Behavior

My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys: What Do Dogs Think Of Their Toys?

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Last Updated: May 15, 2024 | 6 min read | Leave a Comment

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Falkor the dog with ring toy in mouth.
Photo by Taylor DeGroot, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

Taylor Swift sure has it right – my boy only breaks his favorite toys. Have you ever purchased a toy for your dog, thinking they would love it, only to have it tossed aside with little more than a sniff? As a longtime pup parent, I’ve often wondered why certain toys are my dogs’ favorites and why they reject others. Do dogs develop attachments to physical objects, scents, and images like humans?

Recent research shows that dogs remember objects and create ”multi-modal” mental pictures of them. This means they think about the object’s different features, such as smell and appearance, and use them to help them find that particular toy. I reviewed recent research to learn more.

Do Dogs Have Favorite Toys?

More and more research is leaning towards yes. Dogs do develop a preference for certain toys and can differentiate them from other toys. Most pet parents have seen this, and increased research confirms that they can identify specific items as more important to them than others.

Falkor the dog and baby toy.
Falkor just loves his baby.
Photo by Taylor DeGroot, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

My pups all have different favorite toys. My youngest dog, Falkor, a Poodle Beagle mix, is obsessed with one particular pink stuffed animal. We call this toy his “baby.” If I ask him to bring me his baby, he will proudly produce it from wherever he has hidden it and parade it around the house.

Daisy with favorite floppy toy laying in the grass.
Daisy with her favorite floppy frisbee toy.
Photo by Taylor DeGroot, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

My older dog, Daisy, a Labrador Pitbull mix, has a cloth frisbee (we call it her floppy) that she hides, sleeps with, and will not share. When I say, “Go get your floppy,” she brings this toy. Like many other dogs, when I say, “Bring me the ball,” my pups know exactly what to get me. But do dogs think these objects are special? Do they develop attachments to certain toys over others?

What The Research Says

According to a study by researchers at the Family Dog Project, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, canines use their senses to identify physical objects, and some can also learn the names of specific things.

The study performed two different experiments with 14 dogs. Of those, 10 were average family pets, and three were Gifted Word Learners (GWL) (those pups who have shown a higher ability to learn and remember the names of objects).

They first investigated the senses canines use to identify and retrieve familiar objects under different light conditions. The pups were familiarized with a specific toy and given a treat and other positive rewards when playing with it. Then, they were trained to select this “target” toy from a group of others.

The next step involved the pets and owners in one room and the toys in another. Their owners prompted the pups to retrieve the toy from both fully lit and unlit rooms. The experiment tested whether the dogs would still pick out that same toy if they did not have visual clues. All the canine participants in the study could find the special toy from a set of distractors in light and dark rooms. The retrieval was quicker in rooms with light, and researchers noted more time spent sniffing in the dark, indicating that the pups used olfactory cues rather than visual in lower light conditions.

The second experiment was smaller and tested the GWL participants and an additional female Border Collie—considered the smartest dog breed. (Border Collies have a remarkable talent for learning new words and commands.) This experiment was done in the dogs’ homes with the same setup and task as before: to identify a specific toy out of a group in both lit and unlit conditions. The specific toys were placed in a different room, in a group of other toys that they already knew how to identify by name.

The results showed the same results in a familiar setting: the pups could pick out the correct toy that was named.

While small, this study shows that dogs, like humans, form multisensory images of the objects around them. Dogs use their senses, just like humans, to identify specific objects and distinguish them from others.

Dogs Can Associate Words With Objects

Further research at Eötvös Loránd University used a non-invasive EEG monitor specially designed for canines to examine brain activity in canines when they hear certain words. This study involved 18 dogs. The owners said a word associated with an object placed in front of the dog. In some cases, the words correctly corresponded with the object; in others, they did not. For example, an owner might have said, “Look at the ball,” but the object was a rope or frisbee.

Falkor dog and his favorite ball in grass.
Falkor with a tennis ball, another longtime favorite toy.
Photo by Taylor DeGroot, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

The EEG measured the patterns of brain activity during this process. It showed that the activity patterns changed when the objects and words correctly matched compared to when they didn’t. The activity indicates that dogs can develop recognition of certain words and associate them with a specific object, referred to as a referential ability. While it is not on the same level of understanding as humans, it sheds some light on object-word understanding in a species other than humans. In fact, the authors of this study, published in Current Biology in March 2024, refer to it as the first neural evidence of a non-human species and object word understanding.

On average, domestic pups can understand about 89 words, according to researchers from Dalhousie University, Canada. Some more intelligent breeds can learn around 200 terms (which is relatively rare), but on the other hand, some pups only ever recognize 15 to 20 words. Along with Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Bichon Frise, Poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, and German Shepherds are more responsive to word recollection. Beagles, Hounds, Boxers, Cane Corsos, Borzoi, and Whippets are among those breeds less likely to learn a large amount of words.

What Does This Mean For Your Dogs?

The research shows that canines, like humans, develop strong attachments and connections to certain objects. They can also learn to associate certain words with objects. However, our pups don’t have the same deeper level of cognitive understanding as humans. But, they do have the ability to develop a referential understanding of object words.

This growing area of research shows that dogs can differentiate toys and use their features, scents, and other characteristics to identify them.

So, if you think your dog has a special attachment to one specific toy, they likely do, especially if they bring it to you upon request. They prefer this specific toy for a variety of reasons: smell, taste, texture, or even the way it sounds. This all depends on your pup and what they like.

Do you think your pup has a favorite toy that means a little more to them than the others? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments.

Looking For Durable, Interactive Dog Toys?

Now that we know our pups truly love their toys, it is more important than ever to provide them with high-quality, durable stuff. The good news is there are plenty of interactive options to choose from. We review some top picks for aggressive chewers, including the time-tested KONG. We also took an in-depth look at some of the best interactive dog toys, games, and puzzles. And if you’ve ever wondered why your pup loves squeaky toys, we cover that, too.

Our Favorite Based On Personal Experience

This Jolly Pet Teaser Ball within a ball has been the perfect combo of difficult-to-destroy and a ball. Our Barley just loves balls of all kinds, so trying this out was a no-brainer, but his passion for it has surprised all of us, and so has its durability. We would definitely recommend this product and the video below shows you exactly how much Barley adores it.

– Michelle Schenker, Co-Founder and Dog Parent

Can My Dog See In Color?

Along with having a preference for certain toys over others, did you know that some colors stand out better to canines than others? Contrary to a widespread myth, dogs are not color blind, but they can’t see colors the same way we do. Learn more about that in our guide on dogs and color blindness.

Why Trust Canine Journal?

Danielle has shared a special bond with animals since childhood. She has over 30 years of experience with canine breeds of all sizes, from toy to giant. A few of those sweet pups have special needs, including epilepsy and dementia. Danielle is also a dedicated professional researcher and pet product reviewer. She spends countless hours researching the latest pet care, health, food, and training developments to help owners learn what’s behind the label. Danielle works with a professional and experienced team to bring our readers the best, most accurate, and up-to-date information to better the lives of pets and people.

The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

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