In case you begin to feel as if I’m an employee of the Kong company trying to sell you my product (I’m not, just a satisfied trainer who uses them daily), let’s begin to explore other puzzle toy options. There are probably hundreds of puzzle toys available on the market today, with more being invented all the time. So, what makes a good puzzle toy? For me, there are several elements.
Most important of all, and non-negotiable in my mind, is the question of safety. Is the toy safe for my dog to play with? Are there any small pieces that may come off and become a choking hazard? Is the toy shaped in such a way that my dog’s lips, tongue, jaw, or paw could become trapped? Is it made by a company I trust out of safe materials which are free from lead or other toxins, and where is it manufactured? How sturdily is the toy constructed?
Once I decide a toy is safe, I look at the toy’s ability to be cleaned. Can I scrub it out with bleach? Can it be run through the dishwasher? Am I able to take it apart or reach into any small crevices that may need to be scrubbed? Are there any pieces that will attract dirt or debris?
I also look at a toy’s durability. Can my dog chew this toy apart? Will it break if my dog bites it? What about if my dog drops it down a flight of steps and it lands on a hard surface? Can it survive in the microwave? How about the freezer? If two dogs play tug of war with the toy, will it hold up? A determined dog can be VERY hard on a new toy as she tries to get that illusive treat out, so I want to make sure the toy can stand up to whatever my dog throws at it! I once ran over a Kong toy with my car, only to find the toy still intact and none the worse for wear. How many other puzzle toys can boast that sort of durability?
Once the safety, ability to be cleaned, and durability have passed the test, then it’s time to look at the toy’s individual merits. What makes this toy different from toys my dog already has? What is fun and unique about it? Can it float? Does it make fun noises? Is it an interesting shape or texture? Does it have a unique scent? (Many Orbee toys are peppermint scented, which does wonderful things to a dog’s breath when the dog spends twenty minutes chewing on their toy).
So without further ado, here are some of my dog’s favorite puzzle toys, with much repetition and some creative uses for toys which weren’t originally designed to be puzzles.
THE BUSTER CUBE is a hard plastic cube which has one hole into which dry treats or kibble can be placed. The cube is then shook up, which distributes the tidbits into various nooks and crannies inside the toy. The dog is encouraged to nose or paw at the toy to knock the treats out. This toy works great for dry food, but should not be stuffed with anything moist or any type of food which will spoil easily. The outside can be wiped down, but it is harder to take the toy apart to clean the inside. A dial next to the food hole allows a small amount of adjustment to the toy’s difficulty level. While I have seen this toy destroyed once (my Lab cross managed to actually get the monster toy in his mouth and bit down hard enough to shatter the plastic), it is quite hardy. It is also quite LOUD, especially on hard floors, and it HURTS when a dog knocks the cube into you or drops it on your head. When my dogs play with the Buster Cube, I’m always reminded of pigs rooting around for food. One new knock-off of the Buster Cube that has hit the market is Premier’s KIBBLE NIBBLE. This toy is not quite as difficult to operate as the Buster Cube so some dogs may get bored by it faster, but it is easier to clean and includes rubber ‘bumpers’ to help prevent against damage to your floors, walls, and furniture by an enthusiastic dog.
The TWIST AND TREAT by Premier is a two-piece toy which can be filled with both dry and wet food. The treat can be screwed tighter for increased difficulty or left wide open for easier access to the treats in order to encourage an unsure dog. It is dishwasher safe and also easy to clean in the sink, and has done well in my microwave and freezer. A very determined dog can break this toy or chew it into pieces, but it is fairly hardy with most average dogs.
Premier also makes BOUNCY BONES, which are bones that can be screwed apart in order to attach rawhide treats to the bone. These toys have not stood up well to my dogs’ chewing. The BRISTLE BONE toy, a version of the bone with tooth-cleaning bristles, actually came apart into multiple sharp shards when my Lab cross crunched down on it, causing his gums to bleed as he tried to get the rawhide off. I threw this toy away as it was no longer safe for my particular dog. My other dog found the sharp bristles quite averse and was never interested in playing with the toy. The rawhide inserts provided an extra expense, and the toys weren’t easy to use in other capacities with other food. I think a dog with a softer mouth would probably be a better fit for the BOUNCY BONE, and would not recommend the BRISTLE BONE for most dogs without serious changes to the toy’s design.
In the same category with food inserts designed specifically for a special toy are the EVERLASTING treat toys (including the fire plug, treat ball, and other versions). These soft rubbery toys are very tough for how soft the material feels (my Lab cross has tried his best to chew them into pieces to no avail). Various hard treat inserts can be purchased. The treat inserts are quite difficult to get into the toys, so plan to take some time preparing these for your dog. However, once the treat is in it is also very difficult to get back out, providing hours of chewing for some dogs. Occasionally some powerful dogs will be able to pop the treat inserts out quickly and bolt them down, but most dogs really have to work at these toys. I really like the fact that these toys can also be used without the extra treat inserts by stuffing small treats into the special pouches. The treat inserts themselves are quite hard, but not so hard I worry about my dogs’ teeth when chewing on them. I would certainly like to see better quality ingredients go into the inserts though, and Layla is actually allergic to all but one flavor of the inserts (the vanilla mint is okay for her). The inserts also smell a bit when wet (which they will become quite quickly under the determination of a tenacious dog). In all, I think we get a lot of use out of these toys but that the company could certainly continue to improve on them.
The Kong Company’s JUMP ‘N JACK toy is made out of the same red rubber material as a traditional Kong, but features a unique shape with little grooves in the rubber. This toy holds my dog’s attention when used with Kong’s TOTS treats, which are very healthy hard little treat pellets containing just two ingredients (organic beef liver and milo grain). The pellets fit perfectly into the grooves of the toy, which then does a good job holding the dog’s attention as they try to work the treats back out. The downside to this toy is its inability to be used with other treats: while other treats can sometimes be slid into the grooves with a little effort, the Kong Tots really do work best. I suppose that moist treats in the form of peanut butter or cheese whiz could also be applied to the grooves, but that would probably cause quite a mess. The DENTAL STICK, another Kong toy, has very similar pros and cons.
In an entirely different category than most puzzle toys are the flexible rubber HOLEY ROLLER and SPHERICON. These toys are not designed specifically as puzzle toys, but can be easily converted to such by bending the flexible rubber and placing large dry treats inside the balls. They are easy to clean, and even some highly competitive games of tug between two strong dogs have not been sufficient to destroy these toys. I only use these toys under supervision though after seeing Layla’s lower jaw get caught in one of the flexible loops making up the toy. She was quickly able to remove the toy from her jaw by pawing at it, but I feel better using these under supervision on the off chance that a loop should become more tightly caught around my dog’s body part.
A fairly new toy on the market that has caught my dogs’ interest are the LEO CANINE GENIUS puzzle toys. These are durable, flexible rubber toys which resemble bowling pins. The toys can be stuffed with both dry or wet food, and have stood up well to the dishwasher, microwave, and freezer. What makes these toys really interesting though is that these are true puzzle toys in that they can very easily be connected together in chains or various other configurations. The toys actually lock onto each other! This could be especially useful for a dog who has “seen it all,” since food could be stuffed in each of three toys, with the middle toy becoming an especially difficult challenge to break into. The dog would first have to empty and disconnect the other two toys to reach the food in the middle toy. This would be a great option for a clever dog left alone all day. These toys are a bit pricey, which is why my dogs unfortunately only have one of these toys and not a whole chain of them. I would like to see the price come down a bit, but not at the risk of losing the high quality construction. These toys are worth the price, but may be a bit more out of reach for some less well off dog owners.
The Premier TUG A JUG is a fairly new invention that can be used with dry treats. It is easy to fill and clean, and most dogs figure out how to play with it fairly quickly. Some dogs may destroy the rope portion of the toy, but it can still be customized to provide easier or harder levels of difficulty by adding balls to the inside of the toy at the same time you add treats. Different sizes of balls will add different levels of difficulty. The balls will block the treat output when they roll around the chamber, making the dog work harder to get goodies out.
One time tested favorite which is not technically a “toy” but which I feel compelled to include here, as it is used in a puzzle toy capacity in my household. That is the HOLLOW STERILIZED BONE. This tough, hard bone has a hollow center which can be stuffed with food, and stands up very well to the dishwasher, freezer, and microwave. The material is much, much harder than regular puzzle toys though (it’s made of bone after all), which prevents this from being a viable option for some dogs. Duke is no longer allowed these toys after cracking two teeth chewing on one. These bones also wear down over time and may become brittle and need to be replaced. Edges can become chewed and sharp, requiring sanding to prevent injury or regular replacement of the bone. Because these are a natural product, length of the bone and width of the hollow bit running through the center will vary, allowing you to select shorter bones with wider holes for beginning dogs and work down to long bones with narrower holes for more advanced canines.
Another stuffable item which is not technically a toy but can still function as a puzzle is the DRIED COW TRACHEA. This is a natural chew toy that can be purchased from many pet shops or bought in bulk online. These chews include high levels of chondroitin, which is good for joint health. My dogs enjoy occasional tracheas which are stuffed with canned food or raw hamburger and frozen ahead of time. I feed these as part of a meal, decreasing the total amount of food fed, as my dogs will completely consume the trachea. Some dogs may get upset stomachs from so much unfamiliar protein, and dogs who tend to gulp should be supervised with this type of chew toy to make sure it will be a safe choice for your individual dog. I don’t worry about durability or cleanliness with tracheas, as they are consumed pretty quickly. For a dog who tended to nibble on her chew toys, this would be something which may need to be thrown away after a day or two as it could become dirty quite easily.