If you are on a budget or have tried everything on the market and are looking for new ideas, I’ll share with you some cheap and homemade toys and games that I play with my dogs. From hide and seek to homemade treat dispensing toys, all you need is a few bits and bobs and some imagination.
My dogs have just about every kind of dog toy going. They have various kinds of dog ball, a multitude of treat dispensing toys, soft and plush toys, things on ropes and in fact two whole toy boxes full of toys. Yet I still find myself wondering what to play today that will be new and exciting.
What dogs really want is our attention. They want us to play and interact with them. A food toy is fine when you need the dog to play by themselves, but nothing beats a lovely 20 minute game with you. I always think of that saying “on your death bed you will never find yourself wishing you had worked more”. I don’t want to ever find myself wishing I had played with my dogs more.
So you have set some time aside for some one-on-one fun with your dog. Your next question might be, what shall we play?
Make fetch more fun
My terrier used to be quite happy to play fetch and nothing else. Getting the ball and bringing it back just for me to throw it again was incentive enough. He loved it. But not all dogs are in to fetch plus you have to be careful as dogs can easily get addicted to games like that, so it is best to limit that game and invent some exciting new ones.
If you fancy a game of fetch but your dog is not keen, don’t throw the ball or toy too far away and provide some extra excitement upon the dog’s return – maybe a treat or loads of fuss and cuddles. Whatever makes your dog happy.
Training and tricks with the returned object can also be fun. As soon as the ball is given back to you, try a bit of 'sit' or 'lie down' training (dogs love learning and getting things right) or try the old ‘which hand?’ trick. Shuffle the ball about behind your back and present your closed hands to your dog and encourage them to choose a hand. When they pick the one with the ball in, throw it again for them. Once they are used to that game, change it up a bit with some ‘magic’. Distract them while you quickly hide the toy - behind you, up your jumper etc… Hold your hands out as before and watch their reaction as they pick first one hand then the other but both hands turn out to be empty. Your dog will get so excited over your amazing magic skills
Interactive treat toys
Interactive treat toys can be great fun but you don’t only have to only use shop bought ones. Mix it up a bit.
Whenever I have finished with a magazine or newspaper, I tear some pages out and scrunch them up with a treat inside. Dog’s love sniffing out the treat and ripping the paper up. Brown packing paper is especially good for this game. So next time you get a parcel, save the brown paper for a game with your dog.
Toilet roll cardboard tubes are also great for hiding treats in. You can make it easy for your dog to begin with by only folding one end closed and make it harder by folding both ends closed.
Empty boxes are also great fun. I like to part fill them with used paper. Chuck their favourite toy in or throw in some treats. Close the lid, depending on how difficult you want to make it, and watch your dog solve the puzzle. Please excuse all the hand signals in this video clip. My terrier Berkeley was deaf but knew loads of signs.
Socks are equally good for hiding things in... from treats to balls (depending how big your socks are, lol). I buy packs of mens socks from the pound shop so that when they get soggy and ripped (which they will) they can go in the bin and a fresh one can take its place. I think it is safest to use the biggest socks you can get, which is why I buy mens socks. I think a dog could accidentally swallow a smaller sock like a kids sock or ladies trainer sock, so avoid them. And don’t play this game with your own used socks that will have your scent on them. You don’t want to encourage your dog to destroy your property.
Make the sock game even harder, if your dog gets good at it, by putting the treat in a sock, balling that up and placing it inside yet another sock. Double the challenge. Hide whatever interests your dog, be it treats or a toy.
If your dog has an old soft toy that got de-stuffed, don’t throw it away. Scoop any remaining stuffing out, re-stitch any loose ends so it is secure, but leave a hole or two. Pop some treats in and let your dog go to town on it.
Plastic drink bottles also make great homemade treat dispensing toys. Clean them out and throw away the cap. Put some treats in and let your dog figure it out. If you want to get really fancy, pop on one of these snazzy canvas covers - Water Bottle Crunchers. Loads of fun.
Even something as simple as a treat under an old tea towel can be quite a challenge for your dog. Resist the temptation to help them unless they start to give up. They will get there eventually.
Have you seen those very expensive interactive dog toys in the shop where the dog has to lift the pegs to get the treats underneath. For a fraction of the price, try making your own with a muffin baking tray and some dog balls. This great little video shows you how:
Where is it?
I play two versions of ‘where is it’ with my dogs. In the first one I take their favourite toy and get them to sit and wait while I dash around the house to hide it. Come back and release them by asking “Where is it?” and you won’t see them for dust. Help your dog at first but once they get the hang of the game they will love it.
The second version involves three cups. Your dog has to pay attention for this game and learn some self-restraint too, so it is great for their all-round life skills. Get three sturdy plastic cups and treats or a ball that will fit under them (whatever your dog loves). Line the cups up in front of you. Get your dog to wait and watch as you put the prize under one of the cups and let your dog pick, or slowly mix them up to make it harder. Can your dog find the cup with the prize under it?
Hide and seek
My dogs adore a game of hide and seek. They use their eyes, noses and brains plus lots of running about. It really is hard to beat for all round fun and exercise. After just 10-15 minutes of hide and seek they are totally pooped.
Unless your dog has amazing sit/stay skills, you will likely need two people for this game – one person to stay with the dog while the other person hides It isn’t just the dogs who love this game. I have to admit it is one of my favourites as well. Even with my head clearly poking over the top of the sofa or round the curtain, they will both still run right past me in a frenzy of hide and seek excitement. It really makes me chuckle. Start simple and make your hiding places more cunning as your dog starts to get the game.
I didn't want to take up the sport or anything, but thought it might be fun to try some agility ideas at home. But even the cheapest sets online were quite expensive. So I went to a kid’s toys shop and purchased a hula hoop and a swimming noodle (those long foam swimming floats). From the pound shop I got six plungers.
It was like a cheapskate version of It’s a Knock Out in our house, with dogs hurdling over swimming noodles, jumping through hoops and weaving around sink plungers. The hoop also made a good ‘send to’ target for sit/stay games.
My friend Caroline gave me this fab idea. Get a piece of rope with a bit of twang, secure a toy to one end and fix the other end to something sturdy like a tree. Then sit back and watch your dog go bonkers. Make sure your knots are good. You don’t want any injuries.
Training and learning
Training can be fun and rewarding and in fact it should be. Because of that, I always class it as a game. Sometimes I teach my dogs something useful and sometimes we refresh the basics like sit, down, stay etc… but learning doesn’t have to stop there and it doesn’t have to be things that are useful. So think of it more as learning and fun.
Dogs love learning new things. Doing almost anything with you and for your praise and maybe some treats, is pure joy to your dog. There is no end to what you can teach your dog to do, for fun or to some useful end.
Some fun things to teach:
Put toys away
Speak and quiet
Take a bow
Bring your slippers
Learning the names of things
Ring a bell
Sign language (see below)
Open and close a door
Remember to always train positively. Never scold, get cross or push your dog around. Keep training and learning sessions short and fun.
Dogs are much more visual than we are and are masters of body language. Learning to understand and react to hand signals is great fun for them. And you never know, as your dog gets older and hard of hearing, you could be very glad you taught them some signs. So why not teach something useful such as sit, stay, drop etc... See Deaf Dog Hand Signals for some ideas.
It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it is fun for you both. Most dogs don’t care what they are doing as long as it is with you.
Make sure you play within their limits and remember to always supervise your dog with any toys or pieces of equipment, be they homemade or shop bought.
So those are some of the games we play at our house. This is in no way supposed to be an exhaustive list so let’s share ideas. What do you play with your dogs that is cheap and fun?