Why Do Dogs Shake Toys?

Dogs shake toys for a simple reason: toys stimulate a dog's prey drive. In order to better understand the root of this behavior, it helps to take a closer glimpse back into a dog's evolutionary history. Sure, dogs are domesticated animals, and while many centuries separate them from their wild ancestors, deep down, a few adaptive instincts still remain hard-wired no matter what.

Many dogs shake toys with a passion. It's an instinctive behavior. Watch these dogs carefully as they grab a toy and shake their head side-to side and you'll soon recognize a behavior reminiscent of the olden days when dogs were hunters at heart. Yes, because what you are seeing is a semi-predator in action. Sure, your dog is playing, but by shaking the toy, he is reenacting what a large predator does.  

Toys from a Dog's Perspective 

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Watching a small dog pouncing on a toy and then grabbing it, tossing it in the air and shaking it vigorously, may generate a few giggles, but did you know that what you're looking at is a reenactment of a predator?

This is certainly nothing to be alarmed about. After all, evolutionary psychology holds that even modern humans, despite inhabiting a thoroughly modern world, retain some hard-wired instincts of Stone Age hunter-gatherers which made survival possible.

Back to dogs, toys from a dog's perspective, are perceived as prey animals. Yes, this means that, from a dogs perspective, the erratic movements of a bouncy ball is the equivalent of bird, bat or squirrel scurrying about. Indeed, it's not a mere coincidence that many manufacturers of dog toys craft them under the form of animals that are furry and squeak.

Toys stimulate a dog's prey drive, that natural inclination to find, pursue and capture prey which is hard-wired in carnivores, and therefore, it comes as no surprise why playing with toys often triggers a dog's pupils to enlarge and why play entails the enactment of many hunting moves. 

Just as children play entails games that mimic chores observed in adults (cooking, playing doctor, typing with a type writer), dog play often entails games that involve the enactment of hunting moves such as stalking, chasing and pouncing which are elements seen in the predatory sequence. 

"Playing with toys and engaging in games could be thought of as a relic of food acquisition behavior. Your dog may approach a toy much like he would a prey animal." ~Terry Ryan, The Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog.

The Predatory Sequence in Dogs 

In wild carnivorous animals (which still hunt and kill prey animals) the predatory sequence  encompasses search the following elements: Search (orient, eye); Stalk; Chase; Bite (grab-bite, kill-bite); Dissect; Consume.

In dogs, such predatory sequence has been morphed to a great extent through the processes of domestication and selective breeding. Therefore, it is safe to say that in most dogs (there are of course some exceptions!), the predatory sequence has been truncated so to exclude the killing bite. 

The reason for this is a practical one: how could farmers rely on dogs bred to work with sheep, cattle and geese if they would harm such animals because of their strong predatory instincts?

It is therefore thanks to selective breeding, that, nowadays, we have the luxury of having border collies who herd sheep by "giving eye," bloodhounds who search, and retrievers who chase prey and bring it back to the human hunter, all without delivering harmful bites. 

However, when it comes to play some "rules" can be broken without any catastrophic consequences. Best of all, dogs appear to be happiest when their prey drives are properly channeled through play. 

"For dogs, predatory motor patterns are frequently directed towards non-edible objects such as canvas training bumpers or a thrown ball. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to convert an overtrained dog from training devices to freshly killed game. This suggests that for dogs, the predatory sequence is not functionally motivated-it is actually play behavior. The reward is to perform the hypertrophied motor pattern~Raymond Coppinger, Lorna Coppinger

Did you know? According to a study, Airedale Terriers were bred for a fully intact predatory sequence, similar to the wild-type form. Border Collies instead were bred for an exaggerating eye-stalk-chase component of the predatory sequence, while Anatolian Shepherds (livestock guarding dogs) were bred for the inhibition of the full predatory sequence.

"To Break Ones Neck"

So why do dogs shake toys? If you watch closely, your dog's toy-shaking behavior mimics what a predator does to prey animals. If you haven't watched many wild animal documentaries, here's a brief explanation. A disclaimer is warranted though: you may want to skip this part if you are squeamish!

When predators capture prey, they have a variety of strategies to make their final kill. Many predators will deliver their killing bite by aiming for the throat area, tearing the animal's jugular vein, or maybe one or both carotid arteries, which ultimately leads to a fairly quick death due to massive blood loss. 

Smaller animals may be killed by grabbing the animal by the neck area and vigorously shaking it. And this is what Fluffy is doing when she grabs that toy and growls shaking the toy side-by-side. Basically, she is trying to shake it with enough force so to snap its neck. Okay, then!

"That cute growl and shake of the fluffy toy is little Fifi's kill-bite, intended to snap the spine," ~David Ryan, Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist, Stop! How to control predatory chasing in dogs

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Dog toys mimic prey animals and shaking them is the way for dogs to "kill them"

Now That You Know...

As seen, toys stimulate a dog's prey drive, so if you want your dog to have lots of fun, pick toys that are custom-tailored to your dog's play style. There are several dog toys purposely made for dogs who have fun shaking them, but of course, safety always come first. 

  • Always monitor your dog when playing with toys. Many dogs who shake toys will then lie down with the toy and start breaking it into pieces (the consumption portion of the predatory sequence). Some dogs may also consume parts of of the toy which may lead to choking and even intestinal blockages (watch those squeakers, countless dogs get blockage from ingesting those!)
  • For small terrier dogs selectively bred to chase and kill varmint such as Jack Russells, Manchester terriers and rat terriers, choose small toys shaped like mice or squirrels.
  • Larger dog breeds may enjoy toys shaped like raccoons, foxes, geese and skunks.
  • The Kong Wubba makes a fun shake toy considering that dogs enjoy shaking the flapping tails back and forth. 
  • Pick toys made out of real animal fur to entice your dog to play. Just use caution though if your dog is prone to resource guarding or avoid these toys altogether. 
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