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Help! My dog is obsessed with toys!

Dog playing with toy

(Q) My three-year-old neutered Springer X Cocker Spaniel gets obsessed with toys. She constantly pesters me to throw whatever it is she’s found and will not stop. It doesn’t matter how much exercise she’s had. If I try to ignore her she grumbles, barks, puts her paw on me, or drops the toy on me. She’s not interested in treats at all when she’s in this frame of mind.

(A) Behaviourist Claire Arrowsmith says: You’re experiencing the endless energy that has been bred into these types of dogs to make them such wonderful workers. As pets this can become difficult to manage.

First of all you need to consider how much physical exercise your dog receives each day and how much opportunity she has to express her spaniel instincts. Walks where she can run, sniff, and search are more stimulating than lead walks (even long ones) or circuits of playing fields. These need to occur regularly.

In addition, a young dog like this must also have mental stimulation or she will find it very hard not to become frustrated. Try including short training sessions into her daily routine so that she learns or perfects commands. This will stimulate her as well as improving your control over her.

Teaching a settle command is also important, especially in a breed that doesn’t stay still easily. You should encourage her on to her bed and ask her to lie down. Praise and reward her with small treats. Offer a rawhide chew or a stuffed Kong toy to keep her focused. If she gets up, immediately encourage her back on to her bed. If she isn’t used to settling for long you should build this up gradually.

Begin when there are few distractions and then try when you have a guest in the house. It would also be advisable to encourage your dog to play games independently, rather than relying upon people throwing toys. There are many interactive, activity toys for this purpose. You can praise and encourage her when she plays with these but you shouldn’t tug, throw, or roll them for her.

Finally, it’s important that you work on her demanding habits. Dogs only repeat behaviours that are successful for them and so your dog must have learned that her actions make people play with her. Because she has already learned this, she won’t give up immediately. You should consistently ignore demanding behaviour, and be prepared that it’ll be normal for your dog to increase her efforts when she doesn’t achieve the expected results (attention/games) at first.

Persistence is the key here. If she is consistently ignored for demanding attention then she will learn that this is a waste of time and energy. Remember that even looking at her, touching her or a mild telling off will all be seen as interactions so are best avoided in this circumstance. However, this plan is only going to be successful if she also has sufficient alternative activities to occupy her. Spaniels can be amazingly adept at coming up with other ways to gain your attention, so be prepared.

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