Pets: The science behind your dog’s favorite toys

Pets: The science behind your dog’s favorite toys
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By Kim Gilliam

Have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking when it goes to pick out a toy? They walk up to an overflowing toy bin and seem to be looking for ‘the one’ they want, searching until they find it. You aren’t the only one dying to know what is going on inside their furry head.

In a recent study published in the Animal Cognition journal, researchers from the Family Dog Project found out that dogs have a “multimodal mental image” of familiar objects. This means that, when thinking about an object, dogs imagine its different sensory features.

The thought was that if we can understand which senses dogs use while searching for a toy, this may reveal how they think about it, explained the first leading researcher, Shany Dror. This was done as part of the Genius Dog Challenge, a project that aims to understand the unique talent that “Gifted Word Learner” dogs have, the small percentage of dogs that can learn the names of objects. Dog owners who believe their dogs know multiple toy names are encouraged to contact them at

“These Gifted Word Learner dogs give us a glimpse into their minds, and we can discover what they think about when we ask them ‘Where is your Teddy Bear?’” Andrea Sommese, Ph.D., the second leading researcher, said. When trying their best to train the dogs to respond to certain names of certain objects, they were being closely observed based on how exactly it is they chose to search for the targeted toy.

In the first experiment, they trained three Gifted Word Learner dogs and 10 typical family dogs to fetch a toy associated with a reward; dogs received treats and were praised for choosing this toy over distractor toys. The researchers then observed the Gifted Word Learner dogs to see how they searched for a specific toy requested by name, both when the lights were on and off.

All dogs successfully selected the targeted toys, however it took them longer to find the toy in the dark, indicating that the dogs were relying primarily on sight, only using their sense of smell when the lights were off.

Overall, the study revealed that when dogs play with a toy, even just briefly, they pay attention to its different features and register the information using multiple senses. I knew my pup was smarter than they let on but didn’t realize they had a catalog of toy characteristics logged in that little noggin!

But how does your dog decide which is its favorite toy to begin with? That answer may lie in the habits of the domestic dog’s closest ancestor – the wolf – according to another study out of the University of Bristol.

“We think that dogs perceive toys in the same way that wolves perceive prey, they prefer toys that either taste like food or can be torn apart,” study co-author John Bradshaw said. That definitely tracks with my dogs’ love of tearing up their most treasured stuffies!

Researchers presented dogs with a different toy for 30-second intervals until the dog indicated their interest had waned. The team used a variety of toys in different colors, odors and materials, and made sure that each successive toy presented a contrast from the toy that came before.

While no single characteristic made one toy preferable over another, the study revealed that as a dog gets used to the stimulus qualities of the toy – its smells, texture, and sounds – the dog is likely to grow bored. Co-author Anne Pullen explains that the perfect toys should be “soft, easily manipulable toys that can be chewed easily and/or make a noise.”

But really, the best thing an owner can do to spark toy interest in their pooch is to get involved and play too.

“For an animal as social as a dog, toys only become really exciting when they are part of a game with a person,” Bradshaw explained. “Few toys will sustain a dog’s interest for long if the owner is not around to offer encouragement.”

The researchers agreed that dogs make such wonderful companions because they never lose the desire to play. Most other animals grow out of their playful behavior as they age, but not the domestic dog – and we love them for it.

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.