knobby. My dog just used the knobby bits for tooth purchase and chewed her way in. Since the toy wasn't designed for this it left rough ragged edges.
I've tried a variety chew toys designed to be stuffed with treats. A typical example is the Kong (When last visited this web site did not provide full access. ) Twist 'n Treat, Busy Buddy, or Havaball, Orbee-Tuff®, Treatstik, Kibble Nibble Treat Ball or Dog Pyramid. My most recent favorite is a tough, lightweight, flexible Everlasting Fun Ball.
These toys may be designed to be used with larger pieces than the puzzle type toys and some can be used with wet or sticky foods. The idea is for the dog to lick or chew on the toy to get at the food. These toys are most often enjoyed by power chewers, or dogs that are otherwise very mouth oriented. Lots of time a piece gets stuck in the small end of the toy and my dogs end up throwing it on the floor repeatedly to dislodge the food and make it drop to where they can get at it.
It is important to get the right size for your dog. Weight is not the best indicator because head structures differ so much. Ideally the hole in the bottom should either be so large the jaw can't possibly get stuck, or so small the jaw can't get in. This ideal may be difficult in a multi-dog household. There have been reports of a dog's tongue getting stuck inside the hole. This is risk mostly if the hole at the bottom gets covered and then the dogs tongue fills the other hole creating suction. To reduce the risk consider either using the Havaball or drilling an extra hole or two in the shoulder of the toy near the large hole. A dog's jaw can also get stuck. Both these problems can be reduced by paying attention to the size of the hole in relation to your dogs jaws and tongue. I have to repeat, however, that nothing is 100 percent safe, and if it is even remotely possible for some bad thing to happen it will eventually to someone. So the first half dozen times your dog used any toy be sure to supervise so you can see how the dog uses the toy and if you see anything of concern.
There is a trick of getting something into the toy that is bigger than the hole. Put the toy on its side on a sturdy table. Put the heel of your hand on the top of the toy and push down. The hole will squish, getting longer in one direction. Now you can shove something inside that is wider in one direction (e.g. disc shaped). When you lift up your hand the hole will become round again and the treats can't fall out.
Some things I've tried: Chopped compressed rawhide that is shaped in a disk, roughly the size of a Ritz™ cracker but thicker (I can't tell you where to find them for sure, I see them sporatically, catalogs might be the best bet). You can use rawhide chips as well, but because they are thinner they are a little less of a challenge. Although too expensive for regular use, sometimes beef jerky comes in rounds that are ideal for toy stuffing.
Use dog biscuits of various shapes and sizes. Since the biscuits can't be licked out the dog really has to nibble on it. I've also used mini-rice (or popcorn) cakes, and various crackers. My latest is shrimp flavored chips. I open the bag and let them get "stale" you know how such things go from crispy to soft (flexible) but tougher? The chips aren't low fat, but they are mostly air and even in the large toy I only use maybe three.
Take sticky rice (short grain) and cook it starting with about 4 times as much water (1 cup rice, 4 cups water). If you want to flavor it with broth don't start with full strength, for each cup of rice use about 1/2 cup broth, 3 1/2 cups water. Let it cook, stirring and smashing the rice, and keep cooking it down until it is the consistency of bread dough. Not necessarly smooth, but it will ball up and hold a shape. I've added tiny amounts of bacon shavings (made for salad toppings) to the rice (about a teaspoon for the 1 cup rice). You could also try liverwurst, potted meat, anything with a strong flavor that can be added in very small amounts. Let it cool enough to handle then roll it into cylinders about two inches long and just exactly as thick as the hole in the toy. Put the cylinders in the freezer, then you can just smush a frozen one into the toy. You can also form the rice around carrot sticks then freeze, or you can just smush the rice into the toy and freeze it in the toy. You can also pack the toy with a stiff, thick canned dog food and freeze it. The dogs love the challenge of licking, and chewing it back out. Note that rice may be bland and low fat but it is not low calorie.
Use doggie beef jerky cutting a piece so it presses up against the wall of the toy. Then take a couple low cal dog biscuits and some bread e.g. bagel, sourdough, and jam it in.
Some kinds of dog food such as are semi-moist and sold in chubs shaped something like a salami. Some can be cut into slices and pushed into the toy using the hole widening technique. Gently roll the edges of the cut slice to put in a piece larger than the hole. "New Balance" also comes in chubs and has a really good consistency for packing. Packing it into a Kong toy actually may be too challenging for some dogs. The Havaball is more squishable so the dogs have better luck there. Other chub type brands include "Rollover" and "Red Barn." There are probably others and I really don't have a strong preference of any of them over any of the others.
Some people will mix kibble with a bit of soft cheese, cream cheese or peanut butter to sort of glue the kibble together, then stuff the toy with that. Be careful about amounts as the calorie and fat content of cheese and peanut butter is pretty high. Non-fat cream cheese, however, is available and works for this.
Another technique is to put a small amount of cheese inside, put it in the microwave for 30 seconds and roll it to coat the inside with cheese.
I've also taken low fat ground meat like turkey, mixed in small amounts of rice or vegetables, packed the toy, then put it in a steamer over boiling water for 15-20 minutes. I've always refigerated overnight before letting the dogs have it because I don't have a feel for the rate of cooling. I can't even be sure that the filling is thoroughly cooked so I keep attention to contamination and safe meat handling, and don't give it to immune compromised dogs. If I wanted to be sure it was cooked it isn't hard. A meat thermometer into the center would tell me. I would say that of everything I've tried this is my dogs' favorite.
Some dogs find that some of the above fillings are too difficult to get out and they give up. So help them out. Start out by making it easier, then over time give them a mix of easy and harder, and gradually increase the challenge. You can put some kibble in loose and block the way with a biscuit that sticks out of the hole. When the sticking out part gets chewed off the rest falls back in making it possible for the kibble to fall out with very little work. Or if using the semi moist food described above don't "pack" it in. Just cut a few cubes that fit snugly into the hole, but once inside they are loose so easy to nibble on eventually making small enough to fall or knock out.
One healthy way of making the treats more challenging to get out is to add slices of carrot. I'll choose a carrot diameter very close to the size of the hole. Push a slice in, add a few kibbles, give it shake to intersperse carrot and kibble, repeat alternating carrot and kibble until the toy is full.
You can put the toys in the dishwasher. I toss mine in the washing machine with a load of towels. This might not be a good idea for some machines with a center agitator.
You can teach some dogs to place their ball on a ramp which then allows the dog to chase the ball. For outside I recommend building a wooden cube about 2 feet to a side, then making circular cut-outs on two or three sides. Put a ramp up one side and down the other. Dog can take the ball up to top, drop the ball and chase it down the other side. Indoors calls for something smaller and simpler. There is a baby slide that is only about 2 feet high. For a larger dog, like yours, the dog only needs to walk over and drop the ball on the slide to have fun chasing it again.
If you are handy you could make a low Table - maybe 1 foot off the ground, 2 foot square. Put a hole on each edge of the table. Build a chute from the hole out from under the table. Vary where the ball comes out - on one side the ball might come out the same side, on another when the ball is dropped in the hole it will come out the opposite side. Properly sloped the ball will come out rolling.
There are dangers of choking with any ball. You can reduce the risks by making sure the ball is fairly large, and does not have an entirely smooth surface. Tennis balls have gotten caught in throats - even in dogs who you would think are too small. However, generally the tennis ball is not high risk for choking when it is just played with a natural bounce. There is more danger when it is accelerated e.g. fired from a launcher of some sort.
My youngest dog's favorite chase toy started out as a lunging whip (selected because it was long, thin, flexible and resistent to breaking). It is somewhat similar to this Chase 'N Pull Toy. I got some 1/2 inch nylon hollow core rope and worked it over the whip from the whip end all the way down to the handle. That would help disribute the force of my dog tugging as well as providing some protection for the whip itself if he decided to grab it intead of the lure or the rope. I took some strips of nylon fleece ( about 1 1/2 inches wide, two feet long) braided them, knotted the ends, then tied this to the end of the rope which was hanging off the end of the whip. Similar toys are sold for lure coursing but I was having trouble finding them commercially so I made my own.
Interactive Toys are those where the fun of the game is that you are involved. The fun of a chase toy, for example, is usually just as fun for the dog if it is mechanical as in lure coursing. Interactive toys, in contast, may be uninteresting or intimidating if another person, or no person, is involved.
While many traditional trainers recommend against competitive games, such as Tug-a-war, other trainers see this game as a powerful training tool. I am one of them. Tug is a powerful reinforcer (reward) for obedient behavior and thus a great training tool. Part of the game is learning control.
One reason that some trainers recommend against tug is that an excitable dog can switch into a kind of mindless state driven by the emotion. In this state the dog may lose social inhibitions and may reactively snap at or bite a person who touches the dog at that time. This is a condition of "arousal." Tug games that are not controlled can also encourage overly rough interaction, again risking a bite. To play this game safely you must pay attention to your dog and learn to calmly stop the game. If your trainng habits include raising your voice, lifting your hands in warning, or stepping quickly at your dog, you must be able to control your behavior and stop the game without confrontation.
To get that control follow a few rules. One is that you control the toy. Don't leave it where the dog can play with it on his own. Don't use the same toy your dog might play tug with another dog. Next, the dog can only grab the toy when you offer it. Don't start this game with a dog six months or older unless you have already established some respect based obedience. You will need a sit or down to help establish the "don't grab" rule. If the dog tries to grab for the tug calmly move the toy out of sight, step forward slightly, and calmly ask for that sit or down. Finally you control the toy. That means that most of the time you end the game with the toy in your hand. You want the release of the tug toy to be rewarding, not a source of conflict.
If you are tugging with the right hand you can (a) stop your active tugging then (b) ask for that sit or down and (c) offer a food treat - yes even as a bribe or lure at the beginning (d) turn your right side away from the dog and smoothly move the toy out of sight as you offer the food reward. Immediately re-starting the tug game as soon as the dog releases the toy and accepts the food is important. That way the release command does not mean "fun is over" and thus become an unintended punishment. You should plan to start and stop at least three times before ending the game. As your dog finds stopping easier you can stop offering the food treat as a bribe/ lure and turn it back into a reward for completing the sit/down behavior. Ideally when you restart the game it is with a second tug toy. I'll keep the second one tucked into my waist band on the right. I've offered the food reward with my left hand. I drop the toy we were playing with the second the dog releases it. Then as soon as the dog completes the sit or down I offer the other toy I've removed from my waist band.
If the dog ignores the treat and the command - stop the fun. The "punishment" is that you let go (oops, fun is over), turn your back (or leave if you are in the house), and ignore the dog. Ignore for 30 seconds or so, then again ask for that sit or down.
Safety - Stand up! Do not bend over in such a way as to put your face forward. If you need to get lower bend your knees and tuck in so that your head is up.
Let go! - if the dog plays alligator and starts chomping up the tug toy let go. Don't get into a confrontation. Don't yell. Just let go. Game over.
There is a lot that can be accomplished through tug.
Fetch is more like tug than most people think about. For many dogs it becomes a competition with the person attempting to regain control of the fetch object. To make the best use of this game use some of the same techniques as in controlling fetch. You say when the game is over. Don't make a release or return command into an "end of fun" signal. Using two fetch objects helps the dog learn that releasing the first results in a reward - the other item gets thrown. Holding the fetch item, or running with it, results in being ignored.
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