Making a Smart Play

Pet owners are supplementing simple feathered wands and games of fetch with increasingly stimulating and sophisticated pet toys.




Dogs love to play, eat and spend time with their humans, and manufacturers are finding new ways to help dogs enjoy all three activities at once—with puzzles and interactive toys. Industry experts say the category has expanded as consumers demand more innovative and sophisticated ways to treat and entertain their dogs.

“In the past, pet parents were happy with traditional tug-of-war toys or playing fetch with a stick, and they could have fun with their dog all day,” says Will C. Chen, founder and co-owner of San Francisco-based P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You). “Nowadays, they make sure the dog is intellectually stimulated.”

In fact, consumers are looking for a wide variety of characteristics in the pet toys they purchase today. For starters, instead of merely keeping the dog occupied for a while, the toys now must also entertain and appeal to humans. The company’s Wobble Ball Toy, for example, is designed with both pet owners and pets in minds. The top half of the Wobble Ball is transparent, so the dog and the human can see the shapes inside, and the toy dispenses treats out of cloud-shaped openings as the dog plays with it. The ball’s bottom half boasts bold colors, such as Pumpkin or Sea Foam, which are intended to appeal to humans. 

Pet owners are also looking for toys that will not damage anything in the home. “Pliable and lightweight toys are good because they do not scratch hardwood floors, or make a loud noise as they hit a coffee table or the baseboard of a wall,” says Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for Westbrook, Maine-based Planet Dog, which offers the Orbee-Tuff Mazee and the Orbee-Tuff Snoop. “Easy-to-clean toys are a bonus, as consumers want to be able to clean something that has had food in it.”

Another characteristic that is important to humans is durability. Interactive toys typically retail for more than plush and other toys, and consumers expect the items to last. “It would not be good if they get destroyed in no time,” says Chen, whose Wobble Ball made of polycarbonate and ABS thermoplastic, materials that are becoming more popular in dog toys.

Emily Benson, marketing director for Hutto, Texas-based Starmark Pet Products, Inc., points out that the durability of a toy is largely determined by the materials used to make it. Starmark manufactures the Treat Dispensing Jack, which is also made from thermoplastic. “We are always on the lookout and researching different materials,” she says. “We have a training and boarding facility [where] we get access to hundreds of dogs, so we have a good testing base.”

Yet durability, pliability and aesthetic appeal are not the only features manufacturers have to consider when designing toys. There is an increasing consumer demand for more sophisticated toys. “We see a lot more of the treat-dispenser toys getting more complex, so the dog spends more time with them,” Benson says. “The feedback we get from consumers is [that] they want something to keep the dog busy for longer periods of time, not just treats falling out at once.”

These multifaceted toys are good for humans too, says Charles A. Byrne, president of Mammoth Lakes, Calif.-based Mammoth Pet Products, which makes Braidys with Treat Balls. “Interactive toys that combine different materials, such as rope and rubber, help keep pups interested and engaged, and they promote interactive-play action between the pet owner and pet,” he says. “This keeps both the pet and pet owner healthy and happy.”

Since dogs will often eventually figure out how to get the treats out of an interactive toy, manufacturers are under pressure to create games that offer varying levels of difficulty. The Orbee-Tuff Snoop, for example, allows the owner to increase the level of difficulty. In addition to hiding treats in the ball, the human can also place a ball inside Snoop, to give the dog something else to nose and nudge.

Some toys can be made more challenging by combining them. Nina Ottosson, whose eponymous company is based in Karlskoga, Sweden, has been creating pet-activity products for 20 years. She says today’s customers are realizing the value of being able to select from an assortment of games that offer various levels of difficulty, since not all dogs are equally smart. “It’s important to choose a level that is suitable for your dog, not too difficult and not too easy either,” she says.

Ottosson, whose toys are distributed in the U.S. by The Company of Animals, has introduced the MixMax, a series of games in different difficulty levels that can be linked together to create a larger game. “There are endless possibilities for variation,” she says. “Since it contains smaller parts, it is perfect for dogs who need to practice their fine motor skills.”

She adds that MixMax also works for cats. “Right now, the cat category is growing a lot,” says Ottosson. “People are willing to invest in their cats, and there are a lot of bored house cats who need these products.” She is also seeing interest from pet owners who have ferrets, birds and other small animals.

Cat owners have long entertained their pets with wands and feathers. Today’s, pet owners, however, want to do more than dangle the toy in front of the cat, says Jessica MacIntyre, head of marketing at Petsport USA, Inc., based in Pittsburg, Calif. “Pets and their owners can interact with each other at a new level,” she says. “More exercise and less boredom for both.”

Petsport will soon release its Ring Laser, an interactive laser toy that owners can wear on a finger. The product is small and lightweight, and its stretchy elastic band is designed to fit most finger sizes.

Cats also enjoy seeking treats, just like dogs do, says Alexandre Tremblay, president of Aikiou Inc. in Terrebonne, Quebec, Canada, which manufactures interactive feeders for dogs and cats. “Our cat feeder replicates a cat getting a mouse out of its hole, while our puzzle feeder hides food and gets dogs to use their sense of smell to search for food,” says Tremblay. “It prevents the animals from eating too fast, but it also releases anxiety, as they have to work and expend energy.”

By eating slowly, the dog or cat can avoid digestive distress and weight gain. The toy also helps prevent behavioral problems. “We deprived animals from any purpose in life,” says Tremblay. “All they now do is sit and wait for us and for a free meal. Dogs and cats need to work for their food in nature. It is one of their basic needs.”

Another basic need is exercise, and manufacturers have also developed interactive toys that help dogs exercise while engaging with their humans. “We are all about the bond,” says Sarah Bell, director of marketing for Hyper Pet in Wichita, Kan. “We are all about playing with your dog and getting outside.”

Last year, Hyper Pet introduced the K-9 Kannon Ball Launcher. “If you know you are going out to the dog park you want the latest and greatest,” says Bell. The launcher offers hands-free ball pickup and can launch a tennis ball to various distances. This year, Hyper Pet introduced the K-9 Kannon Mini, which is designed for small- and medium-size dogs.

For dogs that do not frequent the dog park, Austin, Texas-based iFetch developed its first product, also called iFetch, for indoor use. The dog drops the ball into the machine, which then launches the ball for the dog to chase. The toy is for people who live in apartments or in homes without a yard. “People in big cities don’t have as much opportunity to exercise their dog,” says Denny Hamill, chief executive officer of iFetch. The toy is safe, he says, because the mechanical parts are covered and hidden.

Hamill says the toy is interactive because humans do engage with the pup during play. “Really the dog wants the attention of the people saying, ‘Oh, good dog,’” he says. 

To explain how the toy works, iFetch features a video on its website to explain how to train the dog to retrieve the ball and reload the toy. Hamill thinks retailers should set up videos in the store, so consumers can watch while they are shopping.

A more high-tech way to educate consumers about a new toy is to get people to see the information on their smartphones. Hyper Pet has QR codes on the K-9 Kannon packaging, so consumers can scan the code and watch a video. “People see it in action, and that drives the purchase,” says Bell. “You have to get the consumer when they are ready to make a purchase.”

Smith recommends a live demonstration. “Have the toys on the sales floor, and have a store dog that shows an aptitude for the toys,” she says. Retailers can also try building an interactive-toy display around a scholastic theme. “Merchandising puzzles and interactive toys together can draw the consumer in and encourage dialogue with a sales team member.”

Ottosson says retailers should display one or more games, preferably with treats in them. “Customers can touch, feel and see how these products work,” she says. “It is a lot of fun to watch a dog work with these products. They may take a little more work to sell to potential customers, but it creates loyal repeat customers who come back. Most of our customers own several of our products.”

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