Author: Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP, BC SPCA Accredited, Owner/Trainer, Dog Partners
Hold the Stuffing! Does your dog rip apart and de-stuff all his fluffy toys? Here's how I taught my dog to quit wrecking his toys.
How much money do you think you spend annually on toys for your dog?
I know that I spend quite a lot on toys! And I actually keep track because I can write off some of my dog expenses for my business. Unfortunately, I think that means I spend even more – it is, after all, my duty to check out and be able to recommend some great toys to my clients, right?! Yikes!
I am a huge fan of the mentally stimulating category of toys known as Treat Dispensers. As far as I’m concerned, you simply cannot have enough or offer them enough to your dogs and cats (and horses and rats and rabbits and goats and . . .) on a daily basis. These toys, chosen carefully, are pretty indestructible and can last for a number of years if you choose wisely for your particular dog, keep them clean and select ones appropriate for indoor or outdoor use.
My current dog, Jack, can’t get enough of these toys and he’s happy to try out new ones and give me his feedback for all of you!
Stuffed toys though – those are the bomb! There aren’t many dogs who will turn their noses up at a good, fluffy, squeaky, uniquely shaped soft toy that they can get their mouth around and their teeth firmly into.
It’s always amazing to me that the obnoxious sounds coming out of those faux fur bodies so close to our dogs’ ears has such appeal. I know many dogs who are sensitive to all sorts of sounds but not the obnoxious grunt of the famed “Hedgie” stuffie or the multi-squeakered, ever popular, “Chicken” (really a rooster but we call ours “Chicken”.)
I regularly hear tales of woe from clients about how their dog just wrecks every soft toy they buy. It seems many are constantly on the lookout for that elusive “indestructible” and yet still highly desirable toy. Does it even exist?!
I sometimes imagine toy manufacturers spending countless hours in brainstorming sessions trying to come up with the one truly indestructible dog toy. And then I think – “why would they do that?!” They have a captive and always-buying-something-new, international audience of willing consumers! They just have to imply that it might be a tough toy, and we’re all over it.
Destroying stuffies – that could very easily be an Olympic sport for our dogs. Our golden retriever mix, Casey, treated it like a job:
- receive new stuffie
- find appropriate surface to lie on
- choose best and most prominent seam, label or body part
- open toy
- done – next?
There was minimal squeaking and no joyful running around with her new toy. It was a detailed destruction effort completed within 10 minutes – “stuffie must die”!
Needless to say, new stuffies for Casey became relegated to once a year gifts at Christmas. Now that I know what I know, I feel bad that I wasn’t able to help her enjoy them more. However, part of being a good dog trainer is continuing to learn and learning to be creative with what you know, and I’m glad to say that I keep on doing that.
All of our other dogs have enjoyed stuffies more or less to the same degree. Lots of initial joyful play and squeaks to be had, followed by the inevitable “first hole” which quickly leads to blankets of snowy fluff lying all over the house and the immediate disposal of the whole toy. Rarely is there ever enough left to consider doing any sort of repair and re-stuff. The fluffy, squeaky life was simply snuffed out and promptly discarded.
During one budget-conscious period, I decided to make use of some old clothes and started sewing my own toys using discarded stuffy fluff, still intact squeakers and old t-shirts, pyjama bottoms and worn out jeans. It worked pretty well for awhile and it cost less than buying stuffies. However, before long they too went the way of all previous stuffies. At times the process sped up when when 2 dogs would decide they both want the same toy and it turns into a tug of war. Mine! No, mine!
I do have one mysterious stuffed toy that I bought when our first dog was a puppy and somehow 5 dogs later, it’s still almost entirely intact with the exception of the popped squeakers inside. Every dog has played with it, but it never became the favorite for some unknown reason and it never sustained major damage. We’ve never solved the mystery of why this particular toy is still intact and also why it was never a favorite. Even Casey didn’t choose it on any of her destructive missions – it just sits there in the toy box, occasionally picked up and played with and then tossed aside still intact.
When I got my current dog, Jack, he was a 10-week-old Doberman puppy. He was the first puppy we’d raised in quite a few years and my training skills and knowledge had evolved quite a bit during that time. I was excited to raise a puppy again!
For clients, I always recommend the use of soft toys as a re-direction for biting, and I can tell you that there are few puppies who are mouthier and play bite more than a Doberman puppy! Consequently, I armed myself with many, many stuffies during Jack’s puppyhood. I once counted 26 toys all around me and Jack one day when we were playing. I still show that picture to families who don’t quite believe me when I tell them “you need more toys!”
Through all the re-direction, Jack learned to absolutely love his stuffed toys. He carried them around all the time – then and still today. They were always present, and he was very good at keeping them intact . . . until that one day when it all fell apart.
I had recently seen this very cute “blue monster” toy with long fuzzy hair and decided Jack would love it. It was a bit different – not fluffy but long and fuzzy. Well that may have been the trigger. He started pulling at the hair and became completely obsessed with this long fuzzy stuff. Initially the only problem seemed to be him pulling the hair out but then he started eating and swallowing it. After that, he started getting bits off and eating those, and then he started pulling bits off other stuffed toys and swallowing those bits – thankfully well chewed.
Before long a lot of his toys had small holes with stuffing peeking out and then the game changed – all toys needed to now be opened, de-stuffed and destroyed. It was a sad day – my stuffie-friendly puppy had become a destructive beast! More concerning, he decided he also liked eating the bits he pulled off, so it was also now fast becoming a potential health problem.
My initial reaction was the same it had always been – stuffed toys are gone. We will stick to treat dispensers and chew toys from here on out.
Before too long, though, I came to the conclusion that was a wholly unfair response. Jack loved stuffed toys and I was now depriving him of that. Plus, I was the one who taught him to love those toys because they were an important tool during his puppyhood. It didn’t sit well with me to simply shut all that down.
So, I decided to get creative and train him to quit wrecking his toys!
The question was how to proceed. We no longer use corrections or time outs in our current training methods and punishment is definitely out of the question. I had to come up with a positive way to stop his destructive behaviour.
I decided to experiment with his Stop cue – which is something I think of as a “positive interrupter”. It’s a way to interrupt a behaviour in the moment and, because of how I train it, there is no or very little negative association – or at least we try as hard as we can to make it a positive experience vs. an aversive experience.
The Stop cue criterion is: “Stop what you’re doing, come back to me and get $1,000” or at least that’s how I explain it to clients. The $1,000 is lots and lots and lots of really small but very tasty treats – a big payout for reasonably minimal effort. After the Stop response, more often than not, you Release your dog to go back to doing whatever he was doing prior to the Stop – which is essentially a win-win for the dog.
I first started training the “Stop” cue as a way to easily and positively interrupt play between two dogs in order to give them a break, help them calm down and then decide whether to let them go back to playing again.
It can be difficult to separate playing dogs especially when they’re young, large and things start to get a bit too fast or out of control. Leashes and harnesses (even collars for that matter) can be dangerous to have on during play, and when you add tension to them by trying to pull dogs apart it can very quickly add frustration and anxiety. Things can rapidly escalate out of control. A well-trained, cued behaviour is the perfect solution.
I had originally experimented by teaching “Stop” to my own two dogs when we first adopted Jack. He and my other Doberman, Quincy, really loved to play together but because he was just a puppy, it was important to keep their play sessions short and under control with lots breaks. It worked perfectly and I have many videos of them doing a wonderful job with their “Stops”. We practiced it so much, and they got so good at it that they would often stop playing all by themselves and look at me as if to say, “are we Stopping now?” – all ready to run to me for their reinforcement!
“Stop” became something that I started including in all my classes from Puppy to Reactive and it has quickly become the most popular behaviour we teach because it has so many uses.
I took the time to put a simple but thoughtful training plan together before getting started.
Before I got started, I decided I needed a pool of inexpensive stuffies to have available around the house. I was hoping that “abundance” would help the process. During the initial training, I wanted to have lots of stuffies available for him to enjoy but I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t spending a fortune if things started to go sideways.
I decided to subscribe to a popular dog toy and treat monthly subscription company. My thought was that when we weren’t actually “training”, he would still have stuffed toys around him to play with as he chose. I was hoping that after the absence of toys, the re-emergence would start him thinking about what we were doing when we were training and maybe even shorten the process. I’ll never know if it did or didn’t, but it seemed like it was worth a try instead of putting everything away and only having them out during training sessions.
My next step was to design the actual training plan so I would have it clear in my head. There’s never any value in just starting to train something without some thought. It’s an easy way to get yourself and your dog confused and there’s nothing positive about that! Confusion and unclear instructions can very quickly make even the most positive training session aversive.
Come up with a training plan and write it down!
- Practice “Stop” out of context of the stuffies and ensure he was still good at it.
- Next, get ready with treats and a timer to make sure I didn’t train too long – pretty much 5 to 10-minute sessions was what I was planning to stick to.
I intended to introduce the stuffies into the area all at once including the expensive ones. This ended up being approximately 20 toys in all. I knew I would have to begin training immediately as their sudden reappearance would likely trigger enormous interest – as anything does when you’ve been deprived of it for awhile.
And it did! The load of toys being dumped into the living room created huge excitement and Jack ran around picking up and squeaking toys endlessly for quite awhile!
- I took part in the initial excitement by wandering around the room, tossing toys to him, telling him what a good boy he was and handing out the occasional treat if he came over to check in with me. I also began tossing handfuls of treats around his toys as he played.
My purpose for tossing treats all around his toys was two-fold: because I wasn’t trying to remove the toys or stop him doing anything, he was happy to pause, take his mouth off a toy and eat a treat; and as he wasn’t yet in his destructive mode, I was reinforcing him happily playing with his toys – my end goal.
Finally, he picked one toy and settled down. I took my place on the couch and settled down too.
- My job now was to watch and wait for what looked like some form of destructive behaviour to just barely begin. Every dog owner who has a destructive dog knows just what this looks like!
- As soon as he “settled in” and got his back teeth involved to start actually “gnawing” on the toy, I cued his “Stop”.
- He immediately dropped the toy, came to me and got huge reinforcement. Then I gave him his Release cue and let him go back to that same toy and started watching him carefully again.
- Each and every time that he started that “get down to business” behaviour with a toy, I cued his “Stop”, paid the response and immediately released him to go back to playing with his toy.
- If he changed toys, I would do the same sequence – I would get involved in the initial fun play, reinforcing good toy play with treats and then get ready to watch and train when he settled down with the toy.
Even though I was mindful of not training too long, I made the first session a little longer than subsequent sessions for the following reasons:
- Jack was willing to perform his Stop happily because he is highly food motivated. He didn’t appear to get annoyed at having to interrupt his play, therefore I didn’t think I was risking poisoning his Stop. (With a different dog, I may do this differently – perhaps making training sessions shorter.)
- I wanted to get a lot of repetitions in that first session so he (hopefully) started to connect that “gnawing” behaviour with being interrupted.
- My intent was to keep interrupting him each time I saw that gnawing behaviour start but to let him keep playing with his toy as long as he kept playing nicely.
- I was hoping he would start to put 2 and 2 together and realize that the road to continuous stuffie play was resisting that particular destructive behaviour.
- After a suitable period of time, I ended that first session and every subsequent session was shorter.
I also had a plan for in between training sessions. I didn’t want to just take all the toys away again. I thought this might make the process longer and was hoping that my “abundance” set up would help. All the inexpensive toys were left out for him to interact with. I was hoping he would start thinking about the process and, fingers crossed, we wouldn’t lose too many.
I took away the expensive toys away when I wasn’t training so I didn’t have to replace those.
My training results:
- Initially, we did get some early damage, but I stitched them up and put them back when it happened.
- I did a lot of training sessions in the first few days so we could get lots of practice in early with minimal destruction.
- I also did some management in the following ways:
- I didn’t leave him alone for very long periods of time and I made sure that when I did, he was tired from hiking and he had more than enough treat dispensing toys to outlast the length of time he would be alone.
- The stuffies did remain out and available but I didn’t want too much time to pass when he was alone and maybe bored and feeling energetic without some kind of appealing replacement activity that didn’t involve stuffie death.
- The other thing I did was put his behaviour on cue. I started saying “be nice to your toy” every time he picked up a stuffie during the training sessions. Then I would periodically toss him treats while playing nicely with his toy.
So my plan was based on the hope that even though Jack got treats whenever I had to interrupt his stuffie play, he would prefer to continue playing with his toy. When I did have to cue “Stop”, the small pause would act as a reset for his behaviour for another sessions of stuffie play. I was hoping he would strive to continue playing vs. being interrupted and seek to avoid being “Stopped”.
Well it worked! In very little time, far faster than I was expecting, the training worked to end the destruction of the stuffies. We now have intact stuffies all over the house! Jack does still wreck the odd toy, but more often than not it’s from endless squeaking, tossing and tugging then outright destruction – I’m ok with that.
Today, whenever I see him start to pull at or look slightly more destructive in his behaviour with a toy, I will give him cue to “be nice to your toys” and reinforce any response that looks like an attempt to change his behaviour. I’m choosing to believe that part of the reinforcement is not being cued to “Stop”.
I am so pleased with both of us! He got his stuffies back and I came up with a creative solution to a training challenge.
I have to say that proper, positive, dog training is all about creativity. Being creative is taking a challenge and finding a way to make it work without changing your training methods. There’s always a way to keep it positive!