How to Choose Toys Your Dog Will Love

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Most healthy dogs retain their love of play throughout their lives. Since canine family members can be loosely compared to perpetual human toddlers, it makes sense that they enjoy playtime no matter their age.

As luck would have it, most dogs are also fascinated (at least temporarily) with toys made just for them. Some dogs love to chase a ball or Frisbee, others like a good game of tug, while still others go for stuffed toys. But there’s one type of toy that’s almost always a hit: the squeaky toy.

Do Dogs Imagine Squeaky Toys Are Captured Prey?

There are two types of play dogs engage in — social and solitary. Social play involves a playmate, either canine or human (or in some cases, cats, farm animals, etc.) As the name implies, solitary play involves the dog and an object, preferably an appropriate toy and not a sofa cushion! A 2015 study asked the question, “Why do adult dogs ‘play’?” According to the researchers:

“Solitary play with objects appears to be derived from predatory behaviour: preferred toys are those that can be dismembered, and a complex habituation-like feedback system inhibits play with objects that are resistant to alteration.”

Translation: dogs prefer toys they can tear apart. Since solitary play is thought to mimic predatory behavior, and since most dogs seem to enjoy toys that squeak when they bite down on them, it’s possible the squeak brings to mind the sound of captured prey.

Another possibility is that pet parents reinforce play behavior with toys that make noise by giving their dogs extra attention when they get their squeak on. A recent study suggests dogs play more with other dogs when their humans are watching, so it makes sense that they may also play more with squeaky toys if those toys are more likely to draw an audience than other types of toys.

Choosing the Best Toys for Your Dog

Most dogs in the U.S. have lots of toys, and many pet parents use trial-and-error to determine what type their dog prefers — and which are safest — from a mind-blowing selection of tugs, balls, Frisbees or other types of discs, chew toys, puzzle toys, squeaky toys, stuffed toys, and more. And since many pet stores welcome dogs, some pet parents even bring four-legged family members along and allow them to sniff out their favorites.

It’s important to select your dog’s toys carefully, however, because not every dog toy is a good choice. For example, some dogs, especially large breeds, tend to rip soft toys apart within seconds to taste-test the stuffing. There are also dogs that swallow small soft toys whole. So obviously, these types of toys aren’t a good choice for certain pets.

Your pup’s temperament, size and age all play a role in determining which toys are safe, and there are considerations, too, based on the toy itself (materials used, size, shape, and more). I recommend using the guidelines below, compiled by VetStreet, to ensure the toys you choose for your dog keep him not only happily playing, but also safe.

5 Tips for Selecting Safe Dog Toys

  1. Choose toys that are the right size for your dog. Giving a small toy to a large dog poses a risk of inhalation and choking. Small balls are especially dangerous, as they can easily become lodged in your dog’s trachea. Generally speaking, you should choose large toys for large dogs and smaller toys only for smaller dogs.
  2. Avoid toys that have small parts that can be chewed or pulled off.
  3. Avoid toys with sharp edges or that can be chewed into sharp points.
  4. When playing fetch, avoid toys that are heavy or hard enough to damage your dog’s teeth or injure him.
  5. If your dog likes to de-stuff toys, be sure he’s not eating the stuffing. Some dogs really enjoy stuffing-free toys.

Toys That Require Close Supervision

  • Long rope-like or tug toys, since they can become wrapped around your dog’s neck
  • Squeaky toys if your dog likes to play “rip out the squeaker”
  • Battery operated toys, because if your dog manages to get the batteries out and swallows them, it can result in battery toxicosis
  • Tennis balls, which can be a choking hazard for large dogs, and the abrasive fuzz may wear down the teeth of an aggressive or persistent chewer
  • Frisbees and similar flying disks that may cause your dog to jump up and twist simultaneously, which can lead to leg and back injuries

  • ‘Toys’ to Avoid

    String, ribbon, pantyhose, socks, and rubber bands, all of which can be swallowed and cause life-threatening complications in the digestive tract
    Children’s toys (such as stuffed animals); they’re not designed to withstand the type of play dogs engage in
    Toys stuffed with beads or beans
    Rocks, sticks
    Containers (including bags) large enough for your dog to put his head in; if it becomes stuck, he can suffocate
    Tug toys for dogs with neck or back problems, such as herniated disks
    Rubber toys with a hole in only one end, as they can form a vacuum that catches your dog’s tongue
    Rawhide chews aren’t recommended for several reasons, one of which is that they pose a high risk of choking and intestinal obstruction

    Potentially Toxic Toys

    Pet toys are not regulated, so they can be made with virtually any material. Plastic toys, in particular, can be dangerous, as many contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA). Old or weathered toys (such as those left outside) leach higher concentrations of harmful chemicals.

    While BPA-free toys are available, the BPA may be replaced with similarly (or more) toxic chemicals, including bisphenol-S (BPS), so this, unfortunately, isn’t a reliable indicator of toy safety. Other toxins sometimes found in dog toys include heavy metals (lead, etc.) and formaldehyde.

    When looking for new toys, choose those made in the U.S. out of 100% natural rubber, organic cotton or other eco-friendly and contaminant-free materials. I recommend the sniff test. If a toy you’re considering buying smells strongly of chemicals, put it back.

    Testing shows that some tennis balls made for pets contain more contaminants than those made for sports.4 I’ve found the best toys for pets are usually handmade, by individuals or very small companies and found at local farmer’s markets or sold regionally in small, independent pet stores.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t found a plethora of companies that produce 100% organic toys. However, there are some great all-natural toys you can find online if you go searching.

    Types of Toys Dogs Seem to Prefer

    Researchers have discovered that regardless of the type of toy, once a dog is completely familiar with the sight, sound, smell, and feel of it, boredom sets in. In addition, you may want to avoid those "indestructible" toys your dog can't make a dent in, because as I discussed earlier, dogs enjoy toys they can pull apart and destroy or those that are edible, probably because they view toys the way wolves view their prey. They want something they can tear apart and eat.

    Of course, offering your dog 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 extremely enjoyable for most dogs, even though they're not technically “toys.” Lick mats are also a great environmental enrichment choice for dogs that tend to destroy toys quickly.

    Treat-release puzzle toys, toys meant to be chewed, and those that make noise or are edible (like a nontoxic dental bone) can also be good options, while toys that are hard, unyielding, and silent will probably not be a big hit with your dog.

    Finally, 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. If you need some ideas for playtime, check out these games and activities you can do with your dog.