There is nothing quite like coming home to a wagging tail at the end of the day. You turn the key in the lock, walk in the door, and listen for the pitter-patter of little paws coming toward you. Your dog rounds the corner with his favorite toy in his mouth.
So why the toy? Simply put, it is because he is happy and wants to share his joy with you, his human. There may also be a bit of submission, a plea for goodwill, and a need to calm her excitement. As with any dog behavior, the reasons that apply to your dog will be a blend of his unique temperament and the instincts that drive all canines.
The Root of the Behavior
According to Lisa Colon Tudor, Northern Virginia Magazine's Best Trainer of 2010, animal behavioral science suggests that dogs bring humans their favorite toys primarily out of excitement. The dog grabs the toy because he knows it will bring her energy down from the metaphorical ceiling, but also because it is a way of greeting you that does not involve direct eye contact. Because such contact can feel aggressive to a dog, greeting you with her toy is his way of telling you that he wants to play with you rather than attack you.
Also, dogs possess the instinct to present their pack leaders with gifts such as food and objects of comfort. Just like a peasant might bring a prize chicken to his king, so your dog brings you a toy that he thinks will make you happy and proud. You may not have any need of your dog's version of a prize chicken, which may be quite slobbery, but your dog doesn't know that.
In fact, your dog may have good reason to think that you want her the well-worn toy that she brings to you. If you greet her excitedly when she shows up with it in her mouth, she is likely to take that as reinforcement that you love it as much as she does.
Dogs may also bring you their favorite toy as though it were prey. This could be a manifestation of your dog's ancient instinct to bring their kills back to the pack's home base, where hungry puppies would be waiting and where the alpha would be waiting to approve. If your dog is a retriever, this version of the behavior has been reinforced by decades of breeding and training.
The gesture is also very likely to be just what it looks like, which is an offer to play. You have been gone for what feels like forever to your dog, and she wants to spend some quality time with you.
Encouraging the Behavior
Your dog bringing his toy to greet you is pretty cute. You feel loved, your dog feels loved, and you might even get a picture that earns plenty of likes on Instagram. So, is it okay to encourage the toy fetching as a standard greeting? Experts say that since it is an expression of joy and connection, it is fine for you as the owner to just appreciate it and let it happen.
If you want to actively encourage it, playing with the toy when the dog brings it to you should do the trick. As explained above, part of the reason that your dog greets you with a toy in his mouth is because he wants to make you happy. If you seem happy with the offering, your dog will take this as a sign that you want him to do it again.
He may also be even more encouraged if you pet him and give him extra attention when he brings you a toy to greet you. Scratch him on the ear, rub his belly, or do whatever else seems to be his favorite form of attention. This makes him feel good and will make him want to bring you a toy again for the pure pleasure of the extra pats.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If, however, you have guests that are less than appreciative of your dog's exuberance, you may want to discourage your dog bringing you toys at the door. Many owners prefer that their dogs offer lower-key greetings, so as not to overwhelm people who come to the door. You can dial down the exuberance by choosing not to respond with too much excitement of your own when your dog brings the toy. Simply let her wander around with it in her mouth until she gets tired.
Another potential concern is if your dog starts bringing you objects that are not toys, especially if she really shouldn't have those things in her mouth. In this case, and as a preventive measure for any future games of tug or fetch, you should make sure that she is responsive to the “drop it” command.
Dogs do many things that are equal parts cute and confusing. Chances are, meeting you at the door with his favorite toy is one of them. If his enthusiasm is not posing a danger to himself or others, it is nothing to worry about it. Feel free to take a video, show it to your friends, even post it on social media and hope it goes viral. Or, just smile and give him the love that he deserves for being so adorable!
By a Labrador Retriever lover Laura DeCesare
Published: 02/21/2018, edited: 01/30/2020