A Spoonie’s Guide to Dog Toys (#ADBC)

It’s time for Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (#ADBC) number eleven! To find out more about this month’s carnival, see FridaWrites’ call for entries. To learn what a blog carnival is or to find out who can participate, read past ADBC issues, and other good stuff, visit the ADBC homepage.

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

ADBC #11: Resources and Tools

The theme for this quarter’s ADBC is “Resources and Tools.” My three service dogs have been Bouviers des Flandres, a breed which is perfect for me in some ways and a challenge in others. I’m writing two posts for the Carnival: one on toys and one on grooming tools. This is part one — toys. [Part two, grooming tools and tips, is now up.]

The best aspect of the Bouvier personality for someone who lives with chronic exhaustion, pain, and weakness is that the only thing they enjoy more than working is napping. Their “couch potato” personalities are very helpful for my chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme exhaustion. (“Spoonie” is shorthand for a person with a chronic condition or disability, usually referring to an illness that causes fatigue, pain, and other energy drains. The term comes from The Spoon Theory.)

However, like all dogs, they still need mental and physical movement and stimulation, and some Bouvs really need a job. Barnum, in particular, has a lot of energy and a love of training, working, and playing. He is either ON or he is OFF. There’s not much in between. That’s very typical of a young, healthy Bouv. If he’s bored, and he’s trying to “activate” me, he will literally bounce up and down (catching serious air), barking at the top of his lungs. (Bouncing straight up into the air is also “a Bouv thing” and referred to as “the Bouvie bounce” among Bouv fanatics aficianados lovers like me.)

While I need a service dog who has the drive and desire to work — thus the “service” part of the title — I also need to be able to rest even when Barnum is jumping up and down, shouting, “I’m bored, Mom! I’m bored, Mom! ENTERTAIN ME! Get up! Get up!! Get up!!!”

Of course, you can wear your dog out in any number of interactive ways, such as training, playing ball, working, going for a walk, etc. However, when I have no energy myself and my dog has loads, I fall back on food-dispensing toys and chew toys. Bouviers also tend not to be really enamored of “toys for the sake of toys.” I’ve heard of dogs who love a certain ball or Frisbee or plushy and who will play with it on their own for hours, but Barnum lost this tendency when he left puppyhood, and both of my previous Bouvs were even less interested in toys. When playing by himself, Barnum either wants to eat it or to destroy it (see his birthday hedgehog for evidence of the latter).

For those of us who have working dogs or clicker-trained dogs — dogs who are likely to be driven, to be problem solvers, to be thinkers — we are likewise challenged to present harder puzzles to keep them entertained. Because they spend so much time with their human partners, service dogs may also be more prone to separation anxiety, especially if they are not from a program that has systematically trained against this tendency. The best way to prevent separation anxiety is to train against it from puppyhood. The best way to maintain your dog’s relaxed happiness when you have to leave her home alone is to leave her (preferably on an empty stomach) with several challenging food-dispensing toys.

Here are my favorite “go entertain yourself, dude” toys and chews. I used to try not to use kibble because it’s usually not a very healthy option for dogs, but for some of the best “keep yourself busy” toys kibble’s the only choice. More about kibble options below.

It’s big! It’s loud! It’s orange! . . . It’s the Buster Cube!

A hard plastic cube, but with rounded corners and edges. There's a large hole in the center of one of the sides.

Your dog’s new best friend.

The Buster Cube is Barnum’s favorite toy. It is a big hunk of hard plastic that you can fill with kibble and thereby drive your spouse, family, or housemates bonkers give your dog hours at least an hour of pure joy and excitement. It comes in two sizes — large (five inches cubed) and small (three inches cubed). It seems nigh-well indestructible.

Here is a review of the Buster Cube by sitstay.com. I like this review except that I completely disagree with the way she says to fill it. That will not keep your dog busy for long at all.

In my experience, the key to a long-lasting Buster Cube experience for your dog is to stuff it as full as possible. (The large cube can hold an impressive cup-and-a-half of large kibbles and probably two cups of regular or small-sized kibbles.) A full Buster Cube is achieved by pouring in the kibble a small handful at a time (repeatedly) while rotating it so that all the little “shelves” inside are filled with kibble. (I actually am not able to fill it, due to the exertion and the amount of wrist/hand action required, but I can have an assistant fill it and then I have it available to use when I need it). If you just pour it straight down the middle tube like the woman shows in the video, your dog will get all the food out in no time.

When it’s full, you put it on the ground, and the dog tries to get it all out by shoving it around with its nose or paws or some combination. Theoretically you’re supposed to be able to adjust the difficulty level of the cube — making fewer pieces fall out at a time — by rotating the core of the tube within the cube, but I’ve never figured out how to do that so that it makes any difference. It always seems to start out disgorging lots of kibble at once, and then as it gets emptier, it takes more and more effort to get the kibble out. Nevertheless, Barnum’s enthusiasm never flags.

If you have a wood or tile floor, the sound of kibble clattering inside the hard plastic cube as it’s slammed against the walls and floors by an extremely enthusiastic and food-crazed dog will make this THE LOUDEST TOY IN THE WORLD. For you or the people you live with, this may not be a bonus, but Barnum LOVES IT.

Introducing “Doggie Nose Soccer”: The IQ Treat Ball

Two hard plastic balls, one blue, one orange. Each has a transparent hemisphere and then a divider inside with an opaque hemisphere below. There is a hole in the divider that can be adjusted in size, and the transparent hemishere has one hole in it as well.

Entertaining for your dog to play with and for you to watch.

My favorite kibble-dispensing toy is the IQ Treat Ball. Like the Buster Cube, your dog gets the food out by rolling the toy around and it also comes in two sizes, small (3 inch) and large (5 inch).

It’s a hard plastic sphere of two pieces — a clear half-sphere on the top with a hole in it (where the kibble falls out) and an opaque half-sphere on the bottom where you put the kibble. Inside is a third piece — a disc that rests on top of the lower sphere, holding the kibble in place. It has a cutout that lets the kibble fall through from the bottom to the top when it’s rolled. (For the visually oriented this video review by sitstay.com shows how it works.) You can easily adjust the size of the cutout to adjust how easily kibble falls through. More about difficulty levels below.

The IQ Treat Ball is much smaller and appears much less sturdy than the Buster Cube. Honestly, when I first gave Barnum the IQ Treat Ball, and he started picking it up and SLAMMING it on the hardwood floor (a technique he’d learned worked well with Kongs), I expected the toy to be reduced to shards of plastic in a matter of minutes. How wrong I was! The ball has lasted two years so far and Barnum — who still gives it the occasional bounce — has never put so much as a crack in it.

Like the Buster Cube, the IQ Treat Ball is not a chew toy. The difference is that the Buster Cube is so big (and square) that your dog can’t chew it even if she wants to, the Treat Ball, on the other hand, may fit inside your dog’s mouth (unless you have a small dog and a large Treat Ball), so if he’s determined to treat it like a chew toy, he’ll likely break it eventually. However, if you teach your dog to roll it instead of chewing it (which you can do quickly and easily, as the dog will be rewarded so well for doing that), it should last a good, long time.

What do I love about the Treat Ball? So many things!

First of all, the Treat Ball is an actual ball, so it rolls (instead of thunking and clunking like the Buster Cube). For dogs who love balls, this is a big plus! This means that if you live in a house with sofas or beds or other similar furniture, your dog will have to learn to be fast to keep it from rolling away from them and getting lost. In my opinion, this is a feature, not a bug, because it adds an additional mental and physical challenge for the dog: he has to learn to push it fast enough and continuously enough to get at the food, but also learn to keep it under control. (There is a learning curve, though, so the first few times you give it to your dog, you may be called upon to rescue the toy from under the couch.)

I’ve made a video of Barnum rolling the Treat Ball, and you can see that he is quite the Pelé of the Bouviers, using his nose to change the ball’s trajectory and maneuver it away from the bed and to the baseboards where he has the best control of it. (You can see that Barnum is a devoted nose-nudger, as opposed to the dog in the sitstay.com video who used both her paws and her nose.) If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. (There are no transcripts or captions because there’s no dialogue.)

Another great feature is that it’s really easy to adjust the difficulty level. You can make it difficult or easy to get treats out, or anywhere in between, by adjusting the size of the inner hole, choosing what size treats to give, and how full you fill it. In fact, for a puppy or a newbie dog with a low frustration threshold you could make it super easy by removing the divider that normally sits between the two halves, thus turning it into more of a Kong while she learns how to roll the ball.

Conversely, if you put in big kibbles (like I do) and make the hole just small enough for one to come through at a time, it can take a lot of work to get the kibble out. If you use small kibbles and a medium sized hole (like the sitstay.com video), it’s a moderately easy toy. I usually set it to pretty difficult. (I made it easier for the video I shot to accompany this post.)

The smaller size of the Treat Ball is also a feature — especially when combined with the difficulty level. If you have a dog who needs lots of wearing out or who is on a diet you can fill the ball enough to keep the dog going for a long time (or repeatedly) without dispensing much food.

In fact, the amount of food you put in also affects the difficulty level, but not always in the ways you’d expect. While putting in a small amount of food does lower the rate of reinforcement and take longer for your dog to get it all out, if you put in a large amount of food (almost filling the lower half), this actually increases the difficulty at the outset because the ball doesn’t roll very well. It’s heavier on one side, make it more of a Weeble than a ball, so the dog has to push harder and maneuver more to get the pieces out at the outset. After your dog has emptied it some, more kibble comes out more easily, and then by the end your dog is once again having to work hard to get the food out again. So, that can vary it up quite a bit.

The Kongsicle: Making Your Dog Work at their Kong

I bet most of you already have one or several Kongs. My favorite is the Kong Stuff-a-Ball, which I reviewed previously. Kongs are a standby among dog lovers because they’re natural rubber, last very well, can be stuffed with a range of foods, and can vary in difficulty.

However, if you have a smart, strong, tenacious, and/or hungry dog they can be too easy to empty unless you make it challenging enough. The trick to making a Kong difficult (and thus, long-lasting) is to pack it full and freeze it. You can do this with a variety of foods.

If you are a raw feeder, this is best accomplished by stuffing the Kong wall-to-wall with ground meat and putting it in the freezer till it’s frozen solid. You can also do basically the same thing with canned food.

If you use kibble, the best system is to put some kibble in a bowl with a little bit of something else your dog likes (I use cottage cheese; many people use peanut butter) and then add water. Let the kibble soak up enough of the water so it expands but doesn’t turn into complete mush. Then pack the Kong full and freeze it till it’s hard.

A Note about Kibble

I have no intention of getting into The Great Dog Food Debate here. Nor will I accept comments that are rants. (However, a short, courteous post on your own experience of anything I’ve posted here is more than welcome!) There are as many reasons to feed your dog one thing as another, and we all do the best we can.

However, having gone through the heartbreak of canine cancer with Gadget, it was important to me to try not to feed Barnum a carcinogenic diet, which I unknowingly did with Gadget. Most kibble is carcinogenic for two reasons: 1. It contains chemical preservatives and often other toxic artificial ingredients, and 2. It is extruded at a very high heat so that it is uniform in size and shape. This extrusion process makes the food carcinogenic, no matter how safe and nutritious and natural the raw ingredients were.

If you want the convenience of kibble without the carcinogenicity, there are a small number of all-natural, baked kibbles. These have human-grade food which are baked at a normal heat instead of extruded. I use Flint River Ranch when I need the convenience of kibble (such as for the Buster Cube, the IQ Treat Ball, the MannersMinder, etc.). The rest of the time I feed raw meat.

What I like about FRR kibble is that it’s clean and dry (not greasy like extruded kibble), Barnum LOVES the taste, and it’s a big enough nugget to work as a training reward (for a picky dude like Barnum). The downsides are that it’s pricey for kibble (though not outrageous for premium kibble — it’s $38 for a 20-pound bag), it will go bad if left out indefinitely (so I store most of it in the freezer), and if Barnum eats a lot of it, it gets in his beard, becoming smelly and gross and it also accrues between his lower back molars and cheek, which would definitely lead to oral health problems if I didn’t brush his teeth regularly.

I buy my kibble from my friend Carlene, who also lost a dog to lymphoma and who has been a puppy raiser. Unfortunately her site requires a Captcha, but she can take orders by email at birddog at mt.net by Paypal or money order. Otherwise, if you want to buy this brand online without going through a Captcha, you can buy from this website.

Nature’s “Food Dispensing Treats”: Knuckle Bones, Marrow Bones, and Deer Antlers

Knuckle Bones

If you want to give your dog’s jaws a workout and clean their teeth at the same time, raw* meaty bones are a great choice. My preferred bone is the knuckle bone because it is very big (so it takes a long time and a lot of work) and because it’s a joint that includes marrow, meat, bone, and a lot of cartilage, so it is good for your dog and less likely to cause a tooth fracture than a marrow bone (more about that below).

Here’s a picture of a couple of half-knuckle bones:

Two partial knuckle bones, one cut below the knee and one from above. The marrow is visible at the cut end. There is a small amount of meat around the knuckle, and the cartilage at the rounded joint where the knee is is visible.

Two beef knuckle bones from instinctpetfood.com.

Here’s a wonderful picture of a Saint Bernard enjoying a massive knuckle bone:

A Saint Bernard with a knuckle bone so big that it stretches from one front paw to the other (about eighteen or twenty inches).

From a raw bones discussion at dogforums.com

There are many benefits to raw bones: they are all-natural; they give your dog’s jaws a workout; they clean your dog’s teeth and don’t cause plaque and tartar like kibble does. Most dogs are very excited to get a raw bone. They are also not as messy as you might think. I’ve never had trouble teaching my dogs that if they have a raw bone (or any raw food), they must eat it on a sheet or towel on their bed. That way cleanup is contained and relatively easy. (Toss sheet or towel in the washer.)

Raw bones are a major source of calcium, which is generally a good thing. However if you plan to feed a lot of raw bones it’s important to offset those bone-rich meals with calcium-free meals because too much dietary calcium can lead to urinary tract infections. You can usually get knuckle bones at the grocery store from your butcher.

Marrow Bones

When most people think of “dog bones,” they think of marrow bones, which are readily available at grocery stores and butchers at a low cost. Marrow bones are yummy and nutritious and have most of the same health benefits of other bones (exercise jaws, clean teeth, etc.). Another bonus is that if your dog cleans out the marrow and leaves the bone mostly in tact, you can reuse the raw bone by filling it and freezing it like a Kong, as I described above. This makes them a more economical choice than knuckle bones.

However, the popular wisdom among raw feeders is that because marrow bones are the weight-bearing bones of very, very large animals (this would apply to cows, deer, moose, etc.), they are too hard for your dog’s teeth and can cause serious tooth fractures. I gave both of my previous Bouvs marrow bones on a frequent basis, and I don’t think they caused any dental problems, but I don’t use them with Barnum just to be on the safe side. I think it’s likely that marrow bones might sometimes cause dental fractures in some dogs. I also think it’s likely that this is not a common occurrence since I don’t know anyone personally who has had this problem. However, caveat emptor.

Dear Antlers

Piece of deer antler in its packaging. A tan-colored antler with red paper and clear plastic packaging. It says, "American Antler Dog Chews. Dogs absolutely LOVE them! Long lasting. Medium. All natural 100% organic." There is also a black cartoon silhouette of a moose and a picture of the American flag with "USA" underneath it.

This is a sized medium, good for a smallish dog or a mild-moderate chewer.

Another great natural chew option is the deer antler. Antlers are particularly good for dogs that love to chew or are aggressive chewers. They come in different sizes and hardnesses, depending on your dog’s size and how aggressively they chew. You might have to experiment to find the right size and hardness. Deer shed their antlers naturally, so no deer are harmed for these chews.

Also, even though some antlers seem as hard as cement, because antlers are not a weight-bearing bone but just something that grows on the top of an animal’s head, antlers are not a potential dental hazard (they will not crack your dog’s teeth) the way a marrow bone might be, and they don’t smell or make a lot of mess. They are more expensive than bones, pound for pound, but if you get a big, hard bone, and your dog loves to chew, they can work on the same antler for ages and ages, which makes it a very clean and economical choice in the long run.

Happy playing and chewing, everyone!

*The most important thing to know about ANY bone you give your dog is that it must be a RAW bone. Never feed cooked bones.

This also means do NOT buy “sterilized” bones or “baked” bones that are sold as pet chews. These are just as dangerous as giving them a bone you cooked yourself. Even larger raw bones will flex and can be gnawed on without splintering. Raw bones are soft and can be safely swallowed and will disintegrate in the stomach.

A cooked bone, however, which includes commercially sold sterilized or baked dog bones, will chip and splinter. This is a choking hazard, as pieces can break off and get lodged in your dog’s throat. This happened when I gave Gadget a marrow bone that I thought would be safe because it was sold as a dog bone. I had always only given him raw bones, but the bone was a gift from a friend when Gadget was undergoing chemotherapy, and I wanted him to have a treat. I thought, “They wouldn’t sell a cooked natural bone; it must be some other process that sterilizes it.” Wrong! Fortunately I was supervising him when he was eating it, and he — like all my dogs — had no resource guarding issues. I swooped in and pulled the chip out of his throat. Never again!

Cooked bones are also a dental hazard — because it’s harder and less forgiving than a raw bone it’s more likely to damage your dog’s teeth. Most scary of all, any cooked bone is a perforation hazard: once swallowed, a sharp piece of bone can can stuck in or poke a hole through your dog’s esophagus, stomach, or intestines, which — best case scenario — will lead to major emergency surgery, and worst case, will lead to your dog’s painful death.

Note: This is true for smaller bones, too. A raw chicken bone will bend and dissolve in your dog’s stomach. A cooked one can perforate organs.

Full Disclosure: I have received no pay, free products, gifts, or any other compensation or enticements for any of the products mentioned. These are my opinions based on my experiences, and I’m writing about them solely because I think this information might be useful to others.


A Spoonie’s Guide to Dog Toys (#ADBC) — 7 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing all of these wonderful toys. I am going to try and find the IQ Ball for our gang. I am not able to really feed kibble to rogue (all seem to give her nasty gas), but I think Huib will be able to bake her some treats to go into it. We have the Wobbler and a couple of other treat balls from when Phoenix was younger, but we haven’t had them out too much. We mainly do the frozen Kongs and fresh beef bones.

    • Hi Brooke. Thanks for commenting. That is awesome if Huib can bake kibble-size treats! Is there anything that guy can’t do? I’ll be curious to hear how it goes.
      I’m also curious if you have any idea why Rogue can tolerate homemade treats but not kibble, and if Huib has any recipes he’d like to share…

  2. The IQ ball is wonderful–my border collie loves it even more than my service dog does. Also interested in trying the buster cube. For working levers and posts, some of the new dog puzzles are fun, but those do need supervision so as not to get torn up.

    Thanks for the advice about bones and antlers; I’m throwing away our marrow bones and getting antlers. I’d like to do raw bones (we have a good butcher not too far away) but concerned about salmonella/e coli risk b/c of my intestinal situation. I guess we could do occasionally with a good cleanup after.

    The dog food info is important. I’m also using a baked food.

    • I’m wondering actually if Barnum might have a fracture in a tooth root or jaw. I’ll probably post about that soon. Something’s wrong, and my best guess is it’s something we can’t find without a dental x-ray.

      I specifically did not post about Nina Ottosson toys and other types of puzzles that involve human interaction (like the muffin tin game — the DIY/cheap/home version of the Brick) because those take just as much effort for me, or more, than training, or playing with a ball, etc. So, most of the time I will go with training or exercise rather than those because they don’t fit the criteria of “go amuse yourself while Mommy rests.”

      FWIW, I was initially concerned about raw meat and bones because of my PICC line and because I’m immune compromised, but it has never been a problem yet, and I’ve been feeding raw meat for three years. Of course, you have to make the choices that work for you, but it was reassuring to me to find out before I started that others with PICCs or immune system issues or on chemo, etc., raw fed their dogs without adverse effects.

      • Plus those puzzles are expensive! Esp. for the amount of play time you get from them. I just ordered the Kong ball last night along with some other supplies we need.

        This is good to know re. immunity. I think frozen bones from the known brands is a place we feel comfortable starting. (phrasing/cognition issues)

        I hope Barnum’s teeth are okay or okay soon!

  3. Sophia is a complete couch potato for several days after “working”, or when I let her play outside for awhile, which seemed to be the opposite of everything I’ve read about the exercise needs of Bouviers, so it’s nice to know this is typical for Bouviers. Sophia also does the “Bouvie Bounce” when she’s really happy about something. She hated toys when I first got her, but now she’s become a toy hog, and thankfully she isn’t destructive with her toys.

    I’m going to check out the buster cube for her though for those weeks that I’m not able to get out much, and she starts getting bored with her toys. This happened on Mother’s Day/her birthday when her gift to me was finding one of my socks and chewing a hole in it followed by trying to sneak one of my shoes into her crate. I gave her about 3o minutes of playing ball outside the next day though, and that seems to have helped, but a lot of the time that’s not an option since it requires somebody else being out there to throw the ball to her.

Leave a Reply to JJ Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.