#65: How to Avoid Common Enrichment Toy Mistakes

[00:00:00] Emily: Just because we know that a flirt pole, and a ball, and a rope toy, and forging toys are toys doesn’t mean that a dog’s going to look at that and immediately know what it’s for. A lot of times, we have to teach them, Hey, this thing that you’re doing over here, that I keep getting frustrated with you because you do it, you can do it, you just have to do it over here with this thing. Let me show you how. Let me show you how this works, So those needs to do those behaviors are valid if you’re a dog and you dig, hey, valid, like digging is something that dogs do. But let me show you a toy that can allow you to do that behavior in a satisfying way for you that doesn’t wreck my yard.

If you want to, chase and catch the cat I don’t want you to do that. I love my cat. Please don’t, but let me show you how you can chase and catch this toy and get the same or similar satisfaction from that. 

[00:00:50] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:01:08] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:09] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts. 

Last week, we heard from David Roberts, and one of the topics we discussed was getting the most out of your dog’s enrichment toys. This week, we’re going to dive further into avoiding common enrichment toy mistakes and talk about implementation with the animals in your life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about the most annoying yet accurate answer to almost every question ever, why we need to teach how to use toys, and humans being humans and getting in the way. So, we get a lot of questions about toys from folks. Like a lot of questions. 

[00:02:06] Emily: And I feel like a lot of the same questions, like there are definitely FAQs on this topic.

[00:02:12] Allie: Oh, for sure. And I’d say the most frequently asked question we get is, what kind of toys should I get for my pet? And we have the super annoying answer of, “Iunno” 

[00:02:22] Emily: it depends. The most annoying, and also the most accurate answer to almost every question ever. So, let’s break this down into the things you should be thinking about when trying to answer that question for yourself and your pets. Because we can’t answer that question for you, but we can give you tools to answer that question for yourself and the animals in your care. 

[00:02:43] Allie: So, our first common enrichment toy mistake to avoid is not having a goal. Often the side effect of this that I see is that people get really frustrated that a toy isn’t doing what they wanted it to do, but they didn’t establish what their goal was in the first place, and that might be why the toy isn’t doing what they wanted it to do, because they didn’t know what they wanted it to do.

Like everything that we talk about pretty much all the time, we need to know what our goal is with this toy. What do we want our pet to get out of this? And it might be something that we want our pet to be able to perform a species typical behavior in a more appropriate way. Instead of chasing the cat, let’s chase the toy at the end of a flirt pole, or instead of chewing on the furniture, let’s chew on this water buffalo horn.

It might be something that we want the toy to do for the pet, or we might just want it to be something that the toy does for us. So, for example, when we’re eating dinner, because we typically eat dinner on the couch, and Oso is annoying, we usually feed him his food out of a food puzzle at the same time that we eat dinner so that he’s not bugging us.

Yes, it does provide a little bit of mental stimulation for him. It’s helpful in that he’s not gobbling down his food, and so we could make the argument that it’s perhaps a little bit safer for my big barrel-chested dog to be eating slower, but ultimately what I get out of that toy in that moment is a few minutes of peace to eat my meal without my dog being annoying, or having to train my dog during mealtime.

And that’s totally okay. So, your goal might be for your dog, or cat, or whomever you have in your household, and it might be for you. We just have to know what is the goal and who’s it for? 

[00:04:40] Emily: Yeah, I love that. And I think one of the things to emphasize here is that if they’re doing something that’s annoying, it’s probably a species typical behavior.

Not always, sometimes it’s not, right. But usually when it’s annoying to us, it’s probably a species typical behavior. So, replacing that with just any toy, is less likely to solve the problem than, actually understanding what’s fueling that behavior, what’s at play, and what kind of toy can create a good analog alternative that they’ll, they can focus on instead.

I think that’s an important thing to consider. And, at the same time, I’m about to say something that sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but hear me out, we also need to remember that just because it may be rooted in a species typical behavior doesn’t mean that they know how to play with a toy that is meant to fulfill that species typical behavior.

And the reason that I say this is because our next thing to think about is, do they really dislike the toy, or do they just not know how to use it? Because that’s another thing that we hear a lot is, “I’ve tried foraging with my dog. I’ve tried so many different ways and my dog just doesn’t like foraging.”

Or “I’ve tried playing fetch with my dog and my dog just really couldn’t care less about balls.” We hear this over and over again. And my answer to that is, yes, and we don’t know that they don’t like it, it may be happening for a different reason than what you think it is. A lot of times, people think that an animal isn’t playing with something that they’re offering because they’re not interested, or they don’t like it, and they may have even tried to offer it in multiple different ways, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal doesn’t like it.

It may mean that the animal has no idea how to play with it. Because just because we know that a flirt pole, and a ball, and a rope toy, and forging toys are toys doesn’t mean that a dog’s going to look at that and immediately know what it’s for. A lot of times, we have to teach them, hey, this thing that you’re doing over here, that I keep getting frustrated with you because you do it, you can do it, you just have to do it over here with this thing. Let me show you how. Let me show you how this works, right? So those needs to do those behaviors are, are valid if you’re a dog and you dig, hey, valid, like digging is something that dogs do. But let me show you a toy that can allow you to do that behavior in a satisfying way for you that doesn’t wreck my yard.

If you want to, chase and catch the cat I don’t want you to do that, I love my cat, please don’t. But let me show you how you can chase and catch this toy, and get the same, or similar satisfaction from that. So, just because they have the behavior does not mean that they know they can connect the dots and know how to map that behavior onto a toy.

So, we have to teach these skills as if they’re brand new skills. And often that means starting at the right difficulty level. 

[00:07:49] Allie: Yeah, I think that’s a really common mistake of plopping down a toy and a pet is like, “What do I do with this?” And then we’re like, “Oh, that’s it. Nope. They don’t like it.” And the pet’s like, “No, but for real, what do I do with this?”

And so, making sure that we’re, not only teaching, but like you said, making sure that it’s at the appropriate difficulty level for that pet. I love those Nina Ottosson toys were like for real, some of those toys. I have a hard time figuring it out, and I’m expecting my dog because usually I’m using those with dogs, though, some of them are really fun with cats, and I actually think some of them work better with cats than they do with dogs. But that’s beside the point. If me, with my opposable thumbs, can’t figure out how to use this toy, maybe Oso’s gonna have a hard time also figuring out how to use this toy without being taught.

And so, one of the mistakes that I see, along with not teaching, is getting like a collegiate level toy for a kiddo who’s still in kindergarten who has never eaten outside of a bowl before, and then we plop down a really complicated Nina Ottosson food puzzle, and they’re like, “I don’t, I can’t. No, this is not it.” 

I think making sure that we know the learning history of the animal, and how much skill they have with those particular behaviors, with being taught those particular behaviors, with interacting with similar items, so that we can get something that’s at a similar skill level to where they are.

And then when they gain more skills, we can move our way up. Eventually, we could do those collegiate level food puzzles if you want to. And on the flip side is remembering that once they figure it out for some puzzles, I should say. And I’m, I feel like I’m picking on food puzzles, but I see it most frequently with food puzzles. So, I like just to be clear, I love food puzzles, Oso eats his meals out of puzzles. I’m not hating on them. I just see this most frequently with that particular kind of toy. Once they figure it out, it’s no longer hard per se. 

So, the puzzles that I feed Oso out of are ones where the difficulty level doesn’t really change, he always has to roll the ball in order for the food to fall out of it. And so, the difficulty level is the same. And also, I recognize it’s really not mentally taxing for him to do that, and that’s not necessarily why I do that for him. I hide his food puzzle in the morning and that part is much more mentally taxing for him of having to find his food puzzle than it is of probably having to use it because he’s been using it every day for, I don’t know, seven years. How long have I had him? It’s not hard. He knows how. 

However, there are those fun toys that have the flip up the thing and move the thing and all of that, and once he figured out how to use those, I saw how easy those became. Because it was really. He has one where it flips up the tab and then it’s like little holes,

I’m pointing as if you can see me doing this, but flip up the tabs and then there’s like little holes and he learned to just flip up one tab and then walk around the toy eating all the food out of the hole. 

[00:11:14] Emily: Delightful. And very on brand for Oso. 

[00:11:16] Allie: And so, it’s cool, that’s now a very easy toy for you. So, keeping in mind that those things are fun, I enjoy teaching him those kinds of toys. He enjoys learning those kinds of toys. And also, when he needs a lot of extra mental stimulation, those are not the toys that I reach for. 

[00:11:35] Emily: And I think another thing to really pay attention to is that there are multiple ways to teach play and teach how to play with toys with animals.

And you really have to get into a trial and eval mindset to figure out what approach is going to be best for the learner in front of you. For example, when I’m introducing a new animal new to me, to a new to them toy, the, one of the first things I’ll try is demonstration. So, if I play with it in front of them sometimes that’s all it takes. They see me do the thing and they’re like give me some of that, I want in on that action. And so sometimes that’s enough. Other times I have to then play with the animal. Okay, here, I’m going to I’m going to roll the toy towards you so that you can see that when it rolls, food falls out, or so that you can see that when I swing the flirt pole, the toy actually moves in an arc, right?

It’s like a, a collaborative partnership where we’re doing it together, and they gain skill just by playing with me. And then sometimes we have to be a little more structured in our approach, and really split approximations and break it down to its teeny, tiniest pieces. 

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about Lazarus on this podcast. I probably have because he was one of my all time favorite project dogs. But he’s a really good example of having to split down into teeny tiny approximations because the caregivers were really struggling to get him to use foraging toys.

And when I watched him interact, and I was demonstrating, and trying to play with him, he had this weird rule in his head that if food didn’t come out of a bowl, it didn’t exist. It was just so strong in him that if it didn’t come directly from your hand, or from in a bowl, it just didn’t exist to him. So, the way to start for him was making a quote unquote bowl out of a cardboard box where it was like I cut down the edges, so it was like bowl depth, and then gradually cutting down the edges more until he was just eating kibble off of a flat piece of cardboard, and then, oops, some of the food would fall off the cardboard, and then we just got rid of the cardboard altogether, and we’re just eating off the floor. And then, the food started showing up on other textures, and in other things, and I had to literally split it down into those micro slices because he had some very strongly developed rules in his head about the context in which it was okay to eat food. And so, we had to break that behavior down into all these little tiny pieces.

And eventually he got to where he was playing out of forging toys just like any other dog. Pretty complex forging toys, but we wouldn’t have gotten there if we hadn’t really broken it down into those teeny tiny approximations. 

And then sometimes we have to just straight up like clicker train, click treat, use food to teach dogs how to play with toys that aren’t food toys, right?

I can remember a few dogs at where you and I used to work together, that we had to clicker train to put a tug, a rope toy in their mouth, and shape pulling harder on that toy because they had no concept of putting their mouth on this rope toy. They had never had any experiences, anything like that.

And so, we have dogs who are, have been so limited in their experiences in life that we had to literally just clicker train them how to put an object in their mouth. So, sometimes it’s even that extreme of like teaching. But when we teach these play behaviors, however, we need to teach them, animals can still learn how to connect those dots between what their body wants to do and the resources that we’re offering to them.

[00:15:24] Allie: I think they’re much better than us at that. Or at least they’re better than me at that. 

[00:15:29] Emily: If we have to be taught, think about how often we have to be like explicitly taught how to use a thing, and we’re like, oh, yeah, okay, I’m not going to lie. It took me a hot minute to figure out how to use the stair stepper at the gym, when I was in college, I know how to climb stairs, but I had to be taught how to use the stair stepper because it was not as intuitive as I thought it was. So, I’m just saying, we can’t have higher expectations for non-humans than we have for humans. 

[00:16:00] Allie: Yes. The last mistake that we see, which is going to sound completely counterintuitive to what we were just talking about is getting really locked into one type of play, or one type of toy, or the human being an adorable little human who has adorable little human rules for a non-human and a non-human is like, “What is up with you, human?” The example that I have of this is I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to somebody about what toys their dog enjoys, and I ask about stuffed toys and the pet parent is like, “Oh no, we can’t give them stuffed toys because they just destroy them.”

I’m like, “Yes! That’s how, you’re, you’re, it sounds like your dog really enjoys stuffed toys!” And it’s just us, the humans who have a really hard time that stuffies for humans are something that we love, and we snuggle, and we cuddle, and, yes, it is very cute when dogs do that. I did have a dog that did that, and I still have his favorite toy just hanging out in my basement, even though he has not been with us for several years, it brings me so much joy of how much he loved this hippo.

I now have a dog who is the destroyer of all things. That’s how he enjoys playing with those toys. So, they both equally enjoyed stuffed toys. They just enjoy them in very different ways. And one dog enjoyed them in a way that, me as a human would also enjoy them, and one dog enjoyed them in a way that a dog would enjoy them, and I have to let go of my human ways and be okay with that.

[00:17:40] Emily: Yeah, I am I’ve been on both sides of this fence because I’ve been the person who was incredibly distressed that the animal I was interacting with wasn’t playing according to the rules in my head, and I had to like, go through a whole emotional journey to let that go. And I’m also the person who’s frequently advising clients, and students, to let it go and, let the animal play the way they want to play.

All of our talking points today seem to contradict each other, but the way that this fits together is, yes, if an animal doesn’t know how to play with a toy, or doesn’t even recognize it as a toy, we have to teach them, “Hey, this is a toy. This is how you can use it.” And then we have to give them the space to improvise and show us how they want to engage with it.

I had a little Vizsla client in Austin. This dog was one of my favorite dogs that I worked with; her clients were some of my favorite humans. I loved this dog so much. And Vizslas are bird dogs, and so I just expected that she would want to play fetch with a ball. And when I first brought a ball to her house when she was a puppy, older puppy.

And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to give you this present.” 

She was like, “I don’t know what that is.” 

And I was like, “Oh, you don’t know what a ball is? You don’t know what a ball is? Okay, what? Okay, I need a minute because a bird dog who doesn’t know what a ball is blowing my mind right now.” 

So, I played with it. I showed her I started, offering it to her, and I started throwing it, and then I clicker trained her to go get the ball, bring it back. That was all fine and good. She learned how to do it. She did it because clicker training, because treats, and she was into it. But then once she realized that a ball was a toy. She had a totally different idea of how she wanted to play with it.

She would do, she’d start doing this digging thing, where she would dig at the ball, and if she’d dig it hard enough, she could get it bouncing, and then she could get it bouncing really high, and she just really enjoyed bouncing this ball by rapidly digging at it. And it would roll towards me, and I would get it, and I would throw it. And she would look at me like I killed her mom. ” Why did you do that? We were having so much fun bouncing the ball, and now I have to go get it from across the yard.” Like, she was visibly upset with me for doing this. I had to go through this whole journey of letting her bounce the ball instead of playing fetch because I was like, no this does not compute. You’re a Vizsla, you fetch. 

And she’s like, no, I bounce. I don’t know what you’re talking about. And it was like a whole conversation that she and I had to have for me to let go of my human need to control the rules of the game and let her tell me that the way she liked to play with games was this like rapid digging at the ball to get it bouncing. And she would jump and catch it midair, but then she’d immediately go back to bouncing it again. That’s how she liked to play with the ball after I taught her how to play with it the way I wanted her to play with it. And that was really like one of my most memorable sort of first experiences with learning how to relinquish control over how the animal chooses to play the game.

[00:20:49] Allie: It’s hard to be a human sometimes. 

[00:20:51] Emily: It really is. It really is. 

[00:20:53] Allie: We joke about dogs and other pets having these rules that we don’t understand in their heads, but let’s be real. We are the animals that usually have the rules in our heads. 

[00:21:06] Emily: Yes. Yes.

[00:21:07] Allie: Yeah, so in addition to just like letting the pet tell us how they like to play with a particular toy, also giving them an opportunity to explore different textures, and sizes of toys and different, different play styles as you were talking about, Emily. So, there are a lot of different things that can go into a toy.

And I’ve met some kiddos who are like, I like this kind of ball from this company, and nothing else will even compare to it. And it’s like, sure. Okay. We’ll get that ball. That’s fine. You do you. So, just giving them the opportunity to let them tell us what they like and exploring several different types of options.

[00:21:51] Emily: Yeah. I had a red bellied parrot who reminded me that I’m not an expert. She was in my life to teach me humility, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to get her to forage, and play with toys, and it took me an embarrassing amount of time to do a preference test well enough to figure out that her jam is really thin plastic.

She really loves that texture, and she just demolished all these little thin plastic toys. And then I could use those toys as a means of introducing her to other textures and toy types. But those thin plastic toys remained her favorite. They are still her favorite to this day. She’s still a thin plastic toy kind of girl. 

Yeah, sometimes you really have to do some trial and eval to figure out what their preferences are, but watching Copper and Brie play is hilarious because Copper is my precision man. He like, he’s like a surgeon. He wants to go in and be very precise and how he like flips open the boxes and turns things and rolls things a certain degree. And he’s, he’s a puzzle solver, and Brie’s a wrecking ball. And she’s, look, the fastest way to get the thing done, I’m going to destroy it. And what’s hilarious is she, it’s not about destruction to get to the food. It’s about destruction to complete the thing. Because with food puzzles, she throws them around violently to get all the little pieces out and the food out, and then she picks up all the pieces and puts them in a neat little pile and lets Copper eat the food. So, copper just sits there and waits. And lets her like bulldoze her way around, and get all the pieces out and the food goes flying everywhere and she like she piles up all of her little toy pieces, and he just goes around and vacuums up the food.

It’s delightful to watch their play styles be so completely different from each other. 

[00:23:44] Allie: Yeah. Oso is also the wrecking ball, the fastest way, but for him, the food is the goal. So, the fastest way to the food is to break the toy and he’s not wrong. 

[00:23:55] Emily: This is why we’re both big fans of toys made from trash, because if we had to rely on physical toys for all of our dog’s needs, we would be broke.

[00:24:07] Allie: Very true. So today we have talked about how to avoid common enrichment toy mistakes. Those mistakes include not having a goal for the toy that you are introducing, not teaching your pet how to use the toy if they don’t know how to use it already, being really locked into one type of toy, or play, or something like that, instead of doing a preference test and letting the pet tell us how they enjoy engaging in a particular type of toy. Next week, we will be talking with Lori Stevens about movement and exercise as behavioral therapy. Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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