Monday, January 25, 2010

Interactive Dog (and Cat) Toys

Boredom and lack of excercise can lead to destructive behavior. In addition to exercise, mental stimulation can help alleviate boredom. There are a number of toys on the market that can keep your dog occupied and enrich your dog's environment. This month, my dogs (and cat) have assisted me in test driving many of the more popular toys on the market.

Interactive toys can be grouped into two categories: toys that involve self-play (dog interacts with toy) and toys that involve your participation. Below is a summary of the various toys on the market, my review of the pros and cons of each and my dogs' response to these toys. The "Mitsu-Meter" (in honor of my crazy Shiba Inu, Mitsu) is a separate rating based primarily on my dogs' reaction to the toy (0 to 5 paws). A higher paw rating is a reflection of the level of interest and enthusiasm my dogs showed towards the toy. If my dogs abandoned the toy before the treats ran out or showed too much frustration, the toy received a lower rating.

With toys, it is always good to have a few different types of toys handy for variety. Rotate the toys through a 2-3 day cycle so they do not get bored too easily.

Unsupervised Play

Some toys can be used when the dog is left alone or for times when you need to keep your dog occupied (e.g. when you have guests over, you are busy at the computer, when you are having a meal). These toys must be fairly indestructible and have no small parts.

Kongs - Kongs are great toys that can be stuffed with your dog's kibble, treats, and other foods. Your dog will spend a lot of time trying to get the contents out of the Kong. Think of it like a doggie pacifier. For heavy chewers the Extreme Kong (black version)would be a better choice. The Kong website has instructions on how to use it with recipes and I also posted a blog about the many uses of Kongs which you can read about here.

Pros: quiet, hard to destroy, also a chew toy, most dogs like them when they are stuffed. Has the potential to keep your dog occupied for up to an hour or more. For novices, just put a few pieces of kibble inside until they get the idea. As your dog becomes more sophisticated, you can stuff the Kong with a mixture of soft and hard treats. Can also be used as a fetch toy or to slow down fast eaters (see my previous blog). Dishwasher safe.

Cons: Can be hard to clean inside. Need to use a dishwasher or bottle brush.

Mitsu-Meter: 5 paws. Never seemed to get bored of them.

Tug-A-Jug - This toy, made by Premier Pet Products, requires the dog to manipulate the jug and rope to try to get the treats out. If you use smaller treats, it is easier for the dog to get the treats. If the rope is destroyed, you can place balls in the jug for continued play. The other nice thing about this toy is that the jug is see-through so the dogs can see the treats inside.

Here are some videos showing my dogs using the Tug-A-Jug and their different styles of trying to get the treat:

Here is Mitsu, who has a very boisterous trial-and-error approach to problem solving. She is a very intense little dog who is very food motivated.

This is my two year old Akita, Kiku, who takes a little more patient and systematic approach to problem solving:

Pros: You can use dry food which is a little less messy than the Kong. Dogs can see the food in the jug. Fairly durable.

Cons: Can get noisy if used indoors (see video). May not be durable for very strong chewers but so far it has withstood my akita's jaws.

Mitsu-Meter: 5 paws. Dogs were very motivated by this toy as you can see from the video. Being able to see the kibble in the jug was very motivating. My Akita enjoyed it more because she was able to figure out a strategy to get the kibble out.

Twist and Treat - Another similar rubber toy called the Twist and Treat is made by Premier. Some of my clients have used this toy and I have seen it in action. This toy is probably better for smaller dogs and less powerful chewers. This toy has the advantage of being adjustable depending on the size threat you are using.  This is one of my favorite toys to use for puppies or dogs that are not used to interactive toys.

Squirrel Dude and Waggle: The Squirrel Dude and Waggle are similar to a Kong in durability and use except there are rubber prongs (see illustration below) at the entrance which make it harder for the treats to fall out. You can use kibble and dry treats with this toy whereas the Kong can be used with moist treats. The smaller the kibble/treat, the easier it is for the treats to be shaken out of the toy. If it is too hard for your dog you can cut some of the prongs to make it easier for the kibble to fall out. Like the Kong, this set of Busy Buddy rubber toys make for quieter playtime.

Pros: quiet, durable, also a chew toy, can be used as a fetch toy, dishwasher safe.

Cons: Need to experiment to find the right size kibble to make sure it is not difficult or too easy or cut one or more of the rubber prongs if too difficult. Hard to get old kibble out because of prongs.

Mitsu-meter: 3.5 paws. My dogs did not show the same level of interest as compared to the Tug-A-Jug or Kibble Nibble (below). My female Akita played with it the longest and ended up carrying it around. My Shiba Inu lost interest when she could not get all the treats out. She did not quite figure out how this toy differed from a Kong. You may need to cut some of the prongs or use smaller treats to make sure the reward interval is sufficient enough to keep up interest.

Buster Cube - The Buster Cube has been on the market a long time. This was one of the original toys I used with my 10 year old Shiba Inu when she was a puppy. Like the Squirrel Dude, the buster cube dispenses dry treats randomly when the dog moves the toy around. You can also adjust the level of difficulty depending on the skills of your dog.

Pros: you can adjust the difficulty level. Fairly durable. Can use kibble which is cleaner.

Cons: noisy, hard to find in stores nowadays but can easily be ordered online. May need supervision for powerful chewers.

Mitus-meter: 4 paws. My dogs do not tire of this toy. But they are much more enthusiastic with the Tug-A-Jug and Kibble Nibble where they can actually see the kibble.

Pros: Bone and ball part are made of tough material(subject to the caveat below).
Cons: Must use premier treats to refill bone. Smart dogs learn to unscrew the bone and can damage the toy (see comment below).

Mitsu-Meter: 2 paws. My female akita learned to unscrew the bone to get at the treat within 10 minutes. Despite my attempt to screw the bone on tighter, she was able to unscrew the bone again in a shorter amount of time. Within the few minutes she unscrewed the bone the second time she chewed the threads making the toy unuseable. This toy may be better for smaller dogs that do not have strong jaws to unscrew the toy and supervision is definitely required.

Kibble Nibble: This is another Premier toy that is similar to the Buster Cube except that the ball is see-through and the dog can see how much kibble is left. It takes some experimentation to determine what size kibble/treat works best so that it is not too easy or too hard.

Here is my Shiba Inu, Mitsu, playing with the ball. She is almost 11 years old now and she is going after the ball with gusto. This video is not sped up, this old gal is actually this frenetic. She ended up playing with this ball for about 15 minutes, did a couple of shiba yells at the ball, got a drink of water and came back for another 10 minutes before I took it away from her. During the video you can see a treat flying out of the ball:

Pros: the egg-shell shape makes it easy for the dog to roll the toy around. The toy is see-through which is very motivating. Can use dry treats so is less messy.

Cons: noisy (see video above), need to experiment to see what size treat works best. I found that for the large Kibble Nibble my own dogs' kibble and the large size liver biscotti treats made by premier worked well. If I found my dogs getting frustrated, I would mix in smaller treats to shorten the reward interval. The plastic edging surrounding the ball can be chewed off so supervision is needed.

Mitsu-Meter: 5 paws. My dogs really enjoyed this toy. Being able to see the treats inside seems to be key with my dogs. They will continue rolling the ball until the last treat is gone.

For cat lovers out there, there is even a cat version. Here is the Slim Cat interactive feeder designed to make your cat work for her food. I have used this feeder for my cat and it helps her burn off some of her energy and give her something fun to do.


There are many, many other versions of food dispensers on the market. These are but a few of the ones that are most commonly available. Premier pet toys and Kongs can be found at most pet stores. When buying toys, make sure that they are durable, do not have too many small parts and are easy to clean and reuse.

Caveat: For people who live in multi-dog households, please give these toys to dogs separately or let them play with their own toys in different areas. These toys can make dogs possessive and fights can occur so exercise caution.

Toys Requiring Owner's Participation

This category of toys are toys that involve the participation of the owner. Examples of traditional toys requiring owner participation are balls, fetch toys, tug of war toys and frisbees. There are also toys that involve problem solving skills. Nina Ottoson has created a whole line of toys which help hone your dog's problem-solving skills and at the same time help develop the bond with your dog. I sampled two toys, the Brick and the Tornado. These toys require human supervision and they must not be left alone with your dog.

The Dog Brick - this toy requires the dog to remove the bricks and slide the covers to get to the treats. The link provided contains an instructional video on how to use this toy. Below is a video I made showing how my dog solved the brick. FOR GRADUATES OF MY CLASSES: use this opportunity to ask your dog to "sit" and "wait"/"stay" while you assemble the toy and then the command "find it" to find the hidden treats.

Pros: Really fun to watch your dog become more proficient at solving the problem. The plastic parts are easy to clean. Good way to bond with your dog. Nice way to quietly play with your dog rather than roughhousing.

Cons: This puzzle may be too easy for some dogs. My Shiba Inu and female Akita figured the toy out fairly quickly. My male akita is still figuring it out. Requires supervision because of small and moving parts.

Mitsu-Meter: 5 paws. Even though my dogs seemed to have figured out this puzzle fairly quickly, they do not get tired of using it.

Dog Tornado: This toy has a higher difficulty rating than the Dog Brick and it is definitly more challenging. What is fun about this toy is that you can potentially put your dog's entire meal (especially for small dogs) in the Tornado thereby slowing down their eating and preventing gulping their food. Again, these toys require your supervision because there are small parts.

Here is a video of my senior male Akita using the dog tornado for the first time and the puzzle is set at an easy setting:

Here is a video of my female akita, who is a little more sophisticated at solving puzzles, using the Tornado at a more advanced setting to make it more difficult to have access to the treats:

And some of these toys are not limited to use for dogs. Even cats can get in on the fun. Here is my cat using the Dog Tornado as a way to keep her occupied and to prevent her from gulping down food too fast.

Pros: Same pros as the Dog Brick. I like this puzzle a little more because it is more difficult and you can use it to feed your pet his/her meal.

Cons: Requires supervision because of small and moving parts.

Mitsu-Meter: 5 paws. Even my shy, reticent male Akita got into this toy.

There are other versions of the Nina Ottoson toys at varying levels of difficulty. The toys I sampled were rated at medium (Dog Brick) and high (Dog Tornado). These toys are available at Amazon and The Company of Animals

Which interactive toys are your dog's favorite? Share your experiences below.

Los Angeles Dog Training


  1. Update: for those of you who live in Los Angeles. Centinela Pet & Feed are offering 20% off Premier Interactive Toys in this month's (Feb 2010) coupon mailer.

  2. The twist and treat (I have two) and the squirrel dude are my favorite. Comet will chase them for 20-30 minutes. I stuff his kibble and treats into them and leave them with him when I leave. They are pretty much indestructible at least for a small dog.

  3. We have the Dog Brick, the Dog Smart and the Tornado purchased from The Tornado is new to us so The Boys haven't quite figured it out. When Little Guy gets frustrated he picks up the item and bangs it on the floor.

    As far as treat dispensing toys:
    Traditional Kong - very popular but I never feel like I can get it really clean.
    Bone-shaped Kong - Boys had no interest
    Planet shaped dispenser - Boys had no interest
    Buster Cube - still popular after all these years
    Everlasting Treat Ball - Boys had no interest
    Homemade Fun - I usually put half of their daily kibble in an empty plastic gallon beverage jug. Big Guy is also fond of brown paper grocery sacks and cardboard boxes

    Pattern seems to be they are partial to the noise factor...they like the toys where they can hear the kibble clattering around inside.

  4. Update #2: My cat just learned how to solve the Dog Tornado at the hardest setting (using the three bones). A little kitty Einstein.

  5. My dog can't seem to figure out any of the Premier Toys. However, he does love Bob-a-lot from Starmark.

  6. Great review. I agree the Tug a Jug is great. My dog has so much fun with it. It has been used for over six months with little wear.Since my dog uses it on carpet, sound is not an issue. I read somewhere on the Net that you can put a sock around it if used on hardwood for people who find it to be loud.

  7. Those are great ideas for muffling the sound of the tug-a-jug!

  8. "Hi guys, I really enjoyed this information about Interactive Dog (and Cat) Toys , is very interesting, I would like get more updates about this"

  9. These are nice! Aside from giving my dog some tasty and nutritious dog treats, I also give him time to do the things that he enjoys doing! One of these activities is playing with toys. Playing fetch in the afternoon is also an all-time favorite game of my dog. Treating our pets like our own kids is just irresistible.

  10. Picky chewers will prefer the regular bullies as opposed to the low odor and may like the bully stick soaked first. Make sure that you don't get a 12" bully for a small dog as a picky dog may just not be motivated to work harder at it.

  11. How do you stop the dog from just picking it up and dumping it out. That's what My GS would do. It's what he does with his current one.

    1. Assuming that you are referring to the Nina Ottosson toys, these toys require supervision. This means that I sit with the dog while they are interacting with the toy to keep them from tipping it over. If your dog likes to tip things over, I suggest trying the Tug-a-Jug by Premier which does not require supervision.