Toys as Training Tools for Toy Dogs

Toys are a wonderful training tool to teach small dogs everything from basic commands to tricks that will impress your friends. 


“Often people are under the misapprehension that only big dogs need proper training but that’s certainly not the case,” says New Jersey-based behaviorist and trainer Kathy Santo. “Whether you have a Labrador or a Papillion, if you drop a glass on the kitchen floor, you need to have a command in place so that your dog doesn’t walk through the glass shards and hurts its paws. And while it’s fashionable to carry small dogs rather than let them walk on a leash, should it run out into the road, cars don’t discriminate in hazardous situations.”


Further, Santo points out that a small dog is more likely to accompany its owner to places on a daily basis and is often included in travel plans for weekends away and family vacations.


“A well trained dog is synonymous with a well-mannered dog that will be well received everywhere,” she confirms.


Fortunately toy manufacturers have sat up and taken notice of the increased popularity of smaller breeds and are now designing toys especially for pint-sized dogs.


Toys used as training motivators can be divided into three main categories.


Action Toys

Just think of Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Physics: For every action there is a reaction. Consequently this category focuses on balls, Frisbees, tires, rope toys and any fun-shaped rubber and other hard toys that can be thrown, fetched and retrieved.


Distraction toys

These toys come in all shapes and sizes and can be stuffed with anything from peanut butter to your dog’s favorite treats. Some of them talk, make barnyard sounds and you can even record a personal message. These “puzzle” toys  are ideal for when your dog is left home alone for a lengthy period and are also great for road trips and other travel arrangements. This category can also include squeaky toys that some dogs will spend endless hours chasing trying to subdue.


Comfort toys

This category focuses on soft fluffy toys that act as a security blanket in times of stress or as a sleep companion.


How to Find the Right Toy for Training


“Essentially toys from all three categories will work as training motivators,” says Jean Donaldson, founder of The San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers in San Francisco, Calif. and author of bestsellers such as The Culture Clash and Dogs Are from Neptune.


“However, you will have to audition the toys in order to find out what will work best for your dog. Your dog’s breed will offer some insight. Terriers love tug toys. Breeds such as Pomeranians and Poodles love to fetch toys. Stuffed animals appeal to a lot of dogs especially if they simulate some kind of prey like a squirrel. I’ve even trained toy dogs using cat toys such a catnip-filled mice.”


Fortunately pet toy manufacturers are going to great lengths to detail guidelines on their packaging highlighting whether the toy is suitable for interactive games, chewing or is recommended as a soothing toy.


It’s important to remember that if a toy is going to be used as a training tool, then it must be light enough for your dog to comfortably pick up and carry around. Also look for different textures, shapes and sounds.


“Take your dog shopping with you,” suggests Donaldson. “Fortunately toys are inexpensive so you can buy several to try out to ascertain which one will work best as a training tool.


“And don’t give up too quickly. Patience is the keyword. Some people throw a toy and the dog may take a few bounds at it and then leave it. But that’s a good start. That little bit of chasing can eventually be translated into teaching the dog how to retrieve.”


If you are auditioning toys and nothing seems to pique your dog’s interest, it’s a good idea to allow another dog play with it first and then try again. Sometimes another dog’s smell on the toy will do the trick!


It’s all about timing

“If you are going to use a toy as a training tool, it’s important to time your training sessions correctly,” says Santo. “The best time to train is when your dog is hungry, lonely or bored. If he’s had dinner and you’ve been playing with him, you’ve met all his needs for the moment and more than likely he’s put his nose up at even the most tempting toy.”


When you first begin training with toys, it’s essential for the dog to consider the time you are spending together as pure fun and games. Training is all about giving your dog stimulating  problems to solve and because there are toys involved, he’s doesn’t have to realize that this is an official training session.


Start by sitting on the floor and interacting with your dog,” suggests Donaldson. “Take the toy and make it disappear and re-appear. Try to bring out your dog’s the nurturing and predatory instincts by making the toy seem ‘alive’ and allowing him to pounce and bite it.


“A lot of people worry that this type of behavior may make your dog appear to be out of control. But that’s exactly what you want to achieve. If you can get your dog to bite, pounce and chase, you’re on your way to teaching your dog basic behaviors and tricks with a toy tool.


“If this doesn’t work, you may want to try and clicker train your dog to target toys first.”



The Important Behaviors

All trainers have their own individual positive re-enforcement training techniques and consequently teach the basic behaviors in the order they consider them to be important as well as in terms of the easiness of the task.


Recall — teaching your dog  to come when called


This is an essential command for use at home, in the dog park and in fact anywhere you’re traveling.


Training Tip:

Show the toy and ask your dog to come to you. From the dog’s point of view, the moment he sees the toy, he knows it’s worth his while to react. The moment he listens and comes to your side, reward him by giving him the toy and playing his favorite game with it.


If you do it consistently, you dog will come when called with very little effort on your part.


Eventually hide the toy on your person and teach the dog to come on “faith” and then produce it “magically.” This is important says Donaldson because when you are out of your home environment and need your dog to urgently come to your side, you may not have a toy handy.


Impulse controls — good things come to those who wait …


It’s important to curb your dog’s impulse to rush at something without checking with you first. Typical situations include rushing at the front door when the doorbell rings, picking up something off the ground and eating something he shouldn’t.

Good impulse control commands are words such as “stay”, “leave it” and “wait!”


Training tip:

“Toys that make noises emulating other animals are excellent to teach this impulse control behaviors,” says Donaldson. “If you can teach your dog to refrain from being impulsive around this type of noisy toy, the chances of him not rushing after another dog on the street or after a car are much stronger because he has been taught to resist these noisy temptations at home. Teaching impulse controls ensure that you will have a very well mannered dog.”



Retrieving games are a fun way to stimulate and interact with your dog. Not all dogs retrieve naturally but soon get the idea of the game especially if a favorite toy is involved.


Training tip:

Choose a toy that your dog can easily carry in its mouth and is very attracted to. Tiny tennis balls and Frisbees are firm favorites with many little dogs. However, it’s also important to remember some very small dogs enjoy dragging something that is much larger than they are. So take your toy cue from your dog.


Retrieving games should be the foundation of any play time and by working it into your daily routine with your dog you are re-enforcing behaviors without him realizing that there’s much more to the game!


“Training your toy dog is all about keeping him save and happy. They have to react immediately if you are going to be able to save him from a dangerous situation,” says Santo. “That’s why during initial training it’s very important to correct him immediately if he refuses to something. I always tell my students, ‘if you don’t correct him, the car that hits him will.’”


Like Donaldson, Santo also stresses that once your dog is able to react well to verbal commands, its time to put the toys away.


“Using toys as training tools in a long-term situation means that you are bribing the dog to perform what you ask it to do.”


Whatever behaviors you are teaching your dog, be sure to teach them in different places around your home and garden. This way the behaviors are never associated with one particular place and your dog will listen to your commands anywhere.


Traveling with toys

It’s a good idea to also teach your dog to go happily to its crate or carrier with a favorite toy. This is one way of ensuring that plane or road trips will be less stressful for your little companion.


“Go for a distraction toy that can be stuffed with food. This is a great way to feed or dog and keep him busy on a long flight,” suggests Santo. “A small comfort toy is also a good idea.”


In unfamiliar hotels rooms and other situations away from home, the same toys introduce a sense of familiarity and ensure that your dog doesn’t bark or engage in any destructive behaviors.


Getting all dressed up

Trainers like Santo insist that students buy T-shirt or item of clothing for their dog and dress their dog is part of a training session.


“It’s important that your dog allows you to physically handle him without him squirming and being obstructive. This is essential in emergency situations and also to administer medications without fuss.”


Training Tip:

Use a toy to lure your dog to put his head through the garment and then ease his paws through the sleeves. Once he’s dressed, let him learn to tolerate your fingers in his mouth.  It’s essential to build a bond of trust so that you can check his teeth regularly and also introduce a teeth cleaning regime.


Exercise training tricks


According to Marianne Straub, CEO of Petstages, a company in Northbrook, Illinois that specializes in designing toys for small dogs, training your dog with specific interactive toys is an excellent way of incorporating a fitness routine in to your dog’s day too.


“Many small dogs can’t go the distance on a really along walk or run. Certain toys are designed to work certain parts of the body. For instance, tugging actions involved in tug of war games are excellent for strengthening muscles in the neck and chest area and burn calories at the same time.”


Donaldson takes it a step further and points out that training your dog to do certain tricks using toys is also a defense against certain medical conditions that plague small breeds such as luxating patellas and lower back problems.


Training Tip:

“Use a toy to lure your dog to sit up on its high legs and sit like a bear,” says Donaldson “Holding that position is a great exercise for the lower back muscles. And it looks really cute! Generally speaking, developing athleticism in small dogs using training techniques that involve games of catch and tug-of-war can be an insurance policy against orthopedic problems.”


Managing the toy box


Santo suggests that when you first begin training with toys, its best to keep the ones you’ve selected out of the toy box and only bring them out for training sessions.


Generally it’s a good idea to rotate the toys in the toy box to ensure you dog always considers them novel and fun.


Training your dog using his favorite toys provides your pal with wonderful great mental and physical stimulation. But always remember no matter how much he loves his toys by training, him you are also strengthening that wonderful emotional bond that will ensure that as his playmate, you will always be his favorite “toy”.


Side Bar

*Clicker training with toys

Clicker training is a method of positive re-enforcement that employs the use of a hand-held device that you use to “click” to denote when a dog performs a behavior correctly. It works together with a target which the trainer uses to point at the dog to define the command that the dog has to perform. Toys make excellent targets consequently using them will help your dog work out what behavior he is supposed to do. He will know he’s done it right because immediately after targeting with the toy and clicking the clicker, you reward with a treat. Toys help dogs make the association quickly.Dogs can learn the association in one session with as few as five to 10 repetitions.


Side Bar

According to the 2007-2008 Pet Owners Survey published by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 65 per cent of dog owners buy toys for their pals and spend about $41.00 a year on their purchases.

The Most Popular Toys

Rope toys – 53%

Plush toys – 52%

Hard/solid rubber – 36%

Nylon Bones – 25%

Sheepskin toys – 17%

Balls – 16%

Other Toys – 14%


Copy Breaks ….


When teaching your dog to sit, some small dogs are intimidated when you bend down to their level. Instead pick your dog up and put him on a raised flat surface such as a washing machine or table. Teaching him to sit on command is much easier to accomplish when he’s at eye level.



Read toy packaging carefully to learn about the special actions and benefits individual toys have to offer.  For example ‘Good Tug Rules’ on a tug toy will guide owners how to get the best interactive and fitness benefits out of the toy.


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