An Enigma Wrapped in a Dog Toy

Puzzles and interactive toys can entertain dogs, help humans bond with their pups and generate incremental sales at retail.


In the dog world, playing is about more than just having fun. Sometimes playtime overlaps with feeding time, as more manufacturers introduce products that encourage dogs to hunt for food or play with a toy to get some kibble. For dog owners, playing with their pet is part of bonding, and interactive play allows the human and pup to share some quality time together. Play can also be a way to help teach the pup a new activity, which can be a good way to alleviate boredom. 

For all these tasks, there are toys. According to Nielsen, U.S. consumers spent $389 million on pet toys in 2014, with $32 million being spent on chew toys and $8 million on pet ropes. Separately, the Harris Poll reported in a 2015 survey that pet owners say they spend approximately $64 a year on pet toys, with women tending to spend more on these items than men.

Some of these toys are becoming more sophisticated and complex. Manufacturers say puzzles and interactive toys are a growing category as dog owners are seeking new ways to play with their loved ones. 

“People are realizing the benefits of keeping their pets mentally engaged,” says Emily Benson, marketing director for Hutto, Texas-based Starmark Pet Products, Inc. “As such, I think we will continue to see an evolution of more innovation and creativity in this category.” 

Starmark offers a variety of mental-stimulation toys in shapes such as balls, barbells and animals that can be filled with Starmark treats or with kibble. The company recently added the Treat Dispensing Puzzle Ball to the lineup. The Treat Dispensing Puzzle Ball holds a cup of food and contains four marked inner chambers that offer varying difficulty. Food dispenses from chamber one at the easiest level, and the dog must get the treats or food from chambers two, three and four into chamber one to dispense. 

“A toy’s ability to adjust from easy to gradually more challenging is important,” says Benson. “This allows the dog to learn how the toy works without becoming frustrated, and continue using the toy after he is proficient in how it works.” 

The Treat Dispensing Puzzle Ball is for dogs of all shapes and sizes. Benson notes that dog owners are also looking for other features in puzzle toys. The toy is designed to be easy to fill and is dishwasher safe, and has a soft rubbery coating to prevent slipping and reduce noise during play. Durability is also important, as dogs are using their paws and mouths to engage with the toy. 

Other manufacturers agree that durability is key, and rubber seems to be a popular choice of materials for this reason. Bloomfield, N.J.-based Ethical Products is launching Play’N Chew, a line of interactive puzzle toys for dogs. The toys, which are shaped like balls and dumbbells, feature a beef-flavored treat inserted into the rubber toy for a challenging and rewarding play time. Play’N Chew helps prevent destructive behaviors due to boredom by keeping the dog occupied for long periods of time through a play-and-reward toy.

The ability to keep the dog occupied is an important attribute in the category, says Susan McCann, national marketing manager for Ethical Pet Products. “Puzzles and toys that encourage dogs to exercise and work for their food are important to a dog’s wellbeing by providing mental stimulation and healthy exercise,” she says. “Puzzles and interactive toys have positive effects on a dog’s overall behavior and health, and the challenge to find the hidden treat is their reward for working hard and being smart.” 

Ethical Products manufactures a variety of toys including treat balls, bones, hydrants and other shapes that dispense treats or can be filled with other edibles, for example, peanut butter. McCann says puzzles and interactive toys help strengthen the bond between the human and the pup. 

“Interactive toys provide the physical exercise dogs need while puzzle toys help to satisfy a dog’s natural hunting instincts while providing mental stimulation,” she says. “The positive benefits of dogs working for their food and treats while eliminating destructive behaviors are some of the reasons the future of this category will continue to grow.” 

Toys that allow basic play such as tug and fetch are also growing, says Andrea Fleer, senior product manager, toys and behavior, for the PetSafe brand. “Pet owners are always looking for toys that allow them to interact with their pets,” she says. In fact, the company’s Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug continues to be a great seller. With the Tug-A-Jug, the pet must figure out how to pull the rope for the treats to dispense.

While play and mental stimulation are essential, it helps if the toys are attractive to humans. PetSafe, a brand produced by Knoxville, Tenn.-based Radio Systems Corporation, is launching animal shapes—a turtle and a dinosaur—of the Busy Buddy treat ring-holding toys. Fleer says the new shapes are “adorable,” and they also have a practical function. “The toy and treat combination is a very challenging play pattern for dogs,” she explains. “It keeps dogs engaged for long periods of time as they enjoy nibbling the treats.” 

Treats are not the only way to reward a dog or to keep the pup interested. For some, continued play is the reward. Austin, Texas-based iFetch makes the iFetch interactive automatic ball launcher. When the dog drops the ball into the iFetch, the unit turns on and throws the ball and then shuts off while the dog runs to get the ball and return it into the iFetch, and then it repeats the process. The iFetch throws a miniature ball and is designed for small dogs, and the iFetch Too is a similar launcher for large dogs and throws a full-sized tennis ball. The iFetch Too has an internal rechargeable battery so that the dog, and the whole family, can play outside for an extended period.

Denny Hamill, founder and CEO of iFetch, says the most important feature of puzzles and interactive toys is that they offer real mental and physical challenges with immediate and long-term rewards for solving the puzzle. “In our case, the immediate reward is the launch of the ball to fetch and the relaunch after fetching and returning the ball,” he says. “The long-term rewards are exercise for the dog and reassurance for the dog’s family that the dog can exercise and be relieved of boredom any time it wishes.” 

Hamill says the company will introduce another, simpler product this month. He adds that the concept is really gaining favor with retailers and with consumers. “Both the wide variety of passive puzzles and the newer electronic value-added toys are catching the fancy of dog people who want to offer more rewarding challenges for their dogs,” he says. “We have only begun to offer interesting and effective product solutions, and the category should grow much faster than the overall industry.” 

Sometimes a dog wants to chase something other than a tennis ball. That is why Wichita, Kan.-based Hyper Pet is introducing the Hyper Zinger, an interactive toy launcher. The Hyper Zinger is sold with a specialty tennis-ball type toy, but it also launches toys with different textures. The toys in the Hyper Zinger family feature a durable rubber insert that fits onto the Hyper Zinger. In addition to the ball, there is the flying Zinger Rocket and the Zinger Cube made of varying materials to offer different play options. Each flying toy is sold separately. 

The variety of launch-worthy objects sets the Hyper Zinger apart from other launchers, says Sarah Bell, director of marketing for Hyper Pet. Another feature that makes Hyper Zinger different, she says, is that the launcher offers three angles of adjustability, and each angle results in different throwing distances. “So, for example, if you’re playing outside in a wide open space, you use a different angle than if you are playing indoors or within a smaller space,” she says. 

She adds that the launcher helps promote an active family lifestyle. It also answers dog owners’ demand for something new and exciting in toys. “The consumer is looking for toys to deliver on their value and innovation expectations,” says Bell. “In a sea of choices, newness and relevance always resonate.”  


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