When I was a little girl, dogs and cats were fed poor quality food, given minimal health care, and I remember our family Veterinarian actually telling my mother that “dogs don’t think.” We never questioned any of this. When I grew up and became a Health and Education Research Consultant the world had changed. Scientific research had proven that dogs and cats, just like human beings, thrive on a healthy diet. And it was accepted that dogs certainly do think. When Darcy came to live with us, I decided to try something different. We would keep all his puppy toys in a toy box. It wasn’t just so we could avoid clutter and tripping over toys scattered around the house. I had read some studies that claimed a toy box would help our puppy to focus on his own things, and he would be less likely to chew up items around our home that might be dangerous to him. Supposedly, a toy box could actually affect our new puppy’s brain development, and it would make him smarter. Really? We decided to give the toy box idea a try.
We bought a plastic storage box that was about 7 inches high. If it was taller, our puppy would have a difficult time accessing his toys. The length of the box we chose was 18 inches, and the width 15 inches. We never used the cover it came with because we wanted the toy box to be open at all times. We thought of purchasing a decorative woven basket that was much more attractive than a clear, plastic container, but we were afraid the puppy would chew on it, or get scratched by the roughness of it when he was foraging for his toys.
We wanted to keep the toy box in an area of the house where our puppy was spending the most time. We decided the family room was the best location, and we filled the toy box with all of Darcy’s toys, along with a few safe chew treats. (Unfortunately, many chew treats have the potential to be choking hazards for dogs, so they should only be given when the dog can be closely supervised.) We started naming all of Darcy’s toys--each time he picked up a toy we would tell him what it was called. Darcy quickly took control of that toy box and would go searching through it for a favorite toy or a favorite chew treat. As a puppy, he was so attached to the toy box that he would climb into it and take a nap on top of his toys. We laughed a lot when this occurred, but it became even funnier when he was too big to fit into the box, but still tried to do it.
It wasn’t long before he knew the names of most of his toys too—which amazed us. We could say, “Go get your leopard” or “get your brown dog” and he would—his paws furiously pushing aside toy after toy until he found what he was looking for in the toy box. A few times during the day we would pick up the toys that he had abandoned throughout the house and tell him, “let’s put your toys back into the toy box.” He would watch us do it, and often, with great enthusiasm, grab a toy and make us chase him. We briefly tried to teach him to help us put his toys back into the box, but it was clear that he thought we were idiots to even suggest something so ridiculous to a guy who just wanted to have fun, and was here to enjoy a life free from all responsibility--especially housework.
My next dog, Whitley, also was a puppy who immediately loved having his own toy box. He’s now three years old, and several times a day I will see him standing over his toy box. He often takes his time deciding which toy he wants to play with. He too knows the names of most of his toys, and when I ask for a specific one, he’ll usually bring it to me, after scrambling through his toy box for it. Whitley, just like Darcy, barely did any damage to the house when he was a puppy. His main interest was what was inside that intriguing toy box.
After raising my last two dogs with toy boxes, I now realize that when toys are always casually scattered everywhere, dogs will play with the few they can find, but usually don’t get the message, which needs to start when they are puppies, that they should be keeping themselves busy with their own toys and treats--and nothing else. Instead, they can become so bored that they start stealing and chewing up things around the house that are supposed to be off limits to them. But, for most dogs, when all their toys are contained in a toy box, the toys seem to be much more interesting and important, and often become a major focus of their lives. Many dogs I know will spend a great deal of time looking through their toy boxes and checking out their inventory before they pick what they want to play with. It’s fascinating to watch them make a decision—you realize that they actually have favorite toys just like children do.
A toy box gives your dog the opportunity to make choices. They’re using their brains more. They’re less interested in your things. And from what I’ve seen, most dogs really like having their personal possessions put in one place. It’s their toy box, and their toys. They seem to figure out the concept of ownership very fast. They also decide that they are tired of some of their toys, and no longer have any interest in playing with them, so occasionally, an unused toy needs to be replaced with a new one. I’ve actually removed a toy that had become boring and put it back into the toy box several months later. Suddenly it’s a favorite. But often, it’s ignored once more. So out it goes for good.
Because they’re pack animals, dogs hate being alone. They need companionship, and they can become quite destructive when we’re away or not paying attention to them. Having easy access to a toy box filled with favorite toys and safe treats will keep most dogs very busy, help them to avoid getting into trouble, and will also stimulate their minds.
Copyright 2012 by Diane Bryan