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Ask a Dog Trainer – How Do I Choose A Stimulating Toy For My Dog?

| Published on September 25, 2015

A lot of dog trainers and vets recommend people use activity toys and with good reason. They are great for boredom, mild separation anxiety, slowing down fast eaters, increasing problem solving skills and even tiring your dog out (thinking is hard work!).

However, activity toys can be pretty expensive and if you don’t know anything about them, you might spend a ton of money on toys that never work for your dog. So, before rushing out and buying a bunch of toys, here is a quick guide, along with a review of the most three most popular types of activity toys, which will help you decide which ones to buy for your dog.  While my dog has used activity toys in the past, all three of these were new to him for this test. My dog gets a cup of food and the kibbles are pretty small, around a quarter of an inch.

Slow Feeders

Slow feeders were an amazing invention – for the first time there was a feeder designed to make dogs eat slower, which helps prevent bloat. While these feeders can be pricy – up to $60 for some models – they are really irreplaceable.

I have seen lately a lot of “hacks” that tell people to just put a tennis ball in their dog’s bowl, because it will slow them down.

Really?? Your dog will just pick up the tennis ball, drop it out of the bowl and then inhale the food. I have never met a dog that was so unintelligent that they wouldn’t figure that out. So please, don’t assume a tennis ball is going to stop your dog from eating fast. Instead, buy one of these.


Slow feeders a great introductory bowl because your dog can easily see and smell the food and it’s “obvious” how to get it out of the dish. In the past, I have used the brake-fast bowl.

Brake-fast bowl
Brake-fast bowl

For this test, I tried the Outward Hound Fun Feeder ($14.99 – $19.99)

shopping (1)
Outward Hound Fun Feeder

Time to Eat

Slow feeders also help relieve boredom because they do take the dog a bit longer to eat, but not as long as the other types of activity feeders.

This one was a bit trickier for my sheltie than his old brake-fast, because of the circle pattern. However, it still took him only 7 minutes to eat, by the far the quickest of the toys we tested.


Bottom Line

These are great for dogs who you are just trying to slow down their eating but may not be toy motivated (no real interaction is required for food to be “dispensed”). Or, as an introductory toy to other more challenging ones.

Activity Ball

Almost everyone has a treat dispensing “ball” of some kind –

KONG Wobbler

Kong Wobbler

Buster Cube

Buster Cube

and the Omega Paw are a few. These toys are great for dogs that love balls and have a lot of energy to burn. The one I used for this test is the NEW canine Nose-It! (price varies, but usually around $49.99 – $55).



These take some problem solving because your dog can’s see the treats, only smell them. But if they are used to playing with a ball, it won’t take them too long to figure out what they have to do. After that, it’s relatively easy for the dogs to get the food out.

At this point, a few things factor into the difficulty:

  • Size of hole (bigger gives out more food, so it’s easier). Kibble size will also affect this of course.
  • Shape of toy – a ball rolls easiest, many sided or awkward sides are more difficult. The Wobbler has a weighted base so dog has to hit it pretty hard for it release treats. It’s more difficult than a regular toy.
  • The surface it’s on – carpet vs. smooth flooring (see my review below)

Time to Eat

This one surprised me and I ended up doing two tests. The first time, I put it on our laminate flooring, thinking it would be easier because the Nose-It! would roll better… Man did he have a hard time! He was getting nowhere with it, the toy just slide around and, surprisingly, he didn’t seem to want to paw at it to slip it, but kept pushing with his nose.

6 minutes in, and my smart sheltie had problem solved…


He picked it up (which was also hard for him) and put it on the canvas dog bed I had in the room. Once on that surface, he was able to roll and get to the kibble. Every time it fell off the bed, he spent a few seconds trying to pick it back up and put it on the bed, but he was getting the food, at least some of it.

Fast forward 25 minutes and he gives up! He actually left the toy and went and sat under my desk. I went to check and he still had a good 1/3 of a cup left in the toy and it was hard for me to get out! The toy has a lip on the inside and that really adds to the difficulty, especially with smaller kibble.

So, the next day I tried it on carpet. It was much easier for him to flip it with his nose and get kibble out, but at about 20 minutes he gave up and he still had probably 1/4 of a cup of kibble. Again, the lip just gets it stuck in there. I had to really shake it and even then I could not get all the kibble out.


Bottom Line

These toys are great to relieve boredom, energy, or slow down your fast eater and make your dog think (look at what my dog had to do)

With other activity balls, I would say it takes between 10-15 minutes. This is depending on the shape and how enthusiastic your dog is.

Puzzle Toys

The last type gives you most options. You can find puzzle toys that make your dog paw, slide, nose, pick up and turn in order to get his food. Some even have multiple levels. These are great for dogs that are super smart and high in energy with a moderately high attention span. Outward Hound, Nina Ottosson, and Petsafe make a lot of these types of toys, but there are tons out there. They can range in price for as low as $14.99 to $60+ depending on the toy.

Nina Ottosson


This is going to depend on the toy, but in general they are more complicated than the slow feeder or activity balls (with the exception of the Nose-it! perhaps). With a lot of these, the dogs can’t see the food and in some cases, they may not be able to smell it that well either. Difficulty is going to depend on two things:

  1. Your dog
  2. The toy’s features

Pay attention to how your dog plays with regular toys. Does he paw, does he use his nose/mouth? Maybe a combination? Dogs that use their nose and mouths will have an easier time with activity balls, but may be challenged if the puzzle toy calls for paw involvement. Or vice versa. Noticing this will help you chose easy toys to start with, and then move to the harder as he learns how to play with these toys.

I tested the Paw Flapper from Outward Hound. This two-part puzzle requires the dog to flip up the treat doors to get food, but then they also have to rotate the top of the base to reveal other chambers. They can use their nose or paw to slide the base.

Paw Flapper

Time to Eat

My sheltie has used activity toys where he has to flip up, but never slide. He definitely is more likely to use his mouth than his paws, so he didn’t even try to slide the toy with his paw.

In fact, he didn’t figure out the slide at all. Instead, he would pick up the toy by one side and the drop it to make the kibble move.


21 minutes later and he had gotten all but about three stubborn kibbles out.

Bottom Line

If your dog is crazy intelligent, has done problem solving exercises such as shaping, or has already mastered the slow feeder and/or the activity ball, then he is ready to try one of these. After watching him play with his regular toys, chose a toy that will be challenging, but possible. You don’t want your dog to give up like mine did with the Nose-it! Gradually chose more and more difficult toys as he learns how to problem solve.

Maybe we need a garage sale site so we can all swap activity toys as our dog gets good at them? I have a several and just switch them out, but even then, after a while he cuts down the eating time by about half.

Except with the Nose-it! – he may not be able to do that with that toy. We shall see.


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