My first piece of advice for puppy parents is: get some tennis balls. They will do you proud in many situations and they are safe and inexpensive. Now, let's move on.
The best toys and games are often the homemade ones, and if you don't believe me when your puppy is only so many months old, you might agree more when all the store-bought toys begin to look and feel the same. Even when my first puppy (Chummy, at left) still really enjoyed commercial toys, she always seemed to love the entertainments I made for her just as much. And the older she got -- the savvier and the more 'been there/done that' -- the truer this became.
What makes for a great dog toy or game? Sometimes they are decided on by your dog — which is why you find that a chair leg has fang decorations, and the book you left on the floor looks like it’s been through the wash-and-dry cycle three or four times. There is also the indoor game of ‘de-thread Daddy’s necktie’, and ‘squash the petunias’, once outside. Much better when YOU determine what will be the toy, and also what’s fit for a game.
All the same, why not just go and buy them?
My puppies liked funnels, silicone egg-poaching cups, mopheads and brushes of all kinds (free of residue, of course), smooth oven mitts and fluffy car mitts and even plain lengths of string. They liked and continue to like (the old puppy and the new puppy) things I have around the house, which I dressed up to be more interesting or else didn't need to dress up at all. The money was already spent. And it's not even that I'm cheap, as I believe in being generous to those I care about.
Pet shops are crowded with toys aimed at you, Mum or Dad. They’re aimed at you because the pink and orange and lemon yellow of the toy is not actually perceived by your dog’s own eye, and wouldn’t matter to your dog even if he or she could perceive it. (Humans and dogs have different proportions of cones and rods and other anatomical differences, which means that dogs have vastly better night vision than humans but see only a monotonous bland shade of yellow, tints of sky blue, with a tinge of violet at the far end. They don’t register the reds and pinks as anything than types of grey. Brown doesn't exist in their world and green registers, apparently, as whitish. This means that a blue ball will show up best on very green grass, but a yellow ball will show up well on dry, brownish grass.) Your dog doesn’t care if the rabbit looks cute: but you do. The dog doesn’t require nice proportions and a compatible colour scheme: but you, whether thinking about it or not, really do. (You simply can’t help it: you’re human!) So when you buy toys from a commercial outfit, a lot of what you’re buying is an appeal that the item must have for you even though it won’t make any difference to your dog. Any dog toy must win you over, before it has any chance of winning over your darling.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. You have to live with the toys, and you have to see them strewn over your floor or piled up in the toy box. (I had to get rid of a toy someone had bought for us, once, simply because the plastic smell was so unpleasant — and perhaps not safe for my dog, either.)
So that’s the first problem with store-bought toys: much of what you pay for is not even aimed at your dog, but at you.
There are toys designed for specific dog sizes and ages, and many of these do actually last more than five minutes. ‘Lasting’ is defined as a) being more interesting to your puppy than the bag it came in, or b) withstanding the first bout of play before you bin it, in tatters. If you can afford to fill a toy box with toys, you will probably think this is the least you can do for a puppy that lives for fun. However, the best toys are generally homemade or adapted from their original purposes. This is one of those truisms that happens to be true.
If you dangle an empty plastic jug on the end of a string, your puppy will probably be delighted. There is no need to worry that the toy won’t be accepted as ‘real’; it’s the one you paid $15/£12 for that the puppy will regard as suspect. For one thing, anything you put together from home materials (a long sock with a ball down in the toe, a pass-the-parcel package with a treat in the middle) will necessarily have the right scents on it. A toy from a shop smells like the little white dog in a tote bag that sneezed on it, as well as the six other puppy parents that handled the toy before moving on. Consequently, a store-bought toy may get a better welcome if it’s allowed to ‘freshen up’ for a while – in your laundry basket, for example.
Puppies (except perhaps very new ones) love to be chased. If you throw a weighted lunch bag or a hollow ball with a treat inside, and they run away from you with it, they will probably be content to let you follow them all over the house. This can be very useful when it’s raining or snowing or too hot to go out. The best approach with puppy games is to keep in mind their natural inclinations. Since dogs are made for sniffing, a game of Sniff-and-Seek is bound to be a winner (strategically place bits of treats around the room, in paper bags or as they are -- see below). Retriever dogs will naturally love to fetch, but don’t expect your non-retrieving puppy to think this is great: tearing up cardboard boxes may be more their thing. Some puppies will love a blow-up swimming pool in the garden, as long as the water is not too deep and of course you are there as lifeguard. Others will only want to leap around a sprinkler. Many short-nosed dogs are very good at tug-of-war, and for this any towel or old brassiere will do.
Let’s say that you’ve already got a sizeable pile of toys, with lots of variety, but the puppy has tried them all and seems to be bored with them. What do you do? Well, there’s no need to donate them to the newest puppy in your neighbourhood, only to go out and buy more toys, and repeat the cycle all over again. Just as you dress up the same old dinner, you’re better off finding ways to dress up the same old toys.
Many puppies are not much different from kittens in their tastes: everything is better with a string on it. Imagine a fairly dull toy that looks like a cloud or possibly a sheep (the toy is so featureless that it’s not easy to tell). Your puppy has mouthed it a bit but basically there’s not much one can do with it. Solution: tie on securely a length of string or a sash from a dress or bath robe. It could even be an old scarf or tie. What difference does a string make? Well, it helps to turn a mere toy into a game—in this case, the game of “chase me while I dangle a sheep.” Strings were certainly a life-saver with my puppy, until we turned more to paper bags as she grew up.
As a poem for my dog says:
Sing and blow trumpets
In praise of strings:
They make toys dangle,
They’re marvellous things!
the moment flings…
Everything’s better on a string.
In the end, as I've said, the best toys are homemade. Here are a few of my favourite toys and games (the distinction between the two is much blurrier in the dog world!). In all cases, do supervise your puppy and make sure you are a part of the game so you know what is happening at all times.
Oven Mitt Throw. Wrap a treat in a length of parchment paper and/or a paper bag and put inside an oven mitt. Also works with a potholder, which itself can be hidden in a larger bag. If you have a spare wineholder bag -- the cheap fabric ones provided by supermarkets -- you could fold the potholder and shove it in one of the compartments. The wine bag will become useless sooner or later but oven mitts and potholders usually wash nicely and are ready again for their usual roles!
Egg Carton Throw. Put a treat in a small cloth, paper bag, or strip of paper and wedge it length-wise into an empty cardboard egg carton. Wrap in a length of brown paper or place in a large paper shopping bag or a pillow case you don't care much about, and throw. The egg carton, being made of card, will eventually be torn apart, but keep using large pieces of it to shove into paper bags with more treat-bits and throw again. One egg carton will get you several fun throws.
Kitchen Roll Hidden Treat. Take a paper towel a.k.a. kitchen roll and shove a lunch bag or length of parchment paper holding a treat in the cardboard center. If it's a new roll with a glued-down edge, you can throw it as is. Alternatively, put the paper towel in a large paper or fabric shopping bag that you don't mind teeth marks in. Throw. When puppy gets hold of it, chase him, get the bag, throw again. When the bag's destroyed, throw the paper towel. Keep going until the place looks a mess. (I find that a lot of the torn-off paper is perfectly useable afterwards, but I just use it for cleaning mirrors etc. instead of using it around food in the kitchen).
Hummus Bowl Stringaling. Take an empty hummus container and throw away the lid. Clean or leave the bowl with the remnants of hummus still in it (hummus is chick peas with other flavours). Pierce sides and thread twine through to make a stringy thing. Toss for puppy to chase.
Multi-bag Balloon Throw. Get a number of paper lunch bags and fill each with torn-off bits of soft treat or mini-biscuits. Hold them together like balloons in your hand, shake the bags like maracas, and toss them in the air -- either strewing them around all at once or, even more fun, releasing them one by one for the dog to capture, which encourages more running about. Lunch bags of course are very light, so if you want them to travel farther, put a thick sock or two into each bag to weight it. Either way, it's good exercise!
Small Bottle Slider-Cruncher. Fill an empty half-liter plastic drinking bottle with a bit of water (about a fifth of the total volume). This gives the bottle weight and a delightful sound when you shake it, but the bottle is not over-heavy and besides, should it be accidentally punctured, you won't have a flood on your water! Remove the crinkly plastic advertising strip if you are concerned that your puppy might ingest it. Toss along the floor: it slides really fast and spins and crunches in your dog's mouth once caught, enjoyably. You can also remove the cap for extra safety, if you're not going to be watching the whole time, and toss the bottle empty.
Ice Cube or Tiny Treat Chase. On a hot day or when puppy is teething, take a small-cube tray onto the patio or deck and throw each one for puppy to chase. The ice is soothing to the teeth and gums. Older dogs will appreciate some meaty stick treat being pinched into small rounds, which can then be tossed inside or out. Try not to bowl them all under the sofa and fridge!
Multi-bag Parcel Throw. Put a small treat in a small paper bag, scrunch bag down to a small width, and poke it inside an oven mitt or open-weave ball. Put mitt or ball in other paper bag, then put that inside yet another bag. Keep going till you run out of bigger bags or the ball seems fun enough. Throw and chase your dog once she's got it. Throw again. It will be like 'pass the parcel', where the wrapping gets less and less till the treat is claimed. If you don't have paper bags, use a tea towel instead and put inside a box or cloth bag for throwing.
Potholder Dangler. Take a fabric potholder and tie a string on its loop so that you can dangle it, and if you like have additional string hanging down by the potholder that the puppy can grab as well. Run with it, tease with it, throw it.
Floppy Sock Propeller. Take a pair of long or chunky socks and tie them together into a 'floppy propeller' foursome. Throw.
Sniff And Seek, naked version. You remain fully dressed; it's the treat that's naked. Place very small titbits of food or dog treat at nose level in various places around a few rooms (assuming you have a normal sized house and don't live in Buckingham Palace). Make your puppy sit and stay while you distribute these, so she can't see where you're putting them. Say 'all right!' in a happy voice and she will go seeking them.
Sniff And Seek, cupped version. Cut or tear an egg carton into individual cups, or take paper coffee filters and deposit treat titbits in each one. Place treats inside and distribute around the floor or in other places than you might be willing to put a naked treat. This is a hygienic form of the game because the treats and your dog are protected from dirt and any possible home pollutants. I like the egg 'cups' particularly, since they can be re-used, even within the same game session.
Sniff And Seek, cloaked version. Use a whole lunch bag per treat, so it's completely hidden and the dog has to tear the bag open.
Sniff and Seek, sneaky version. This game involves really trying to hide the treat bags, rather than dotting them about the house more or less in the open. The emphasis is more on seeking-out and detective work on your dog's part. Great way to beat the boredom blues.
Sock Rattle. This can be done with either one sock or two: if using one sock only, try to make it a thick and fluffy one, like a bed sock. Otherwise, men's holed dress socks or women's long socks are ideal. Take a cardboard cylinder from the center of a paper towel roll (keep these cylinders when you use up the paper), and shove down one sock. Place a rawhide or rawhide substitute -- or a substantial treat -- inside the cylinder. This should make a nice rattle. If using two socks, tie the second sock to the end of the first one, which gives more of a tugging opportunity. If there is a hole in the first sock (not in the toe), that's super because then you can release the treat after some time playing, and either add a further treat or replace the rawhide in the sock for the next game.
Towel Tug-of-war. Self-explanatory. Use one you won't mind getting tooth holes in, but don't pull too hard: the point is to tug, not to extract teeth!
Pantyhose Swing. Take a commercial toy that you're both totally bored by, and shove it down one leg of a pair of tights or pantyhose (assuming that your individual stockings are too good for this game!). Push it down to the toe area, swing around the room and let the puppy try to grab it. When the toe area gets slobbery or torn, cut off that part of the hose, tie a knot to close the bottom, and start again. Fantastic fun. Always supervise closely.
Oven Mitt Monster. Put on an oven mitt and tempt your dog with sneaky, now-you-see-me/now-you-don't movements. Allow dog to land a bite on the glove now and then (not your hand, of course!).
Floppy Mophead. Basically, you remove the brush or mop from a pole, and make your own swishy and hygienic 'mop'. Take an old shirt or undershirt and lay it flat on a surface. Cut it across from underarm to underarm, so you're left with a double rectangle of fabric (front and back of shirt). Cut this into strips about 1 1/4 inches wide, or thicker if you like. Tie these strips onto the broom hook: in the picture it's an actual loop, so I was able to get eight double strips of fabric tied on. Tempt puppy to catch it, but be careful with the hard pole around puppy's head! For even more fun, shove the loop or hook end into a honeycomb ball (as pictured at left).