Many dogs seem to be smitten with the stuffed animal toy, and almost every dog owner knows which one is his dogs’ favorite to nibble on, snuggle, or sleep with. What makes stuffed animals so appealing to our canine companions and does a preference of a particular dog toy or what your dog does with it say anything about your dog? If it gently carries it around, is very protective of it, and displays maternal behavior towards it - does that mean your dog is experiencing a phantom pregnancy or that it has been removed too early from his litter as a puppy? Or, maybe your dog is a shredder and you are worried about his aggression levels. No matter what behavior your dog exhibits - it is undeniable that dogs really like stuffed animals.
The Root of the Behavior
While it is safe to say that almost all dogs are crazy for the stuffed animal toy, some are genetically predisposed to like them more than others. Labradors and other Retrievers fall into that group as their predecessors were used for hunting and carrying ducks - which would explain their gentle grasps and commitment to always having a plushie in their mouth. They usually like carrying the soft stuffed toys around and don’t tend to destroy them, so the main concern there is making sure to wash the toy from time to time to avoid the build up of dirt and growth of bacteria. The high-energy Terriers and Shepherds are known for their passion of playing fetch and any games that involve chasing things - but that doesn’t mean that the soft stuffed animal toys don’t also hold a special place in their heart as well. Some dogs like stuffed animal toys for their shredability factor - if it can be ripped apart, it’s fun. Even more so if the stuffed toy has a squeaking mechanism inside it. Both preferences are linked to the dogs genetic drive or instinct to hunt and prey on smaller, squeaking, or quacking animals - such as rats or ducks. Given the above, it is both normal and common for dogs to enjoy playing with stuffed animal toys. Though the behavior is generally harmless, there are a few cases that you should be weary about. If your dog seems to obsessing over the toy and suckling on it compulsively, it could be a sign of anxiety or being weaned from his mother too soon. You have to pay close attention to the circumstances during which your dog is most actively going for the toy - does he do it when he’s surrounded by other dogs or loud sounds that could stress him out? Maybe the only time you catch him suckling at his stuffed animal toy is when you get back home. This could potentially be a sign of separation anxiety.
Encouraging the Behavior
If suckling on a stuffed animal toy calms your dog down and it is not uncontrollable, you can let him indulge in the behavior from time to time - but don’t encourage it. If you allow it, you have to make sure that the stuffed plushie is dog-friendly, meaning that the material won’t cause any gum irritations and doesn’t have any small elements that your dog could accidentally choke on. It is always best to buy toys that are designed for dogs and have a specific purpose depending on your dogs needs and preferences. For example, a durable toy that provides resistance (like a Kong toy) is great for a dog that destroys everything, a squeaking toy is good for dogs that don’t chew away at their toys but need the sound to keep their attention for longer periods of time, tennis balls are ideal for high energy dogs that love the chase but prefer their toys intact, and so on. If your dog does get obsessive or compulsive about his stuffed animal toy, try to replace it with something else and get him distracted. If he doesn’t let it go and “needs” his toy, it is highly recommended for him to see a dog trainer or a vet who might prescribe a spray deterrent if necessary, depending on their evaluation. Especially and without a doubt see a trainer if your dog shows any signs of aggression - otherwise it could become a more serious issue.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Though your dog being a fan of his stuffed animal toy is normal and typically safe, it is always best to be cautious and observant, especially when it comes to newly acquired habits or behavior. Most dogs really enjoy playtime with their stuffed animal toys and that is harmless as long as they are not acting obsessive or aggressive, and the stuffed toy is specifically designed for dogs. Your dog should not be at risk of a choking hazard unless he is trying to chew through it. If you notice any changes in his behavior or in relation to the stuffed animal toy, consulting a veterinarian is always a good idea if you are worried about anything and can help in ruling out anything concerning.
Stuffed animal toys are very popular with all dogs, thus it is completely normal for your dog to be occasionally nibbling on his favorite one or taking it everywhere, especially if he is a Labrador or another type of Retriever. How they show their admiration is what defines it being safe and healthy or not. See your veterinarian to get a better insight into your dog’s behavior in case of any doubts.