Dog Toys: What Makes One a Favorite or a Flop to Fido?
AbstractGot a pampered pooch in your household? Then you know how much most dogs love their toys. And not just any toy. It has to be that particular beat up ball, gnawed frisbee, or ratty not-so-plush-anymore bunny with only one eye and partial ear remaining. Seems that dogs, like people, have definite preferences for their play things. This fun project investigates what makes a toy interesting to a dog. In these experiments, you and your dog can have some fun while you learn about canine behavior and why toys are an important part of a healthy dog's life.
Darlene E. Jenkins, Ph.D.This project is based on a DragonflyTV episode.
The goal of this project is to test various dog toys to find out which type is most appealing to your dog.
Animals, like people, are meant to be active. A sedentary life style is not good for anyone including our household pets or animals living in posh, but restrictive, zoo enclosures. That's why more and more pet owners and zookeepers now give the animals under their care various objects or structures that encourage movement, exploration, play, and thinking. The goal is to create stimulating environments to encourage animals to behave much like they would in the wild. This process of using objects to promote species-specific activities in animals is called environmental enrichment.
Environmental enrichment ensures animals are challenged in ways that are appropriate and healthy for their species. That's why most zoos now design more natural looking enclosures where animals can interact with each other in roomier, more familiar surroundings. Enrichment also includes perching or hiding structures, large and small play things, objects to investigate or pick apart, food dispensers that challenge an animal to search for treats, and even smelly fabrics or noise-making toys. Basically, any thing that can be safely chewed, picked apart, or smelled, or are novel, challenging, or fun can be part of an animal's enrichment program.
In this project, you'll study your faithful and friendly dog to find out what type of toys suit him/her best. While not quite as exotic as a tiger or river otter, your favorite canine can serve as just as interesting a subject to study. And since you already probably know a lot about your dog's personality and preferences, you'll have a big advantage when trying to predict which type of dog toy will be the most favorite. Still, until you run your experiments and make your observations you won't know for sure, so you might be in for some surprises.
The goal of this project is to present different types of toys to your dog and make close observations to see which toys are hits and which ones are flops. In selecting the toy options for your study, consider several factors. Different breeds of dogs have distinct behavioral traits and general personalities. Hunting dogs innately love to explore their surrounding primarily by sniffing. Shepards and border collies can't help but look for any object to herd, and breeds like retrievers enjoy nothing more than running after sticks or balls that they can chase or catch on the fly. Most of these natural tendencies reflect the way a particular breed of dog would locate food, or forage, in the wild. An enrichment toy that most closely matches a dog's basic instinctive behaviors in foraging or exploring their natural environment would be the ideal choice for that dog.
You should also keep in mind your dog's basic personality and age. Some dogs may be shy or cautious. They will need you to lead them to the toys or will want you to help them interact with a new object. Other dogs who like to search may prefer that the toys be hidden underneath a basket, so they can have the challenge of finding and uncovering the new play things. And don't forget the age of your dog. Older dogs may approach the experiments more calmly and slowly and may need a little more time to fully explore the toy options compared to younger, more frisky dogs.
Before you get started, do a little research on animal behavior and environmental enrichment. Look up the background on the breed or breeds that most closely represent your dog. Check out the theories about environmental enrichment. Find out what types of enrichment are best for dogs in general and for your breed of dog specifically. You'll see a list of search terms, basic questions, and a helpful bibliography in the the following sections to get your research going. Finally, use your improved understanding of dog behavior to see if you can accurately predict the types of enrichment toys your dog will most enjoy before you run your tests. The results of your experiments will reveal whether your instincts are correct, or whether your dog is much more unpredictable and fickle than you ever realized.
Good luck, and have fun with Fido!
Terms and Concepts
To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
- Environmental enrichment
- Dog behavior
- Canine behavior
- Dog breeds and their specific traits
- What are classic behaviors for canines and the major breeds of dogs?
- What is environmental enrichment?
- How is environmental enrichment important to animals?
- What are some examples of environmental enrichment for zoo animals? For dogs? For other pets?
- How are animal behaviors measured and interpreted?
Here are some websites you might want to check out as you start your research:
- Explanation and examples of dog enrichment ideas:
Haug, L. (2006). Environmental Enrichment for Dogs. Texas Veterinary Behavior Services. Retrieved May 1, 2014, fom.
- Photos and videos of various zoo enrichment examples:
Honolulu Zoo Society. (n.d.). Animal Enrichment. Retrieved May 16, 2023.
- The basic idea for this project came from this DragonflyTV podcast:
TPT. (2006). Tigers and Otters by Chelsea and Camille. DragonflyTV, Twin Cities Public Television. Retrieved August 14, 2007.
Materials and Equipment
To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:
- Your adult dog (see guidelines below for using dogs in experiments)
- An assistant to help you time your experiments and record observations
- Large room with open space, or an outdoor area with no distractions
- Plastic laundry basket or bin
- 12 dog toys: Select four toys for each experiment listed below. Choose three toys you predict your dog will like and one toy you think will be unappealing to him/her in each experiment.
- Experiment 1. Interactive (balls that bounce, squeaky toys, rattles, toys that light up or make music)
- Experiment 2. Different Shapes (sticks, balls, frisbee, cubes, plastic bottles or jugs)
- Experiment 3. Different Textures (soft plush, hard rubber, leather, canvas toys of similar sizes/shapes)
- Experiment 4. Favorite Four (use four favorite toys from experiments 1-3)
- Watch or stop watch
- Notebook or paper
- Pen or pencil
- Guidelines for using dogs in experiments:
- Be sure an adult is present when you are testing a dog.
- Don't use a puppy for this project. They don't have the maturity or training to follow instructions.
- Never force a dog to participate in any of the experiments. If the dog is unwilling to take part, try again later.
- If a dog begins to appear tired or bored, stop the testing, and try that experiment again later or on another day.
- If you use any food items in your testing, do not use chocolate, raisins, grapes, garlic, or onions. These are toxic foods for dogs.
- Select and obtain the toys for your experiments based on objects you think your dog will like and dislike.
- Make a list of the toys you collected for each experiment, and assign a number to each toy. Indicate which toys you predict will be definite favorites, which ones could be somewhat appealing, and which ones will be of little interest to your dog.
- Prepare a data table similar to the example below for each of the four experiments.
- The experiments are run on four separate days, testing one type of toy per day.
- Each experiment involves three, timed trials with the same four toys. You will rate your dog's interest in each toy from "0" to "4" in each trial based on your dog's behavior. (0 = no interest; 1 = very little interest; 2 = some interest; 3 = medium interest; and 4 = high interest).
- Place the four toys of Experiment 1 (Interactive toys) in the basket at the far end of the room.
- Bring your dog into the room and, on your command, let him/her loose to find and explore the basket of toys.
- Start timing as soon as the dog approaches the basket. Let the dog explore and interact with the toys for two minutes. Note: If your dog needs more than two minutes to investigate the toys, you can increase the time, but be sure to use the same time limit for all trials in every experiment.
- Based on your observations of your dog's behavior with the toys, rate each toy from "0" to "4" for interest level. Record the scores in the data table prepared for this experiment.
- Take the dog out of the room, and repeat the procedure for two more trials using the same four toys.
- The next day, repeat the experiment using four toys of Experiment 2 (Different Shapes). Record the scores in the data table prepared for this experiment.
- On day three, repeat the experiment using four toys of Experiment 3 (Textures). Record the scores in the data table prepared for this experiment.
- Based on each toy's total score from an experiment, select four toys that your dog seems to like the most to use in the final experiment.
- Do an experiment with the four favorite toys to determine the "ultimate" favorite toy for your dog. Record your rating numbers for each toy on the data table prepared for this experiment.
- Hints to encourage your dog to investigate the toys:
- Depending on how active and naturally curious your dog is, you may have to call the dog over the to basket or prompt him/her to look inside at the toys.
- You could also briefly show or present each toy to your dog, but don't encourage interaction with any one toy more than another.
- You could lay the toys out on the floor or toss them instead of placing them in a basket if it makes it easier for your dog to find and to examine them. Be sure to switch the placement order of the toys between the three trials in an experiment. That way you'll know the dog is really interested in one particular toy and not just going for the same spot each time.
|Experiment 1 (Interactive Toys)|
|Toy 1||Toy 2||Toy 3||Toy 4|
Analyzing Your Data
- Tally the total score recorded for each toy. Rank the toys from highest to lowest within each experiment.
- Which toys did your dog show a clear preference for in Experiment 1, 2, and 3? Which toys were the least favorite in each experiment? Were you surprised about any of the results?
- Did your dog prefer more toys of one type than the others?
- How accurate were your predictions about which toys your dog would like and dislike?
- Did your dog have a single "ultimate" favorite toy, or did your dog seem to like several toys equally?
- Explain the results based on the natural behaviors typical for your type of dog or for canines in general.
- For help with data analysis and setting up tables, see Data Analysis & Graphs.
- For a guide on how to summarize your results and write conclusions based on your data, see Conclusions.
Ask an Expert
- Repeated Testing. Does your dog learn to like certain toys over time? Repeat your experiments on multiple days over two or three weeks to see if your dog's choices are consistent or if your dog eventually starts to enjoy additional toys.
- Try other dogs. Does your neighbor's dog have similar tastes in toys to your dog? Try the same experiments with one or two other dogs to compare their responses to your dog's. Be sure to make predictions about what the new dogs might like or dislike based on their breed and personality before you run your tests.
- Other Toy Choices. What other types of toys can you come up with to test on your dog? Could you try toys that look alike but vary only in color, scent, or size, for example? What would happen if you added toys that have food within them? How about toys make from natural materials versus synthetic products? Repeat your experiments using these additional categories of toys and compare the results to your first experiments. Important Note: If you use any food items, do not include chocolate, grapes, or raisins as these are toxic to dogs.
- Designer Toy. Based on your results, design a new toy for your dog that incorporates all of his/her favorite toy features. Try to find a toy that meets all or most of the criteria or make it yourself, if possible. Test your "designer" toy against the other toy favorites of your dog in a new experiment.
- Canine Camera. Do you think your dog would have the same reaction to the toys if you were not in the room? Set up a video camera on a tripod and film your dog's behavior when he/she is alone in the room with each separate set of toys. Compare these results to your initial experiments when you were present.
- The Battle of the Breeds. If you have access to dog clubs that focus on specific breeds, recruit at least ten dogs of one breed and ten dogs of a different breed for an expanded project on dog toy preferences. For guidelines on how many animals you ideally would want to use in this type of project see: Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?.
- For other Science Buddies projects related to dog behavior see:
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
- Science Fair Project Guide
- Other Ideas Like This
- Mammalian Biology Project Ideas
- My Favorites
- Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?