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Whether dogs think their toys are alive, is an interesting question. 

After all, if we watch dogs as they play with their toys, we may recognize several behavior patterns that we are already familiar with. 

Indeed, dogs stalk, chase and grab their toys like they might do with live prey. They even deliver the typical "kill shake!" 

 Until the day dogs can talk, we can only make assumptions. Based on our dog's behaviors and equipped with some basic knowledge, we can therefore make some educated guess. 

Mimicking Predatory Behaviors 

If you carefully watch your dog play with a toy, most likely you see lots of grabbing, tossing the toy in the air and shaking it vigorously. While this play may look adorable, did you know that what you're looking at is actually the reenactment of a predator?

This means that from your dog's perspective, toys are perceived as prey animals. The erratic movements of a bouncy ball is the equivalent of a bird, bat or squirrel scurrying about. 

Dog toy manufacturers know this very well, indeed, they purposely craft toys that look like furry critters and even squeak!

As alarming as this sounds, this is nothing to be alarmed about. After all, evolutionary psychology holds that even us modern humans, despite inhabiting a modern world, retain some hard-wired instincts of Stone Age hunter-gatherers which made survival possible!

A Dog's Predatory Sequence 

Back in the old days, prior to domestication, in order to enjoy a meal for a dog's ancestors it was necessary to follow a precise sequence which is known as the "predatory sequence."

In wolves, the predatory sequence is composed of five main motor patterns (also known as predatory behaviors) which are reliably triggered by the movement of prey.

In dogs, the predatory sequence's organization has become "relaxed" courtesy of domestication and its associated shift from the hunter to scavenger niche (Coppinger & Coppinger 2001).

The five predatory behaviors that are part of the predatory sequence include the following: orienting towards prey, eye stalk, chase, grab bite, kill bite (or head shake), dissection and consumption.

These behaviors, classified as predatory behaviors, were not learned behaviors; rather, they came naturally as they were essential for survival purposes. It is thanks to these instincts, and later on, the process of domestication that we get to enjoy our dogs today!

Did you know? The predatory sequence has been altered in several types of dogs. For instance, in herding dogs, there is an exaggeration of the eye, stalk, and chase motor patterns, in retrievers there is an exaggeration of the chase and grab-bite motor patterns, while in livestock guardian dogs, all components of the predatory sequence are inhibited. 

Why Do Dogs Shake Their Toys?

 If you watch closely, your dog's toy-shaking behavior mimics what a predator does to prey animals. 

If you haven't watched many wild animal documentaries, here's a brief explanation. A disclaimer is warranted though: you may want to skip this part if you are squeamish!

When predators capture prey, they have a variety of strategies to make their final kill. Many predators will deliver their killing bite by aiming for the throat area, tearing the animal's jugular vein, or maybe one or both carotid arteries, which ultimately leads to a fairly quick death due to massive blood loss.

Smaller animals may be killed by grabbing the animal by the neck area and vigorously shaking it. The goal is to "snap" the animal's neck. This shaking is often referred to as the "dog death shake" or "dog kill shake."

Did you know?  Ever wondered why dogs seem to take pleasure in removing all the stuffing from pillows and stuffed toys? In those cases, they are likely "de-gutting their prey," pulling the innards out in a fun dissection project!

Do Dogs Think Their Toys are Alive?

Now that we know that toys stimulate a dog's prey drive, we may then wonder next, "do dogs think that their toys are alive?" 

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Where is the Stop on a Dog's Head?

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This is certainly a great question. Until the day dogs can talk, we can only make some assumptions. 

There are good chances though that dogs likely "pretend" that their toys are alive, in a similar fashion as children think their dolls are alive and therefore move them around. 

After all, just as in children play, we see pups adopt several components of things their adult ancestors would do such as courting, hunting, fighting and killing prey and incorporate them into their play. 

On top of this, toys lack the scent component of prey animals. In other words, toys don't smell like rabbits or birds (although there are now toys made of rabbit fur on the market!). 

Did you know? Dogs know the smell of their toys. According to research, when the lights were turned off, dogs searched for their toys using their sense of olfaction.

 "Dogs sniffed more often and for longer in the dark. They spent 90 percent more time sniffing when the lights were off," points out Prof. Adam Miklósi in a study. 

Despite their good sense of smell though, dogs preferred to primarily rely on their vision and used their noses almost only when the lights were off.  

Can Dogs Think Their Toy is Their Baby?

There is a case where dogs may act as if their toys were alive, and this is often the case in intact female dogs who are undergoing a false pregnancy, also known as pseudopregnancy or phantom pregnancy

During a false pregnancy, female dogs are tricked into believing that they are pregnant, when they are not. This occurs at a hormonal level, through changes in their progesterone and prolactin levels triggering both physical and behavioral changes that are commonly associated with dog pregnancy.

During this time, female dogs may therefore perceive their toys as "surrogate babies" prompting them to carry them around while whining with some dogs even showing protective behaviors towards the toy.

Triggering Protective Instincts

And then there are dogs who act protectively around toys. While these dogs likely know that their toys are not alive, they may perceive them as highly valuable, and therefore, will protect them as they would with bones or tasty meat. 

Warning: It's important to not forcibly remove toys from dogs as this may lead to a bite. If you really need to remove a toy, you may find it helpful learning how to remove toys from dogs. Here is an important read: how to take away toys from dogs. 

Making Toys Come "Alive"

Many dog owners purchase many toys for their dogs, but their dogs grow bored of them in no time. This is not surprising. Most likely, dogs habituate to seeing them laying around and the toys quickly lose their appeal.

Things change though if you start adding movement into the equation. Try tossing the toy in the air, attaching it to a string and dragging it, or if the toy is long and permits it, encouraging your dog to play tug with it. 

Dogs are attracted to movement and bringing these toys 'alive' may lead to some renewed interest. 

It also helps to rotate toys so to prevent them from appearing boring. Hide them and keep other toy around for several days. After not seeing them around for some time, your dog may therefore start playing with them again. 

Dogs are the Peter Pans of the Animal Kingdom!

One interesting trait of domesticated dogs is that they remain interested in play even into adulthood and we often even see senior dogs interested in play!

"This enhanced playfulness is commonly thought to be a side effect of paedomorphosis, the perpetuation of juvenile traits into adulthood," point out researchers Bradshaw et al. 

Did you know? Solitary play often involves toys. According to research, when it comes to dogs engaging in play, toys reliably produced the highest levels of solitary play across all breeds of dogs. 

References: 

  • John W.S. Bradshaw, Anne J. Pullen, Nicola J. Rooney, Why do adult dogs ‘play’?, Behavioural Processes, Volume 110, 2015, Pages 82-87.
  • Mehrkam, L.R., Hall, N.J., Haitz, C.M., & Wynne, C.D. (2017). The influence of breed and environmental factors on social and solitary play in dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Learning & Behavior, 45, 367-377.
  • A glimpse into the dog's mind: A new study reveals how dogs think of their toys (2022, June 13)
  • Dror, S., Sommese, A., Miklósi, Á. et al. Multisensory mental representation of objects in typical and Gifted Word Learner dogs. Anim Cogn (2022)

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