Training game for dogs.

One of the consequences of the pandemic that left many of us housebound for extended periods of time was that we got to know our family members a little better—a mixed blessing in some cases. But it also allowed us to spend more time with our pets, observing their habits and behaviors (especially those related to boredom), and bonding with them, says Cheryl Pedersen, co-founder of Only An Ocean LLC. In this case, the outcome of all this togetherness has been extremely positive, not only for pet owners and their pets, but for the interactive dog toys and puzzles category as well, which is seeing an increase in demand for products that help keep dogs active and happier.

“We see this category as really expanding with its health benefits both mentally and physically for the pet with puzzles and interactive feeding experiences,” says Pedersen, whose company partners with various pet products brands from Europe and from within the U.S., providing strategic marketing, sales and product development.

Leah Angelos, sales manager for ZippyPaws, says the same. She feels there’s as much innovation happening in the interactive dog toys and puzzles category as there is in toys for children. Among ZippyPaws’ products are the SmartyPaws Puzzlers, which are made from durable plastic, are dishwasher-safe and slip-resistant. The Puzzlers encourage dogs to slide, spin, flip and sniff to find their treat rewards within each.

“Companies are always looking for ways to enrich the lives of our pets while offering products that differ from what’s already available on the market,” she explains. “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for products in this category, so pet specialty retailers should feel confident in bringing this category into their locations.”

Growth is expected to climb as manufacturers continue to turn out ever-more exciting and engaging toys, says Bill Parsons, sales manager for P.L.A.Y. Pet Lifestyle and You, creators/designers of eco-friendly pet products.

“Gone are the days when a simple boring shape was enough, and retailers should be actively seeking out new toys to add to their selections in order to provide their customers with the best features, designs and durable construction,” Parsons says. 

“There is really untapped potential when it comes to this category,” he goes on. “With pet parents seeking out more of these types of toys for their pet’s well-being, we expect a continued demand from manufacturers for new and enhanced features, especially with pets being seen as part of the family.”


Engagement Ahead

Parsons explains that “at the heart” of toys in this category is the mental stimulation they offer the dog. An engaging toy inspires the pet to play with it longer, enjoy it more and expend more mental and physical energy, resulting in a happier pet. 

One of P.L.A.Y.’s “most popular” interactive plush toys is in its Tropical Paradise line. The Paws Up Pineapple is handcrafted, with a double-layer exterior and reinforced stitching for added durability. Multiple elements of the toy are stuffed with P.L.A.Y.’s PlanetFill made from recycled plastic bottles. Within its find-and-seek design are three pineapple slices with individual squeakers, while the pineapple-shaped exterior features crinkle elements to excite the dog with sounds and textures.

Puzzles and toys aren’t just great for keeping pets happy and active, they also help increase a dog’s focus, promote their natural instincts and give them a positive, rather than destructive, outlet for their energy, says Angelos, albeit adding a caution.

“Dog owners understand that puzzles and interactive toys are great ways to keep their pets entertained,” Angelos says. “However, it’s important to note these products are the safest and most effective when the owner participates. Not only is supervised play a necessity, but pets get the most out of these products with their owner’s encouragement and guidance.”

Products in this category not only create a positive play experience and help owners bond with their dogs, these toys and puzzles serve as an effective teaching tool, says Mark Pasco, vice president of sales for Mammoth Pet Products, which develops interactive toys for dogs. The company recently added several new toys to its EXTRA line, such as the EXTRA Monkey Fist with 4 Rope Ends, which will be available in early 2022.

“The EXTRA line is tougher than our standard rope chews and made more durable for strong chewers,” Pasco explains. “[The line] is made from durable poly-cotton rope fibers that will floss teeth while dogs chew and tug.”

Other new products in this category come from Starmark Pet Products, such as the Roller and KettleBell toys in its Twist and Lock line. According to Emily Benson, marketing director of Starmark, treats are inserted into these toys and they can be twisted 90 degrees to lock the treats in place. Their centers can also be stuffed or frozen with treats or kibble for more challenging play.


Interactive Merchandising

Effectively merchandising this category requires deliberation. Pasco feels these toys should have a “main home,” on the store’s planogram and a “secondary home” in other areas, such as the food/treats section (since many of these products allow for the inclusion of an edible component for added interest). These also lend themselves to themed endcap displays, for example those showing products for the summer months when outdoor play is in full swing, or those highlighting the winter/gift-giving season.

Parsons says “call-outs” are effective at drawing attention to interactive toys and puzzles and to their features.

“[Pet owners] can, of course, find out more when reading the packaging, but call-outs such as stickers or small badge tags are a great way for them to know that those features exist in the toys,” he explains. “It’s also important that retailers and their staff have a solid understanding of how interactivity benefits the dogs and to ask the right questions to find what interactive features are best for certain dogs’ needs.”

As for those questions, in addition to breed, age and type of chewer the dog is, Pasco suggests inquiring about the dog’s size in order to steer them away from buying a too-large or too-small toy, which could compromise pleasure and safety. 

Retailers should also query the type of toy the pet owner is looking for, if it needs to withstand chewing and if the dog will be unattended while playing with it, since some toys should only be used under supervision, says Benson. It’s important that pet owners—many of whom believe that all dog toys can hold up to chewing—understand this isn’t always the case.

“While some puzzle toys are made to withstand chewing, many are not and could even pose a safety hazard in the abandon of enthusiastic canine jaws,” Benson says.   

This touches on another frequently encountered misunderstanding of products in this category pet specialty retailers should address—that a toy is simply a toy, says Pasco.

“If a consumer doesn’t understand the fact that these toys are made for interaction, he or she might just give the toy to the dog and not be involved in playtime,” he says. “This would definitely have a huge impact on safety as well, because a dog should not be left unattended with a toy.”

Retailers should carry an array of interactive toys and puzzles but do so in an organized way to help customers easily find what they need, says Angelos. Because this is an innovative category, staying abreast of what’s available is important for building a dynamic inventory—why Benson suggests hitting up the trade shows, being sure to visit the new products area, since manufacturers will often time new launches to coincide with these event.

Pet specialty retailers should also offer a range of skill options since dogs can “graduate” from one skill level/skillset to the next as they learn, says Pedersen. Creating a varied and deep assortment will not only result in a happier pet and pet owner, this will encourage continued purchasing as well.

“A common misperception (among pet owners) is that one interactive toy can resolve the need for a dog who requires a large amount of mental stimulation to be fulfilled in their daily play,” says Parsons, advising that retailers be aware of this mindset. 

“What is ideal is that dogs have many different toys and types of interactive toys to create a diverse range of interactive experiences,” she continues. “Rotating toys is also an important element in that.”  PB