Dog Toys

Q. Is there such a thing as too many toys for my dogs? How many different toys should I leave out for them to play with?

A. The most important issue with toys is not how many a pet has, but how safe and appropriate they are — and how you’re using them. Ideally, your dogs’ toys should not only keep their minds and bodies active but also strengthen the bond they have with you. If that’s the case, then your dogs can have as many toys as you want and can afford to buy. But if the toys wind up unplayed with and scattered on the floor, and the only time they see any action is when you trip over them, then yes, you probably have too many toys.

In other words, it’s better to have a few toys used well than a lot of toys not used at all.

Put Your Dogs’ Toys to Work

If you haven’t got any idea what I’m talking about when I say that your dogs’ toys should be used well, then it’s time for some toy talk. This is how hard your dogs’ toys could — and should — be working:

Redirect your dogs’ natural chewing. Chewing is a natural behavior for dogs — not only for teething puppies but also for adolescents. And some breeds and their mixes seem to need to chew long past those teen years: Labradors, for example, chew well past the puppy stage. For these dogs, vet-approved chew toys are a must, not only to protect items like shoes and remote controls from being destroyed but also to satisfy your dog’s natural desires to gnaw on something substantial. Because chew toys that are rock-hard can break teeth, veterinary dentists recommend you avoid any that are so hard that you wouldn’t want them to hit you in the kneecap.

Eliminate any possibility of boredom. Many dogs are left alone for hours at a time while family members are at work or school. Most learn to cope with the time alone, but it’s not easy for any of them. Even if a dog doesn’t have separation anxiety, being alone is stressful and especially hard on active young dogs. Using toys to keep mind and body busy helps these dogs a lot. You can help by stuffing Kongs and putting them in the freezer, and handing them to your dogs when you leave. It’ll keep ’em busy and happy.

Make your dogs work for their food. These days, dogs are “born retired,” and the easy life takes a toll. They’re bored, unfit and, too often, fat. All these things can lead to behavior and health problems, which is why I’ve long been an advocate of throwing away the bowls and feeding dogs from food puzzles. These toys can be simple and relatively inexpensive, like the type that makes your dog roll or nose the item to get it to dispense kibble. Or they can be more complicated brainteasers that really push your pooch to use his noodle. I like to give my dogs a variety of options; in our family, the dogs eat their meals from food puzzles, and we pull out the brainteasers for fun.

Strengthen the bond you share with your dogs. You may think it’s just a game of fetch, but when you throw a ball for your dog to retrieve, it’s so much more. You’re giving him the heart-thumping daily exercise he needs (and that too many dogs don’t get). But when he returns what you throw and gives it back, he’s working as your partner in a game that builds your bond. You can start there and build on this foundation, teaching him to sit before you throw, stay before you throw, sit when he comes back. The possibilities are endless, and they all help your relationship.

See what I mean? If you’re using toys to help keep your dogs happy, healthy and active — and to strengthen your bond — then it’s hard to imagine you could have too many. And no, your dogs didn’t pay me to have that opinion, although I doubt they would disagree!