Why won’t my dog play with toys? Should I be worried, or is it normal?

Playing with your dog’s favorite toy together can be fun, but what do you do if they have no interest in playing with toys?

You may have dreamed of adopting a dog so you can play together, and you’ve tried everything, a new ball, frisbee, tug toy… nothing interests her.

It’s totally normal for some dogs to not have any interest in toys. Dogs can live a happy life without ever playing with a toy.  

But I understand the desire to play with your dog. I look forward to going outside each day and throwing the frisbee or tossing the ball to each of my dogs.

Although only 3 out of 4 of my dogs enjoy playing with toys. Our dog Ginger has no interest in running after a ball… but she does enjoy chewing on them, LOL.

You could just accept your dog’s personality as it is and consider yourself lucky that you don’t need to spend money on expensive dog toys, LOL.

We will discuss several methods and strategies to help get your dog excited about playing with toys, but first, let’s figure out why your dog doesn’t want to play with toys.

rescue dog laying down next to a tennis ball

Why doesn’t my dog play with toys?

There are many reasons why your dog doesn’t want to play with toys. Understanding WHY will be key in knowing if you can ever get your dog to engage in toys and playtime.

If you recently adopted your dog, then it may be as simple as giving them more time to adjust to their new environment and learn to trust you. Read the 3-3-3 rule of adopting.

Dogs need to be comfortable and trusting to want to play. I know it’s a bit contradictory, but your dog needs to be relaxed enough with you and their surroundings to play. Watch your dog’s body language to figure out how they are feeling before initiating play.

Some dogs have never seen a toy before, they never learned how to play.

It’s also possible the toys you are offering your dog could be too low value.

puppy running next to a large ball outside

How to teach a rescue dog to play

For rescue dogs, take it slow and be patient. They may just need time to adjust to their new environment. Take time to bond with your dog in other ways before trying to teach them how to play.

Proceed according to your dog’s comfort level. If they are nervous or scared of toys leave toys on the floor for them to investigate. If they seem interested and not afraid, then you roll a ball across the ground or play with the toy yourself. Show them that the toy is something joyful, be excited! Follow more tips below.

Always ensure your rescue dog feels secure and comfortable when introducing anything new.

By exploring different types of toys, understanding your dog’s preferences, and making playtime enjoyable, you can successfully teach your dog to play.

Keep reading to learn how to identify the right toys for your dog, creative ways to introduce them to playtime, and tips to make the experience enjoyable and rewarding for both you and your canine companion.

Understanding Your Dog’s Play Preferences

Dogs can be unique when it comes to playtime, and what they like depends on their background, energy level, breed, age, and personality. Just keep an eye on how your pup naturally plays, and that’ll clue you in on the toys and games they’ll enjoy.

For example, retriever breeds often enjoy carrying and fetching toys, like my yellow lab, Bear. While terriers may prefer toys that simulate digging or hunting. Our border collie loves to play frisbee, ball, and puzzles.

Keep in mind that your dog’s play preferences may change as they grow and develop, so it’s essential to stay attuned to their needs and continue to incorporate new activities and toys as appropriate. Our dog Bear is almost 9 years old and while he still loves to play frisbee and ball, he’s slowed down quite a bit.

Teaching Your Dog to Play with Toys

Let’s dig into how to get your dog to play with toys.

Choosing the right toy is the first step in getting your dog interested in playtime.

When selecting toys for your dog, consider their size, strength, and enthusiasm for chewing. Start with a variety of toys to see which ones your dog gravitates toward.

It’s also important to know that most dog toys are meant for you to play together. Don’t give your dog a toy and expect them to play by themselves.

Gather several different types of toys such as chew toys, squeaky toys, plush toys, and puzzle toys. See which toy sparks an interest in your dog.  Be patient and give them time to explore.

It’s okay if they don’t want to play just yet. Do they sniff it or totally ignore it?

You can incorporate treats to motivate your dog to interact with their toys. Many durable dog toys are made of rubber material, like a Kong, which offers a perfect spot to hide treats.

This will not only intrigue them but also teach them to interact with the toy while working for their reward. When my dog Wizard finishes his Kong, he plays with it by throwing it up and catching it.

two dogs playing tug with a Nerf frisbee

Teaching your dog how to fetch or tug

Playing fetch and tug-of-war are classic games we think of when playing with our dogs. But not all dogs enjoy these games, and that’s totally okay.

If you want to teach your dog to play fetch, throw the ball a short distance away, and encourage your dog to retrieve it with commands like “get it” or “fetch”.

When your dog brings the toy back, praise them and offer a treat as a reward. If they don’t bring it back, throw the ball closer to you, at arm’s length. When they don’t get the ball, grab the ball in your hand with a treat (same hand), lure your dog and the ball close to you and offer the treat. Repeat this until they connect the ball equals treat.

To play tug-of-war, hold the toy and encourage your dog to grab the other end. Gently tug back and forth, praising your dog for their enthusiasm and engagement with the toy.

Remember, consistency and patience are key when teaching your dog to play with toys. Don’t force your dog to play, that will just backfire on you and create a negative experience with the toy and they’ll never want to play with it.

With time and effort, your dog will learn to enjoy playing with their new toys and develop a stronger bond with you.

But again, not all dogs enjoy playing with toys, so if that is your dog, it may be best to let go of the dream of playing with toys and find something else your dog is passionate about.

If you have another dog that does like to play, sometimes they can help teach the other dog how to play.

Getting Your Dog Excited About a Toy

If you have a toy you really want your dog to get excited about, I have a trick for you. Put the toy in a drawer or somewhere they can’t see it. Take it out and get super excited about it… I mean way over the top excited.

Dance with it, and happily say, Wow, look at this! Yeah! Let’s play… and on and on until your dog’s energy changes with yours. Be silly about it, to the extent that someone looking from the outside would think your crazy, LOL.

You are both excited about this toy… now see if they will play with you.

Do this several times a day. But always put the toy away. Do not leave it out, that’s when it becomes boring.

Overcoming Common Obstacles When Teaching Your Dog to Play with Toys

Addressing Anxiety and Fear

If your dog shows anxiety or fear around toys, gradually introduce them to less intimidating items. Start with soft, plush toys without squeakers, and praise your dog for interacting with these objects.

Associate positive experiences with the toys through using treats and gentle encouragement. Eventually, move on to slightly more stimulating toys, such as those with squeakers or crinkly fillings, and continue to create positive associations to bolster their confidence.

Engaging Shy or Rescue Dogs

For shy or rescue dogs, building trust is essential to get them interested in playing with toys. Establish a safe and comfortable environment without distractions or stressors.

Introduce simple, easy-to-handle toys like stuffed animals and allow your dog to approach and explore them in their own time. Spend quality time engaging in activities that your dog already enjoys, such as walks and gentle petting, to build a strong bond. Don’t force interaction with the toys – let your dog take their time.

Adjusting for Energy Levels and Physical Limitations

It’s essential to consider your dog’s energy levels and physical capabilities when enticing them to play with toys. For low-energy dogs, try incorporating toys that require less physical input, such as treat-dispensing puzzles or chew toys. On the other hand, high-energy dogs may benefit from fetch or frisbee games that allow them to run and exercise.

Additionally, be mindful of potential physical limitations, like arthritis or mobility issues, and choose toys that are gentle on their joints or easily accessible.

Our 9-year-old lab Bear has been diagnosed with arthritis in his paws, so we have to limit his time playing fetch. Instead, we offer more interactive and puzzle toys to keep him stimulated.

What If My Dog Won’t Play with Any Toys?

Dogs do not need to play with toys to be happy. Engage them in activities like obedience training, scent work, or outdoor exploration.

Take them for walks, runs or hikes to keep their minds and bodies active. You can also use interactive feeders or simply hide treats around your home to encourage problem-solving and exploration.

Find what makes your dog happy and go with it. Forcing your dog to enjoy toys will just make you both frustrated.

yellow lab running with a large stuffed toy in mouth

Choosing the Right Toys for Your Dog

Finding the right toys for your dog may require some experimentation since every dog is unique. Here are some factors to consider when choosing dog toys:

  • Size and durability: Make sure the toys you select are appropriate for your dog’s size and strength. Larger dogs may require more durable toys, while smaller dogs may prefer softer, more lightweight options.
  • Sound and texture: Pay attention to your dog’s preferences for squeaky or crinkly sounds versus quieter toys. Some dogs may like toys with various textures, such as rubber bumps or soft fabric.
  • Playstyle: Observe your dog’s play habits to determine if they prefer fetching, tugging, or chewing and select toys accordingly.
  • Safety: Avoid toys with small parts that could be swallowed or choked on. Make sure toys are made from dog-safe materials.

There are various types of dog toys available, and knowing which ones your dog prefers will make playtime more engaging.

  • Chew toys: These toys are designed to satisfy a dog’s natural urge to chew. They come in various shapes, materials, and sizes. Examples include rubber toys, nylon bones, and chews.
  • Squeaky toys: These toys have a built-in squeaker that produces a sound when your dog bites or squeezes them. Some dogs are highly attracted to these noises, while others may become frightened.
  • Plush toys: Soft, stuffed toys made from fabric can be great for cuddling and gentle play. However, they may not be durable for rough play or dogs who like to chew. Our dog, Bear, can destroy a plush toy in seconds!
  • Interactive / Puzzle toys are great options for providing your dog with mental stimulation which can be more tiring than physical play.
  • Homemade toys: sometimes simple is the best solution. Wrap a plastic water bottle inside an old sock, fill a box with crumpled paper and treats, or make a fleece tug toy. Here are more DIY dog toy ideas.

Remember to always monitor your dog’s playtime and interactions to ensure everyone is having a safe and fun experience.

I do NOT recommend rope toys. I’ve heard way too many stories of dogs eating the string and choking or needing surgery to remove clumps of string in their belly.

We order most of our dog toys on Chewy.com, but occasionally we take a fun trip to the local pet store and let our dogs pick out a toy. So, if you aren’t sure what type of toy your dog will enjoy, try letting them pick one out for themselves.

What’s Next

About the Author

Debi McKee

Debi McKee is the expert behind Rescue Dogs 101 where she guides you in your journey of adopting and raising a rescue dog every step of the way. She is a mom of 3 human kids and 4 dogs and volunteers for a local dog rescue and Humane Society. Click here for more about Debi and her passion for helping you and your dog.

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