Your dog has a pile of toys that include rubber balls, tennis balls, dental sticks, outdoor sticks, fancy bones, squeaky toys, plush toys, and the occasional shoe. He’s one lucky dog to have these fun playthings. But there’s that one toy-a long, soft, squishy squirrel toy that your dog treasures. He plays with it all day, totes it around the house, and at night, he takes it to bed and sometimes falls asleep with it in his mouth. You’ve never tried taking it away because you fear it would be like taking away the TV remote from a sleeping grumpy old man who only wakes when it’s gone.
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The Root of the Behavior
Just like humans go through developmental phases, dogs do too. As toddlers, humans may form attachments to a specific toy. A child will take that toy to daycare, play dates, nana and poppa’s house, in the backyard mud puddle, and to bed. That toy is their best friend and they don’t let go. Dogs do something similar with their toys that they love. The difference is that while humans grow out of the phase of carrying around a toy, dogs don’t have to. It’s socially acceptable for a dog to tote around a toy. In fact, it’s kind of cute. When your dog is attached to an object, he probably will fall asleep with it in his mouth. This behavior can happen in many dogs, but it more often is a result of dogs being weaned from their mother too early. They miss out on valuable experiences and the early weaning process affects both the mother and the puppy.
A mother whose pups were taken too early might treat a plush toy as a puppy. She could be thinking it’s her missing puppy and hoping to nurse and care for it. Dogs who mouth a toy probably were taken from their mother too early. They might be using a toy to reenact the nursing experiences they missed from their mother. Some dogs suck on blankets or other objects. A study in Italy found that dogs weaned too early experience a myriad of problems in their later life. The study showed that dogs weaned too early and sold at a pet shop were more likely to be possessive of their toys. As a result, he might fall asleep protecting and holding his favorite toy. Even if your dog was been weaned properly, he might be sleeping with his toy in his mouth because he’s lonely. If your dog sleeps alone, he might want a little snuggle buddy and since you’re not sharing your bed, he picked a toy to share his. Dogs are pack animals and grow up with their littermates, so often they prefer company.
Encouraging the Behavior
If your puppy is simply holding onto his favorite toy for comfort, you shouldn’t be worried. With human development, children learn coping skills when a favorite object is removed, but having that logical conversation with a dog about growing up is not realistic. If your dog is happy and healthy, mouthing a toy at night isn’t too concerning. There are things to look out for to make sure your dog stays safe and happy. If your dog has torn his toy apart or worn it down so much it is now a choking hazard, replace the toy with a new one. If he’s sleeping with it in his mouth, a piece could get lodged in his throat and cause serious problems.
Some dogs tend to be possessive and object guard. Object guarding is when a dog becomes possessive of an item or human and it turns aggressive and potentially dangerous. While it’s important to respect your dog, it’s also important to make sure this behavior doesn’t spread to other objects in the house. If you have a dog who thinks she is nursing her toy, her maternal instinct might be the defining factor of her protectiveness. Some dogs who tend to mouth and suck on objects, whether sleeping or not, might develop pica. Pica is an eating disorder where dogs eat non-food items like sticks, dirt, drywall, or tree bark. This becomes dangerous when a dog ingests something that can damage his body.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Clean your dog’s toy regularly, especially if he takes it outside. Like a child’s favorite toy, it probably gets to go everywhere and touch everything. If you take the toy and don’t replace it, you may notice your dog becomes upset with whining, shaking, and excessive paw licking throughout the night. He might have used it for comfort and is now anxious without it. When your dog demonstrates any of the behaviors to a damaging degree-nursing a toy, object guarding, pica, or anxiety- take him to the vet or a trainer to find out more. The vet and trainer can figure out why he is behaving as such and give you an alternative way to handle the situation.
Remember your dog is like a child, stuck in the phase with his favorite toy. As adults, we all have our little coping devices to keep us comfortable at night—aromatherapy, an extra cozy blanket, fluffy socks, our significant other. We wouldn’t want that comfort taken away abruptly and neither would your dog. Unless it becomes dangerous or obsessive, let your dog sleep with his toy. Otherwise, he might steal one of your comforts, like your fluffy socks, if you steal one of his toys.