The Power of Toys

20180601_095959Dawn Harris founded the Benton County, TN nonprofit Tree of Life Education Center (focusing on community outreach and resource alignment for pet owners), Revelation Gardens (a dog and cat sanctuary), and Reset Your Defaults (offering virtual retreats and stress reduction tools for pet owners).

Simple Strategies for Living Life Well: The Power of Toys

By Dawn Harris

Our dog and cat sanctuary is home to rescue-pets from 9- weeks old to 16-years old. We see all kinds of pet behaviors including grief and aggression. Often when a rescue comes to live at the sanctuary, they are afraid but slowly they begin to build trust and become content and playful. It is so rewarding to see a rescue-pet that hid on their first day, learn to play with toys and snuggle up to nap with a new rescue-brother or sister.

Sometimes though, pets show behaviors that can be challenging especially when life is very full and the behaviors are destructive or aggressive. There are really great books and videos available that provide ideas on how to work with difficult behaviors. One simple strategy I found that works really well with my aggressive, dominating puppy dog is the use of toys.

When my rescue-pet puppy began to gnaw on her rescue-brother, I found myself unsure how to stop her. Through trial and error I found toys to be a very effective distraction and method of training. Now I am a firm believer in the power of toys!

It was important to find very durable toys because toys can be harmful if they are torn apart and ingested. Once I found durable toys, I gave both dogs a bunch of toys exclaiming how special they were that they had so many toys. By making a big deal out of the toys and speaking in an upbeat way, they associated the toys with feeling good.

I began to condition the aggressive puppy through consistent use of the key word TOY and the upbeat positive tone in which I spoke it and I provided lavish praise when she played with a toy. This coupled with her experience of comfort the toy provided when she chewed on it instilled in her a very positive experience with toys.

Over time when she became aggressive and began to dominate and gnaw on her rescue-brother, I used the keyword TOY and she would find a toy choosing to chew on it rather than him.

Even though this has been very effective, it doesn’t work 100% of the time. Sometimes even when I do all the right things, the outcome is not what I want or expect. So, what do we do when our best efforts don’t work the way we intend?

Stay tuned for more Simple Strategies for Living Life Well when I talk about letting go of expectations.

Until then, remember to purr often, wag without hesitation, and nap in the sun at every opportunity!


If you would like to use toys as a way to curb difficult pet behaviors but cannot afford them, or if you would like me to answer a pet related question, please email me at dawnharris.22@gmail.com

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If you are a store manager and would like to donate durable toys or if you are a community member interested in providing a donation, please send an email to dawnharris.22@gmail.com.

Simple Strategies for Living Life Well (with Pets): Q&A

Over the past few weeks I have had several people ask questions related to their pet’s behavior. Below are two of those questions and my responses. Although each situation is unique, and I certainly don’t know everything, I have had positive outcomes with the methods suggested.

Question 1: What do you do when your cat doesn’t use the cat box?

Answer: Cats instinctively want to do their business in dirt or sand and even very young kittens climb into a cat box, dig a hole, go potty, and cover it up. On occasion though, I have experienced cats not doing this. A very simple and effective strategy is to take their feces and put it into the cat box. This has solved the problem of kitties not using the cat box because they smell their feces in the box and I assume they say to themselves, “Oh! That’s what that’s for!”

We do have a cat that periodically urinates outside of the cat box which is very frustrating. The first thing we did was rule out a medical condition through a visit to our vet. The second thing we did was evaluate her living situation. We evaluated the size of the cat boxes to make sure she wasn’t too big resulting in her going potty outside the box and determined the size was fine. After further observation, we soon realized she was being picked on by her litter mates while using the covered cat box. It became clear that she was afraid to use a covered cat box because of this. We solved the problem by removing the lid.

Question 2: We rescued a puppy that is obsessed with our cats and seems to want to eat them. What do we do?

Answer: Sometimes pets don’t get along with other pets. Depending on their background, it might be necessary for them to be in a one-pet-only household. Before you decide to re-home your pet or surrender it to a local shelter, contact me or another rescue for feedback and suggestions.

In most cases, especially with puppies, using keywords, praise, and consistency to redirect their attention to an activity that is appropriate is all that is needed. What I have found to be very effective is the “Yours and Mine” training. This is very similar to what I wrote in the Power of Toys article (November 29, 2018) but with a few additional commands.

First, get the puppy very interested in a new toy that is just theirs. It doesn’t have to be store bought, it can be handmade. Once you have introduced the toy, say the puppy’s name and show the toy. Let them play with it and say their name and say “Toy—this is [puppy’s name]’s toy”. Be upbeat and make it a happy drama so the puppy is excited about their toy. Use this technique consistently. Then introduce the second phase which is the “Mine” keyword. Use something that the puppy is not supposed to play with such as car keys or gloves. Begin the training with the two objects, the puppy’s toy and your object, then show the puppy their toy and say [puppy’s name]’s toy then show your object and say MINE. Repeat several times then let the puppy play with their toy without your interference.

Repeat this process consistently for several days using a couple of different objects for the MINE portion but never use an object that the puppy is allowed to play with.

Finally begin the process with the cat. This can be tricky because the cat is enticing to the puppy so it is best to do this the first time when the puppy is at their lowest energy level. Let the puppy smell the cat and say MINE then let the puppy smell their toy and say [puppy’s name]’s toy letting them play with it. Repeat several times at each session and over several days. Praise lavishly and use treats!

Soon you will simply say MINE and the puppy will understand that it isn’t theirs to play with. This is not a perfect process. Some days your puppy will do better than other days. Consistency and patience is very important when working with pets, especially puppies!

Stay tuned for more Simple Strategies for Living Life Well (with Pets) when I talk about the topic of grief.

Until then, remember to purr often, wag without hesitation, and nap in the sun at every opportunity!

Email questions to: dawnharris.22@gmail.com