How to Train Your Dog to be Gentle with Toys

April 1, 2014

By Langley Cornwell

Our dog Frosty acts like every stuffed toy that comes into our home is on a dark mission from the underworld, and only she has the knowledge and the skills to protect us from its evil plan. Since we know how she acts towards plush dog toys, we don’t buy them anymore. But if a well-meaning friend brings her one as a gift, she gets a serious, determined look on her face and takes the stuffed toy to a quiet corner where she commences tearing it into tiny shreds.

It doesn’t matter if the toy has a squeaker or not, whether it’s big or small, whether it’s filled with pellets or foam; that thing is coming apart instantly. Imagine picking out a toy for a friend’s dog, as a holiday or birthday gift perhaps, and taking it over to their house. You proudly present the toy to their dog and it’s turned into a pile of rubble within seconds. How would you feel? Yeah, not good.

We wanted to teach her how to be gentle with toys. I’d like for both Frosty and our other dog Al to have a few stuffed items they could snuggle with if we’re not home. Furthermore, I don’t like the thought of her being so destructive. Even though she’s usually a gentle, sweet pup, I don’t like seeing that side of her. So we set out to train our dogs to be gentle with toys. Here is an outline of our basic game plan:

Reinforce Good Behavior

Sounds familiar, right? Since positive reinforcement works so well for our sensitive dog, we decided to stick with a good thing. Frosty doesn’t know that we don’t want her to tear up her toys. If you saw her in action, you would almost believe she thinks what she’s doing is in our best interest. In fact, it’s hard not to laugh at her earnest approach to total toy destruction. So to move her away from this behavior, we now mark when she is gentle.

For example, when we first hand her a plush toy, we do it with calm, slow movements. If she takes the toy with a gentle mouth, we say “good gentle.” If she licks the toy or softly nibbles it, we continue with the “good gentle” enforcement and some loving head rubs. Many times, if she continues on the calm, gentle track, we’ll supplement our “good gentle” words with head rubs and special dog treats like CANIDAE Grain Free PURE Heaven Biscuits with Salmon & Sweet Potato. The key is to help her understand that we approve of and support her decision to play with the toys in a gentle manner.

Communicate Displeasure with Bad Behavior

Of course there are times when no amount of “good gentle” reinforcement, head rubs or yummy treats gets the job done, and we have to let our dog know we are not pleased. When we first rescued Frosty she was very mouthy, so we worked hard on her bite inhibition. If her playful nipping and mouthing escalated, we would calmly say “ouch,” end play time and walk away. After a short time, we’d resume playing but if she went back to the nipping, we’d say “ouch” and walk away again. Our goal was to teach her that biting puts an end to play time and makes us go away, and it worked.

Since we already have that foundation, when she begins to play with her stuffed toy too aggressively, we say “ouch” and take the toy away.

Combine the Two

We still supervise Frosty when she is with her stuffed toys, but we’re making progress. When she takes the toy gently, we praise her with “good gentle,” and when she becomes domineering with her toy, we still say “ouch” but we don’t take the toy away immediately. She is slowly learning to correct her own behavior. Now, a calm “ouch” will stop her destruction, and she usually resorts to licking the toy as she looks towards us for approval. We then offer positive reinforcement with a “good gentle” and a treat. She is catching on quickly. We’re hopeful that soon, Frosty can be trusted to play with stuffed toys unsupervised.

What about your dogs? Are they gentle with toys or do they tear them up? Do you have any tips to share?

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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  1. Michelle says:

    Cody was extremely fierce with his toys for his first 18 months. He seems to have simply outgrown that phase, and now spends more time licking his toys then chewing them to shreds. Maybe he was just teething!