The magic of toy holding

Last week on our facebook page, we posted a photo of Doodlebug holding a tennis ball, and asked folks why they thought it might be useful to teach a dog to hold a toy. We were amazed at how many thoughtful, creative ideas everyone came up with!

In Doodlebug’s basic obedience class, our homework one week was to only pay attention to our dog when he was holding a toy in his mouth. If he came seeking affection, we were to offer a toy. If he took the toy, we could pet him and play with him for as long as he wanted. But the second he dropped the toy, we lost all interest and the toy disappeared. We stashed toys in all corners of the house, and took our assignment very seriously.


We wanted to work on Dude’s play drive — he didn’t have much interest in playing fetch, chase, tug, or other toy games. If we could teach him to develop warm, fuzzy feelings about holding a toy in his mouth while hanging out with us, we were well on our way — our hope was that his urge would be to find toys and bring them to us, which is — essentially — fetch. Some of our clever facebook readers guessed this reason right away: “Holding something in their mouth without chewing it is step 1 of shaping item retrieval behavior.” We also learned in class that petting a dog who is holding a toy promotes sharing rather than guarding behavior — “If I bring my treasure to you, you will love on me, not take it away.” A worthy lesson for sure!

Our Facebook fans also came up with many of the other great reasons a handler may want to teach a dog to hold a toy. Here are some highlights.

Limiting inappropriate mouthing or play:

  • I trained my Lilly to play with a ball in her mouth when she was a puppy, so she’d stop chomping on her sister Abby.
  • Luna learned early on to pick up a toy when people came in the door, as it kept her out of trouble as she can’t “love bite” when she has a toy in her mouth. That way she can still be excited but it’s a better way for her to use her toy.
  • I worked with a dog who had a mild case of PICA and at home he loved to carry toys and his bowl in his mouth so we worked on teaching the dog to carry a ball or a bone on walks to help prevent him from eating every little thing he wasn’t supposed to. 
  • My friend’s dog had anxiety issues when people left the house. He physically displaced by biting shoes pant legs etc. She taught him to find and hold a toy to keep him from biting; over time it seemed to help lessen his anxiety.
  • We’ve trained our pooch to “hold” something when we roughhouse. She doesn’t attempt to bite, but having her mouth closed around something prevents any accidental teeth-skin contact.

Boosting focus by giving the dog a “job” to do:

  • It’s like they have a “job” to do, something to stay focused on when out for walks rather than worrying about the passing dog or person.
  • Holding a ball in her mouth seems to make Harley a little less anxious. Not sure what the mechanism is here, but maybe like a human stress ball, it gives her something to let out a little crazy and focus on. 
  • Helps my girl Nina when we’re walking the neighborhood and she sees a dog that she would normally want to spark off at. Since she’s determined not to let go of her ball until she gets home, she doesn’t bark.
  • Both of mine know the “hold” command, kinda important when they are retrieving birds for us. We also like to make it into a game where we get them to carry things between the two of us. VERY handy when one is outside and needs something from inside. They get to be the messengers.

Have you taught a dog to hold a toy? If so, how, and for what reason?

26 responses

  1. Our dog Ben loves to collect and carry toys…sometimes many at once. He collects lots toys at bedtime and brings them into our room. In the morning he carries them back out to the living room and kitchen. He does get very mouthy with people when they come to the door …. he is just 7 months old and uses his mouth when he gets very excited…not biting but it worries me sometimes. Instead of treats as a distraction maybe I should try a special toy by the door =) Great ideas from everyone!

    sp: love the photos what a gentle face holding the tennis ball ♥

  2. wow, so many GREAT reasons. i’m going to work with WALL-E on this for sure!

    aleks, thanks so much for all your info that you are sharing with us. i so wish i was taking the class with you!!!

  3. “Helps my girl Nina when we’re walking the neighborhood and she sees a dog that she would normally want to spark off at.”

    What a great idea – I can’t wait to try this!

  4. Chocko is a born natural– he loves holding toys/bones in his mouth! I think encouraging it in the way you explained above would be helpful for him on so many levels. Add it to the to-do list 🙂

  5. This is a brilliant idea. Eleanor’s only issue when we adopted her last month was play biting, and I’ve been entirely unsuccessful at breaking her of it. Fantastic advice, particularly given her ongoing love affair with stuffies. R

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  7. When Apollo was a puppy, he was horrible on the leash, but I noticed if he was carrying something in his mouth, whether it was a ball, stick or a stuffed toy, his leash manners improved drastically. I think by focusing on the toy, the environment became less of a distraction. Fewer “ooh, butterfly!” incidents.

    So I started making it a habit to ask Apollo to get a toy for our walks. Initially, he’d carry it a few yards and then drop it. Nowadays (at nine yo), he will carry it most of the way, if not the whole way. We walk about 4-5 miles every day.

    I also had a few rules which probably helped Apollo learn this: if he wants a toy to play with at our destination, he has to pick it himself from his toy box. And yes, his choices does vary!
    When we enter/leave the house, he has to carry the toy in/out. If he drops it, we wait a few minutes for him to pick it back up. If he doesn’t pick a toy before we exit or drops it before we get outside, there’s no playtime at the destination. It took him awhile to learn this last rule, but eventually he figured out that “no toy = no fun play.”

    /Now/, he walks very well on the leash, and we don’t really need to take toys anymore, but he enjoys it. 5-15min of playtime on our walks doesn’t add much time to our walks. So why not? And it makes passerbys smile when they see him carrying a pink stuffed dragon around (one of his favorite toys). It’s cute to see.

  8. I have worked on this off and on with my dog with very little success. It’s something I’d really like to get her to do, if only for the limitless photo opportunities, but it’s not something that comes natural to her. Also, she is so used to being rewarded with food that she keeps dropping the toy every time I praise her in expectation of a treat. Maybe I’ll try your method and see if it helps!

  9. I taught my dog, Dozer, to get a toy and hold onto it whenever I come home because when he would greet me he would always try to give “love bites.” So now whenever my husband or I come home he runs around and finds a toy to hold before he comes to greet us. I am also curious why you need to create play drive? Dozer is very treat motivated to learn and has a strong play drive. One thing I am having an issue with is that when he wants to play he tries to grab hands as if they are toys now; any suggestions on how to curb this would be appreciated! He will be two years old in February and he did this when he was younger but he stopped and he is now doing it again and I am not sure why.

  10. My dog, Stewart, could not care less about toys much to my chagrin. Fetch? Forget it. Chewies? Nope. He would prefer to just lay in a zen-like state of contemplation with me petting him all day long. Argh.

  11. Elka will pick things up, drop them, retrieve them, and take them to a named person, but she won’t (yet) “hold” or “carry” something for any length of time. I’m interested in doing it as a focusing and fun thing!

  12. I would love to teach our Newfie, Sadie, to do this. We adopted her about 8 months ago and she has never been interested in any sort of play longer than a couple minutes at a time (and not even every day). I think I’ve bought every type of toy to see if there is a magical solution that we don’t know found. We adopted her as a rescue at 2 yo and she had been bred twice :(. I wonder if she never really learned how to play because of that situation.. Maybe it’s her personality but I can’t help but feel she’s missing out on fun and exercise. Look forward to seeing the Dude learn!

  13. Love this post! I’ve been working with one of the dogs from Miss M’s rescue groups, and I know this would be perfect for him. Though I wonder what this says about Mr. B? He is always carrying his stuffies around like a security blanket.

  14. Our shepherd/cattle/whatelse dog will carry her tennis ball around with her, and poke you with it if she doesn’t think she is getting your attention to go play. Our bully mix is obsessed with tennis balls, he has had learned to drop it, back away, sit and wait for you to throw it. Great tool 🙂

  15. We tried this today and it was so helpful! Our girl is a scavenger on walks and is particularly good at sniffing out chicken bones at the park. In addition to calming her down on our walk, her fav ball kept her mouth full and she wasn’t even tempted to drop it as we passed a pile of chips on ground – an unexpected perk! My only concern at this point is that she is a resource guarder; she was very possessive over the ball outside (even with me, which I am working on), so I’m just worried about another dog approaching us and her reacting. Any thoughts on that?

    • Meghan, I would think that if she is worried about the dog taking her ball, she would not want to let go of the ball in the dog’s presence — right? Not sure though.

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  17. I didn’t teach my dog to hold a ball on a walk. When I take her for a walk she likes to play fetch at the park so I bring her ball along. I used to hold the ball but my dog started to not walk properly on lead and jump at my pocket or hand for the ball. So I gave it to her and she held it in her mouth all the way to the park and after fetch at the park we walk around the neighborhood and she holds it until we get home. I came to this site because I found it strange for her to do that but now I see that she has created a job for herself. If I walk her without a ball she will walk as normal but if there is a ball involved she wants to hold it.

  18. My 1yr. Newfy pup likes to pick up something, anything in his mouth when I let him out of his pen to go for a walk. He usually takes the leash out of my hand or now I give him a little stuffed dolly. He carries it the whole way. . keeps it in his mouth when he stops to pee but will drop it if he poops. If I pick it up, he will want it back when he’s done. Sometimes on the way back home he looses interest. I think it’s funny to see a 125 lb dog carrying a doll so I call it his “demon”. That way, he’s not embarrassed. Smile

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