February 23, 2024 | Dog

The Role of Toys in a Dog's Life: Dog Toys Are More Than Just Fun

Do dogs need toys?

Toys can play a very important role in a dog’s life in terms of physical and mental stimulation; if they are bored, they will reach for their toy, and it is rare to find a dog that does not like toys of some kind, even if these are of the more “natural” variety such as a leaf blowing in the wind, or a rolled up ball of paper, rather than the soft, plush, squeaky and more aesthetically - pleasing toys which are probably far more appealing to their owners than to them.

Toys also provide enrichment for our dogs. They satisfy an innate instinct - whether that be “pretend-hunting” or retrieving, teaching dogs to play and socialise with each other, and how to respect boundaries when necessary.

Enrichment toys can enhance a pup’s ability to learn and help them to develop new skills. It also promotes their natural behaviours such as foraging, playing and exploring.

Toys can also help to build independence. Dogs are naturally pack animals and have evolved to not spend massive amounts of time in their own company. With the busy lives most people lead today, it is often not practical nor possible to spend 100% of your time with your dog, and so by keeping your dog entertained in your absence, they are less likely to get bored, which can otherwise lead to psychological issues and destructive behaviour.

Toys can therefore help your dog relax and feel happier as playing is a rewarding experience which counteracts the effects of stress. They also provide an opportunity for your pup to control their own environment, keeping stress levels in check.

Toys are great at preventing problem behaviours such as the inappropriate chewing of your finest pair of shoes, for example, or excessive barking and quality chew toys are very good for teething pups - helping them to “cut their teeth” and distracting them from practising chewing on items they shouldn’t.

Playtime can also provide a great opportunity to bond with your dog. Interactive games such as “tug of war” or “ball-throwing” allow special bonds between owner and dog to develop, and are also good for keeping dogs active making exercise fun for both you and your dog.

Puppy with a dog toys in it's mouth running on grass

Are all dog toys good for my dog?

Many factors contribute to the safety or danger of a toy and depend upon the size, activity levels, and preferences of the dog. Often, the most attractive items to a dog in your house can also potentially be very dangerous to them. Examples include string, ribbons, children’s toys, socks and even underwear (!), all of which if ingested may cause blockages of airways or digestive tracts and can prove fatal. It is extremely important to dog-proof your home, keeping out of harm’s way potentially dangerous “toys”. 

Be sure to buy toys of an appropriate size for your dog, for once again, toys which are too small, may be easily swallowed causing blockages. If your dog favours squeaky toys, watch them carefully as they may have a desire to find the source of the “squeak” and destroy it.

It’s also a sensible idea to give your dog's toy the once-over before presenting it to him or her. Check for any strings, ribbons, or eyes which may be gnawed off, and check the labels to ensure they don’t contain any dangerous fillings such as polystyrene beads. Soft toys should be machine washable, and bear in mind that they also tend to be less indestructible than hard toys, but some are more robust than others.

Try and avoid rawhide chews and antler treats as these may pose a choking hazard and can readily cause fractures of the teeth. Tennis balls are also not recommended, as the friction from the surface material can cause teeth to wear down more quickly.

Distraction toys

Kong-type toys, especially when filled with suitable treats such as peanut butter, can keep your dog occupied for hours. Just ensure that the filling does not contain a sweetener called xylitol which is toxic to dogs.

Other feeder toys exist which require the dog to push or nudge the toy around to get it to “release” its contents. These are especially good for dogs who tend to scoff their food down, as only a small amount of “edible” treats are revealed at a time, limiting how much can be consumed in one go. Lick matts and feed mazes also help in this regard and turn mealtimes into fun too.

Toys for blind dogs

It has long been realised that when one of our senses is lost, the remaining ones are heightened to make up for it. This is also the case with animals. Blind dogs still usually have their senses of smell, taste, hearing and touch and it has been shown that vision and smell help dogs to navigate the world. You can therefore encourage a blind dog to play with toys if the toys make a noise, or by smearing food on nylon bones, for example. They may also enjoy a tug of war and can generally follow a toy dragged along the floor by tracking the scent or noise of it. This means that they don’t have to miss out on playtime.

Do sticks make good toys for dogs?

As a veterinary surgeon, Dr Rachel Louise Keane BVSc BSc MRCVS of PocketVet says she has to answer this question with a “no”. 

“The reason I say this is that I have seen so many cases over the years where nasty injuries to dog’s mouths and throats have been caused by dogs becoming impaled on a stick which has ‘upended’ in soft ground, and I’m sad to say that on one of these occasions, the stick severed one of the dog’s arteries and unfortunately he did not survive. Therefore I always strongly advise discouraging dogs from playing with ‘natural’ sticks and to try the rubber or plastic versions instead, or something like a frisbee. Be sure to check the edges of these toys for any jaggedy bits or soft edges which may splinter or crack, and take care not to launch them into the air too high causing a dog to over-reach and injure themselves.”

Medically reviewed by:


Tricks and Toys to Keep Dogs Busy When They're Alone | The Dog People by Rover.com

Dog-friendly toys - PDSA

Dog Toys - Benefits & How to Clean | RSPCA

How to pick the best and safest dog toy | The Humane Society of the United States

Why Do Dogs Need Toys - Chew Test

Choosing safe chew toys for dogs: A vet's guide | PetsRadar