Your dog probably has a lot of toys—maybe even too many. But the good news is that you can use them to create a challenging brain puzzle.
Our dogs understand many words, from obedience cues to words about their daily life and activities like walk, park, and dinner, but they can also be taught the names of different objects, including all of their toys. Chaser the Border Collie, who passed away in 2019, was considered by many to be the smartest dog in the world. Chaser rose to fame for her impressive ability to identify more than 1,000 different toys by name. She appeared on many television shows, was the feature of a book, and helped elevate the possibilities of positive reinforcement dog training. But most importantly, she shifted understanding about what dogs are cognitively capable of learning.
Mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise for our dogs. Teaching your dog the names of their toys is one fun way to give them some mental exercise—and it’s also sure to impress your friends and family. This brain puzzle game is low impact, making it good for dogs of all ages, and is the perfect activity for when time or weather prevents you from getting outside with your dog.
When building your dog’s vocabulary, try to be consistent with the names that you give to different toys. The names can be descriptive of the object—like calling a tennis ball “ball” or a plush bear “bear”—or you can get creative and give them more unique names. The most important thing is to be consistent with using the same name once you start teaching it to your dog. It can be helpful to have a list, or even a digital spreadsheet you can update when your dog gets new toys, so you don’t confuse your dog by changing the names of toys accidentally.
Teaching Your Dog Toy Names
When you are teaching your dog to identify different toys by name, it helps to start with their favorites. Those toys will likely already have a name, so your dog will already have some associations with pairing a name to the toy. Dogs who are very toy-motivated might pick up this skill more quickly, but any dog can learn and excel at this activity. Here’s how to teach it.
Step 1: Pick one toy that your dog has a strong connection to and enjoys playing with. Choose a name for that toy, and then put the toy in front of your dog. Ask your dog to get the toy by name, then praise and treat them for getting the toy and bringing it to you.
Step 2: Repeat this several times making sure to use the toy’s “name” when you ask your dog to get it. This will help your dog make the connection about the name of the toy.
Step 3: Now place the toy on the floor with another object that isn’t a dog toy, such as a book or a water bottle. The idea is that it’s something that is less exciting than the toy, but still requires your dog to distinguish between the objects. Ask them to get the toy by name, and then offer them lots of praise and treats when they bring it to you.
Step 4: After several repetitions of placing the named toy near objects that are not dog toys, place the toy that your dog knows the name of next to another dog toy. Try to select a toy that isn’t another favorite to make it easier for your dog not to get distracted. Ask your dog to select the toy they know by name and give treats and praise when they select the correct toy.
Step 5: Once your dog is consistently picking out the toy by name when it’s next to random objects as well as other toys, it’s time to teach your dog the name of the next toy. Repeat the above steps with another of your dog’s toys.
Step 6: When your dog knows the names of two (or more) toys, start to use those toys next to each other in your setups and ask your dog to retrieve one toy by name and then the other(s).
If at any point your dog chooses the wrong toy, just go back to the previous step where your dog was successful for a few practice sessions and then try again with the higher level of difficulty.
Developing Your Dog’s Vocabulary
Now that your dog knows the names of a few toys, it’s time to start increasing their vocabulary by naming more of their toys and using the above steps. Just be sure to keep practicing the toy names that your dog has already learned. The repetition will help them not only build their vocabulary by recognizing the names of new toys, but also maintain the vocabulary they’ve built.
For dogs who are very toy-motivated, you can start to phase out using treats as a reward for identifying the proper toy by name. Instead, use that toy to play fetch or tug, depending on your dog’s play preference. As you are playing, you can continue to use the toy’s name so that your dog will continue to make associations between the word and the toy. If your dog is not strongly toy-motivated, you’ll want to continue making sure to give a treat when they identify the correct toy on cue.
Building Puzzle Skills
As you build up your dog’s skills, you can make the puzzle more challenging. Ask your dog to find a toy with an increasing number of toys around it, or even from within a pile or basket of dog toys. For extra enrichment, you can teach your dog to put their toys away and then find specific toys. Another way to make the game more challenging is to ask your dog to find a specific toy from another room in your home and bring it back to you. Just make sure to build up the difficulty slowly by gradually increasing the number of toys your dog must search within, and incrementally building distance from the toys when you send your dog to search.