Top Toys for Dogs Home Alone during the Day

Many dog owners work during the day. For dogs, that represents “downtime” in both physical and mental activity.

The “downtime” can turn into destructive time for the dog. If you look at controlling the destructive behavior, as simply finding ways to challenge the dog’s intellect, the dog will benefit, and you will be amazed at the problems your dog can solve.

Before leaving each day, we put down an assortment of treat-dispensing toys, and started an ASPCA stress-relieving CD, on the cd player.

We started this treat before leaving home routine years ago by giving our Giant Schnauzer a brown paper lunch bag with a stalk of celery, a carrot, and an apple in it when we were ready to leave for work. She would bark when we left, and I needed to extinguish that behavior. So, just before we went out the door, we would call her and put the bag, closed, on the floor. When we came home, the bag was torn and strewn all over the floor but the food gone! Better the bag torn than my favorite book!

The few times I forgot the ‘lunch pail’, the edges of my paperback books would get a workout! A less than subtle reminder to me to not forget the lunch pail the next time! Our Standard Schnauzer, however, wasn’t interested in the ‘bag’ idea. We had to search a bit to find his intellectual toys. What works for any given dog will vary, so some experimentation on your part may be necessary if you want to try this routine. Sell your mistakes on ebay! I did.

Dog Toys which Worked for Us

Whenever I go to Petsmart or Petco, I always check over the new treat toys on the shelf. I select toys that can be filled with food. The food opening must be big enough to get a treat in, but small enough to present some difficulty in getting the food out. Spending about 15 minutes trying to get food out of a toy, seems like a reasonable challenge. I then have a guarantee of what my dog will be doing for 15 minutes! Over time, I developed a set of ‘criteria’ which I used to select the toys.

Buster Cube

The Buster Cube was challenging for one of our dogs. I would fill it with dry food and when the dog plays with it, food is released only when it is turned a certain way. Figuring out in which direction the Cube must be turned to release the food, is what the game is all about for the dog! There is a right and a wrong way to turn that toy, to get the food out. The food is what the game was about for the dog.

This Buster Cube is a hard plastic cube and for our Standard we bought the large size. This 4-1/2-inch square cube would keep him busy for upwards of 35 – 40 minutes, depending on the amount of food inside. At one point, I started putting his dinner in the cube occasionally, letting him work it out. If you are worried about “over treating” your dog, use it for his dinner.

Ultra Kong

Another favorite of our Standard Schnauzer’s was the Ultra Kong, a 6-inch high rubber toy that looked like a red snowman with a small hole in the bottom for loading dry food. That was a snap for him to figure out – almost no challenge. Ten minute’s work tops, if that when it was loaded with dry kibble. Buying the Kong spray paste can be expensive over time; I wound up improvising, and stuffing the toys with bananas, or some peanut butter, and freezing the Kong in a ziplock bag in the freezer.

Kong has a new toy out, that makes stuffing them even easier, if you use frozen bananas. The toys are long, cylindrical, and come in two sizes. Each end has an opening. You can peel and freeze about ten whole bananas in a ziplock bag, then, break off pieces of the bananas and stuff them into these cylindrical Kongs. Put them in ziplock bags in the freezer. Each morning take a treat toy out of the freezer and give to the pet, or place on the floor as you go out the door.

Keep in mind, when frozen, these foods do not readily fall out and dirty floors and carpets. Pieces of cooked beef liver (buy at the frozen counter in Walmart and cook at home), pushed into the banana, are a favorite in this house. Your objective is to get out the door without the pet howling, and control his attention for a period of time after you have left. Nothing succeeds like food for that task.

We eventually bought five Kongs, to stuff and freeze – one for each day of the week. When we came home at night, we put the used one in the dishwasher, top shelf, after rinsing under the tap.

Everlasting Treat Ball

Another favorite of our Giant Schnauzer is the Everlasting Treat ball, by Starmark. This is an excellent, tough toy which holds a lot of treats or frozen banana.

Other stuffing that can be put in a Kong, then frozen, is house brand peanut butter. Because peanut butter is sticky, remember to leave sufficient water for your pet. This is an item you can buy in bulk at Sam’s Club or Costco.

Kong Dispenser

Kong also made a Kong dispenser, which was a round tray with pie sections, holding a couple Kongs. You set a timer, and at periodic intervals throughout the day, the Kong dispenser would drop another treat filled toy on the floor. Our dog could hear the ‘ticking’ of the unit, and near time for an additional Kong to drop out of the unit, he would sidle up next to the unit, and watch it, grabbing the Kong as soon as it was dropped.

Talking Treat Ball

Moving away from the Kong line, we tried the Talking Treat Ball, which amounted to an intermediate challenge for our dog. The ball is a hard plastic affair that requires batteries. It recorded your voice. When the dog rolls the ball to get the treats out, your recorded voice “talks” to him.

Our dog enjoyed this, and it fit somewhere below the Cube in challenge but above the Kong in simplicity. This worked ok for our Miniature Schnauzer. I don’t think I would want to leave that for our Giant Schnauzer, however. He might likely crack the plastic, and eat the batteries and the food.

Remember, before you leave your dog alone with any of these treat-dispensing toys, you should test them on the pet, while you are there. See how they react. If it looks like he will destroy and eat the toy, then you shouldn’t leave him alone with the toy.

Talking Treat Ball with LED Lights

A later version of this Talking Treat Ball added LED lights. With lights added, it stimulates the dog’s hearing (via your talking), sight (blinking LED lights) and smell (food IN the ball).

The more of your dog’s senses you can engage, the more likely he will be controlled and entertained by the new toy. Again, this was a hard plastic ball, suitable only for use with our Miniature Schnauzer.

Remember: If you decide to try these toys, buy one or two and try them while you are at home first, to see how your dog reacts. Also, when you first start using these treat balls and cubes, make a mental note of how long it takes the dog to empty a given amount of food from the toy.

That gives you some idea of how long he will be entertained (and not barking or chewing on something elsewhere in the house). Some aggressive chewers may empty the food and demolish the toy! Don’t want that. So try before you leave the dog alone with the toy.

Twist N Treat

We also tried the Twist N Treat, which is a two-piece toy that screws together. It screws together allowing you to vary the size of the food-release hole which allows a lot of food out at one time, or very little. We found the frozen bananas work well in this one. The banana freezes like a rock, and must be licked from around the edges. You can push the banana around the stem, screw on the top piece, bag and freeze!

We put about a cup of kibble dog food, in the Kong Wobbler, and also put a piece of frozen liver, that would NOT quite fall out through the hole. The idea is, the dog gets most of the food, but the liver manages to stay in the Kong and keep the dog interested. The dog pushes it around, and it dispenses a kibble occasionally. Our dog pushes that toy all over the house. When he is getting on my nerves, wanting into the backyard to chase chipmunks, I load the Kong, put it on the floor, and enjoy peace while he plays.

Why Do These Toys Work?

All of the toys mentioned above hold food. The food is what attracts the dog to the toy. The fun begins when he has to “problem solve” to get the food out of the toy. That is why you want to select toys that present a challenge to get the food out. The desire to get the food helps the dog focus on the toy and he works on it until he empties it. Our dogs looked forward to our leaving each day, just to get the food.

How Long Does it Entertain the Dog?

The larger the treat ball (or Cube) you get, the more food it can hold, and the longer the dog is entertained. Kong recently put out a winner. It is the Kong Wobbler and it has a weighted bottom, which the dog must push around to get the food out. The top screws off from the base for easy filling. It takes quite a bit of time for the dog to unload this one, and he is active, pushing it all over the house as he tries to get the food. When he is done, he has usually tired himself out, and is ready for a nap.

Same Concept but Not Kong and Less Expensive!

By the way, I mention the Kong name, because that is the toy type I started with, but I found red rubber toys, along the same line, in Walmart, a little less expensive. Nylabone makes a toy very similar to Kong. And remember to check out Target’s pet aisle – I found quite a few soft toys that could be filled with snacks, and put on the top shelf of the dishwasher.

However, if you can afford one of the Kong timed-dispensers, you might give that a try. It would probably dispense the medium-sized toy you buy at Walmart, too.

Treat Toy Selection Criteria

If you decide to get your dog a few treat balls, consider the following criteria:

Filling

Can any food be used to fill the ball, or must you purchase special food to fit the ball?

Cleaning

How can it be cleaned? Do the directions state dishwasher safe, top-shelf, or is hand washing required?

Sensory Stimulation

How many of the dog’s senses does the toy trigger? Sense of smell (food), sight (lights) or sense of hearing (talking)? Sense of movement? (Does he physically have to move the toy around to get it to release food?)

Sizing

Does the ball’s size allow just a few pieces of food to be used, or can a cup or more of regular dog food be used?

Composition

Is it made of a durable, chew-resistant material, or is it hard plastic and likely to crack and splinter when you aren’t home, causing health problems? Is the material safe for the dog to be chewing on?

Activity level

How many muscles must the dog using to get food out of the toy? For example, laying down uses jaw muscles and possibly neck muscles; however, moving around the house, as with a Kong Wobbler, uses leg muscles, head muscles, and jaw muscles.

If you buy any of the above-mentioned treat toys for your dog, consider getting the largest size…there may be times you will want to give him his dinner in a treat ball for the mental stimulation it provides him. Most of these toys you can buy either in the store, or place an order over the internet.

Over time the soft rubber toys may get teeth holes in them from all the gnawing, and I tend to replace them when they are like this. Even though we put them on the top shelf of the dishwasher for sterilizing, I can’t always be sure the suds get the tiny teeth holes clean. So it pays to keep up with which store has the best price for the treat balls.

Treat Toys on the Go!

We take our dog with us even when we go out to dinner, provided the weather is not to hot or too cold for the dog to remain in the car. When we reach our destination, I put a frozen treat-toy on the covered backseat for the dog, and we go in and eat. We come out to a car smelling like a big banana. He’s happy; we’re happy. And he got to go along. The treat-filled toys help us even in the car, on short shopping trips. They do a great job of extinguishing his separation anxiety.

Make sure you provide variety.

Variety, the spice of life! When you think of treat toys to entertain your dog during the day, think variety. Toys in different shapes, and sizes, that require a different technique for getting the food out, provide variety, challenge and stimulation for your pet.

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