By Dr. Becker
Does your dog's tail start wagging non-stop the second you show him a new toy? Does he tear off the packaging and immediately claim his new possession, unable to contain his doggy excitement?
Like children (and many adults), dogs like new things, a tendency known as neophilia. It's the novelty of the toy that's most attractive in this case, and research shows dogs will overwhelmingly choose to play with a new toy over more familiar objects.
For instance, a study published in Animal Cognition found that dogs preferred to sniff or pick up a novel toy instead of ones they'd already played with in 38 out of 50 cases.1
Those researchers suggested "neophilia may be an adaptive trait for domestic dogs that has helped their adaptation towards man," but it sure can be frustrating when your dog refuses to play with his box full of "old" toys.
Dogs Lose Interest in Novel Toys Quickly
While your dog will likely show intense interest in a new toy right off the bat, that interest may quickly wane. There are some exceptions, such as dogs that will carry around one favorite toy for days on end, but for the most part research suggests "domestic dogs… show intense but transient neophilia towards novel objects."2
In other words, the toy that piqued your dog's interest 15 minutes ago may soon be relegated to the corner and lie there untouched and unnoticed. The average US pet owner spends nearly $50 a year on toys, according to the 2015-2016 American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey.3
Surely, you'd like to maximize those dollars by investing in toys that will actually hold your dog's interest. Fortunately, this is possible…
How to Make Your Dog's Old Toys Seem New Again
If you're a parent (to children of the non-furry variety), you probably learned early on to rotate your children's toys. By stashing some of them out of sight, and regularly rotating them in and out of regular play, your child's interest remained and even the old toys seemed new.
The same holds true for dogs. If you leave all of your pet's toys out in a big bin, he'll probably lose interest in the lot of them quickly. A better option is to leave out one or two and put the rest away.
In a day or two, swap them out and watch your pet's excitement begin anew. You can even try adding a new scent to the toy, such as by rolling it in leaves, to further entice your dog. As Scientific American reported:4
"It [toy rotation] can help prevent dogs habituating to a toy, meaning that the dog stops responding to the object or stimulus after repeated presentation. Dogs habituate all the time, to the sound of an airplane going by or a baby crying; this is a good thing, but I'm sure people would rather dogs don't habituate to toys."
Another trick is to interact with your dog using the toy. Suddenly, the stuffed goose that once just lay there is up and being hurled through the air, thanks to your getting involved in the game. This can also make the toy seem like new to your dog and greatly enhance your dog's interest (without you having to spend more money on toys).
Do Dogs Prefer Certain Types of Toys?
You may be wondering if there's a certain type of toy that's most alluring to dogs. However, since each dog is unique in his likes and dislikes, you'll probably find that every dog you own prefers a different type of toy (and style of play).
If your dog is new to your home, offer him a variety of toys – tugs, balls, Frisbees, chew toys, squeakers, stuffed options, and more – and you'll quickly learn his favorites. Since many pet stores allow pet visitors, you can even take your dog with you down the toy aisle and see which ones seem to peak his interest.
That being said, remember the novelty factor. In the above-mentioned study, the researchers tested different factors to see if they could lengthen the dogs' period of play with any one toy, without success. And nothing about the individual toys made much difference either, which suggests that once a dog is completely familiar with the sight, sound, smell, and feel of a toy, boredom sets in.
You may also be better off avoiding those "indestructible" toys that your dog can't make a dent in. Research suggests that dogs enjoy toys that they can pull apart and destroy, or those that are edible, likely because they view toys the way wolves view their prey.5 They want something that they can tear apart and eat.
Unfortunately, supplying your dog with easily destroyed toys isn't ideal either, as he may accidently (or intentionally) ingest some of the non-edible pieces. A good alternative is recreational bones (large, raw chunks of beef and bison femur bones), which are incredibly enjoyable for most dogs, even though they're not classified as a "toy."
Treat-release puzzle toys, toys meant to be chewed, those that make noise, or those that are edible (like a dental bone) also tend to be good options, while toys that are hard, unyielding, and silent will probably be quickly passed up by your dog. Make sure all toys purchased are made with safe, non-toxic materials.
Finally, as mentioned, don't underestimate your ability to stimulate your dog's interests. A session of playtime with you – playing fetch, tug-of-war, or hide-and-seek – will be far more stimulating to your pup than any toy could be – even the new ones. If you need some ideas for playtime, check out these 9 games and activities you can do with your dog.