My Dog Doesn’t Like Toys – What Should I Do?

Written By: Gemma Johnstone | Last Updated:

Dog with toys around him

There are many reasons why a dog might not like toys. In this article, we’ll discuss the most common issues, along with tips for teaching your dog to love toys. 

Play is beneficial for dogs of any age, so it can be frustrating if your dog doesn’t interact with toys.

There’s no need to panic though. There are many potential reasons why a dog might not seem to like toys, including that you just haven’t found a toy they enjoy yet.

Alternatively, some dogs have never learned how to play or just need more confidence. Sadly, there’s also the possibility that pain or illness is preventing your dog from enjoying playtime.

Let’s take a closer look at the importance of play and why some dogs might not be interested in toys. I’ve also offered some tips for helping your dog to enjoy playing with his toys.

Why is Play Important for Dogs?

A dog with toys on the floor

Dog play is essential for your pet’s wellbeing. It provides an outlet for natural behaviours, strengthens your bond, and provides mental stimulation.

Some of the key benefits of play include:

  • Mental stimulation. Boredom is one of the most common causes of destructive chewing and other behavior issues. Regular play sessions keep your dog entertained and out of mischief.
  • Builds a bond of trust with the owner. Playing and having fun with your dog strengthens your relationship.
  • Can redirect and distract to prevent bad habits forming. Toys can be offered as a suitable and safe chewing alternative to things like hands, slippers and table legs.
  • Physical exercise. Playing with toys shouldn’t replace daily walks, but can help with agility, muscle strengthening and tiring your dog out.
  • Stress relief. Behaviors such as chewing and nosework can help to relieve stress. Studies have even shown nosework can make your dog feel more optimistic.
  • Dental health. Chew toys can help to remove bacteria and promote healthy teeth and gums. These toys shouldn’t replace tooth brushing though. 
  • Builds confidence. When introduced in the right way, playing with toys can help to develop your dog’s self-assurance and independence.
  • Positive reinforcement. Toys can also be used as a positive training reward. Some dogs are more motivated by toys than food, which is great for avoiding overfeeding.
  • All-round enrichment. Playing with toys is fun and can help to keep your dog happy!

Don’t despair if your dog won’t play with toys. It’s more common than you might think. There’s often a solution, and the goal is to show your dog that play is fun and rewarding. 

Forcing your dog to do something they don’t enjoy will just make the problem worse though. So try not to get frustrated or attempt to “force” your dog into play. It’s all about understanding your dog, learning what motivates them, and being patient.

Why Won’t Some Dogs Play With Toys?

There are several reasons why a dog might not be interested in toys. The approach to solving the problem varies depending on the underlying issue.

The Dog Doesn’t Know “How” to Play

If a dog never played during the crucial developmental puppy stage, they might not understand that toys can be rewarding. 

This is a common issue for rescue dogs with a bad past, or dogs from puppy farms. These dogs are often separated from littermates too early, which limits their opportunity to play with other puppies. They are also likely to have had minimal positive interactions with humans.

The result is that the dog has never learned to link toys with “fun.” If your dog doesn’t have this link, any toys you offer could just seem like strange, or even scary, objects.

In this case, it’s up to you to make the toy more motivating and valuable. You might need to pair it with food, or select toys that tap into your dog’s natural drives. A terrier, for example, may be motivated by a squeaky toy because of their high prey drive.

The Dog Doesn’t Find the Available Toys Interesting

Dogs rely on their sense of smell and taste much more than humans. If a toy doesn’t have an appealing scent or flavour, it might not be interesting enough to keep their attention. Texture and noise play a role too.

If your dog isn’t showing an interest in a toy, perhaps you just haven’t found one they like yet.

The Dog is Scared of Toys

If you have a nervous dog, or one who has been scolded when playing in the past, they could be scared to play with toys. You might notice them flinch away from toys, avoid going near them, or display signs of stress.

Again, this is a common issue for rescue dogs, or those who weren’t properly socialised as a puppy.

The solution is to teach your pet to feel more positively about toys. This is a slow process that requires patience, but is rewarding for both you and your pet. To increase the chance of success, choose simple toys that aren’t noisy or potentially unpredictable. Pairing the toy with yummy treats can help to show your dog that playing can be rewarding. 

It’s important not to force your dog to play with toys though. This could actually make their aversion to them worse. Remember to keep any attempted play sessions positive and fun, even if your dog isn’t responding. Dogs notice when you get stressed, and this can create negative associations with play.

Tip: Sometimes a new rescue dog just needs time. Once they’ve settled into their new environment and relax, they may start to initiate play.

The Dog is Stressed or Unwell

Dogs only play if they feel safe. If your dog feels stressed or insecure, he won’t engage with toys – even if he would normally be interested in them. The same is true for dogs who feel unwell or who are in pain.

There are many warning signs and body language signals that your dog is stressed or in pain. They might act differently to normal, avoid human contact, or change their eating habits. Stressed dogs may also have a hunched body posture, pant more than normal, and tuck their tail between their legs.

If you’re worried your dog may be in pain, you should always contact your vet to diagnose, treat and manage any underlying problem. 

Pain is also one of the reasons why older dogs don’t play as much. Joint pain and gum disease, for example, can make playing painful. Medication or other treatments from your vet can help alleviate discomfort and allow for more play.

The Dog is Bored of Their Toys

Dogs crave novelty when it comes to playing with toys. If the same toys are always laying around, they’ll quickly become boring, which is why rotating your dog’s toys is important.

The same is true when it comes to materials, textures, and scents. If all your dog’s toys are similar, they are likely to lose interest.

6 Tips for Teaching a Dog to Enjoy Playing With Toys

A dog with a chew rope

Ready to show your dog the joy of toys? Here are six tips for teaching dogs that toys are fun and rewarding to play with. 

1. Buy Dog Toys With a Variety of Shapes, Sizes, Textures and Materials

There are thousands of toys on the market. Don’t always stick to the same style, as this can become boring for your pet. 

It’s important to find toys that will engage all of your dog’s senses. The more variation you have, the better. Consider the taste, smell, touch, sound and visual elements that each toy has. Different textures, hardness, and sounds can also make a toy more interesting.

The size is also important. A potentially fun toy won’t be enjoyable if it’s too big for your dog to carry, for example. If it’s too small, the toy could become a choking hazard. 

For dogs that don’t show an interest in toys, start with a simple toy that can be stuffed with treats or kibble. The addition of food will usually encourage your dog to interact with the toy, even if they haven’t learnt how to play yet.

2. Avoid Overstimulating Nervous Dogs

Too much excitement can be overwhelming for nervous dogs or those who get easily aroused. Once they become anxious, a nervous dog will shut down and won’t want to engage in play.

Simple toys are best for nervous dogs, so avoid loud toys or those that move unpredictably. Complex and noisy puzzle toys, like the Kong Wobbler, are unlikely to be a good choice.

When introducing a toy to a nervous dog, keep your movements calm and slow. Don’t throw the toy towards them or wave it in their face, as this can be frightening. Instead, speak in a soft tone and allow your dog to approach the toy in their own time.

Similarly, if you have a boisterous dog, you don’t want to encourage over-excitable play. Allowing your dog to become over-aroused can raise their cortisol levels. This can make it difficult for them to relax after a play session. 

Instead, encourage calm play and avoid toys that could cause frustration. Try to use a gentle tone, keep play sessions short, and stop before your dog becomes over-aroused.

3. Try Toys That Match Your Dog’s Breed Traits

All dogs are individuals, but some breeds enjoy certain play styles more than others. This usually relates to the natural drives they were bred for. Some examples include:

  • Tug toys. Dogs that love to rag and shake, like Terriers, often enjoy a game of tug. Look for durable tug toys that are long enough to avoid your pet accidentally nipping your hand.
  • Squeaky toys. There are lots of reasons why dogs like squeaky toys. Terrier breeds or others with strong prey drives may enjoy trying to “kill” the toy. Other dogs simply find the squeaker noise self-soothing and reinforcing.
  • Treat dispensing toys. Most dogs like these types of toys, but they can be especially popular with food motivated breeds, like Labradors or Beagles
  • Puzzle toys. Intelligent breeds that need a lot of mental stimulation often love puzzle toys. Dogs like Border Collies, German Shepherds or even the little Papillon may relish the challenge.
  • Tough Chew Toys. Tough rubber toys are often a good choice for breeds with strong jaws or that are known for chewing. Bully breeds, Vizslas, Labradors and Jack Russells are a few examples of breeds known for their love of a good chew toy.
  • Chase and Fetch Toys. There are lots of dogs that love to chase. Those bred for their herding or retrieval skills can be particularly keen on balls or frisbees. Collies, Golden Retrievers and Poodles are a few examples. It’s always safer to use a ball that’s specifically designed for dogs, rather than a tennis ball. 

Regardless of your dog’s breed, it’s important to try lots of different toys. Offering a variety of toys keeps things interesting and provides varied challenges.

4. Make Your Dog’s Toys More Valuable

The more valuable a toy is to your dog, the more likely he is to continue playing with it. If you can combine toys with things your dog already enjoys, the toy quickly becomes more appealing.

Food is one of the best positive reinforcers for dogs. A boring toy becomes instantly more interesting when it’s smeared with dog-safe peanut butter or stuffed with treats! Kong toys are excellent for this, but there are plenty of alternatives that can be combined with food.

Novelty is another motivator for dogs. Studies have shown that dogs are neophiles and are more attracted to new things. This doesn’t mean you need to buy your dog new toys every week, but you should swap them around to keep things fresh and novel.

5. Teach Your Dog That Toys Are Exciting

Pairing toys with treats isn’t always enough to encourage them to play. Some dogs may just eat the treats and ignore the toy. Nervous dogs might be too scared to even eat the treat.

By building up positive associations slowly, you can help your dog learn that toys can be exciting. Here’s a simple outline of steps to follow:

  1. Hold a toy and treat in separate hands. 
  2. Wait for your dog to touch the toy, or even just move their nose closer to the hand with the toy.
  3. When they do move their nose towards the toy, or they touch it, make sure you offer the treat reward and gentle praise.
  4. Repeat this process until your dog is reliably touching the toy in anticipation of a treat.
  5. In the next session, you can repeat this process but with the toy now lying on the ground. 
  6. Over several short sessions, you can build up their contact with the toy. Once they’re relaxed and excited at the sight of the toy, you could then try moving it around. Drag it or roll it across the floor, make it squeak, or stuff it with food, to get your dog to interact with it more readily.

Always keep sessions short and fun. Never force your dog if they’re uncomfortable, and don’t try to progress too quickly.

6. Interact With Your Dog and Their Toys

It’s not uncommon for owners to give their dog a toy and expect them to play without any guidance. This might work for confident dogs who know how to play, but is unlikely to be successful for dogs who struggle with toys.

It can help to interact with your dog and show that the toy is fun. You might need to throw it around, use an excited tone of voice, or let them hear the squeak. Even a simple rope toy becomes a fun game when you shake it, as the rope becomes ‘prey’ for your dog to chase.

If your dog is nervous, remember to tone down how you engage with them and the toy. A loud voice or too much animation could be overwhelming.

How Long Does It Take?

When it comes to helping dogs learn to play with toys, patience is essential. A dog that has never played before is unlikely to love toys overnight. The time required depends on their age, history, health, levels of socialization, and temperament.

Don’t get frustrated or stressed if your dog isn’t engaging with toys. This will only create more negative associations and make the process take longer.

Summary

Playing provides many benefits for dogs, including mental stimulation, physical exercise, and a chance to practice natural behaviors. While there are different types of play, it can be hard to meet your dog’s enrichment needs if he doesn’t enjoy toys.

There are many reasons why a dog might not like toys. Sometimes the problem is simply that you haven’t found a type of toy he enjoys yet. In other cases, the dog might not have learned how to play, or could be in pain or unwell. The key is to work out why your dog isn’t playing, and then take steps to solve the issue.

Finally, if the methods in this article don’t help, or you’re worried about your dog’s reluctance to play, get a vet checkup and speak to a positive dog trainer. There may be more complex underlying issues that need to be addressed before your pet can start making progres.

I hope this article has helped you uncover why your dog doesn’t like toys. If you have any questions, please use the comments form below.

About the Author

Gemma is a freelance writer and official dog nut. With 15 years of experience in the pet industry, she is a passionate animal welfare advocate. She has worked for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ran her own specialist dog shop for ten years, has volunteered for her local rescue shelter, and is studying towards completing an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour. Gemma is currently travelling around Europe with her wonderful rescue dog, Annie.