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Why do dogs shake their toys and is it normal behavior?

why do dogs shake their toys
(Image credit: Getty Imagees)

If you’ve ever wondered, why do dogs shake their toys, you aren’t alone. Toy shaking is a common behavior among dogs, but it’s especially common in certain breeds.

Unlike some other behaviors, toy shaking is present at all ages, although it’s more common in young dogs. Although it can seem like sweet behavior to watch your dog take possession of their plaything, don't forget that even the best dog toys can pose a hazard to your canine once they've got their jaws on them so be sure to supervise your dog's playtime to reduce the danger of a potential choking hazard. 

We’re going to look at why some dogs shake their toys, and why others don’t, as well as whether it’s a harmful behavior you should try to prevent.

Why do dogs shake their toys?

Playing with toys is generally a substitute for hunting – dogs get to practice the skills they would use for hunting, as well as release natural urges. In fact, playing is a common way for all young animals, including humans, to learn and practice important behaviors for survival. While nobody knows for sure, most experts agree that dogs shake their toys as part of an instinctual predatory behavior. 

Dogs are predators by nature. They’ll catch and kill small to medium-sized animals, such as mice, rats, rabbits, lizards, and even cats, if they get a chance. While mice and other tiny mammals are usually dispatched quickly with a bite, larger animals are unlikely to be killed quickly enough just by biting. Not only this, but rats, cats, and lizards can give a nasty bite if not killed quickly. Instead, dogs have developed the ‘killing shake’. This violent shake should break their prey’s neck or back, delivering a quick kill.

Do dogs think they are killing their toys?

If you’re wondering, why do dogs shake their toys, they’re acting on an instinct to kill. But do dogs think they are killing their toys? It’s more likely that they’re using the toy as a substitute to practice and finesse the move. They may not be aware of this instinctual need to rehearse a kill, it just comes naturally to them to shake their toys after a period of play.

why do dogs shake their toys

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Why do some breeds shake their toys more than others?

If you’re reading this because you’re wondering, why do dogs shake their toys, the chances are high that you own one of a number of breeds known for toy shaking, such as a terrier breed. It’s far less likely that you have a Labrador Retriever, despite them being a very popular breed. So which breeds tend to shake their toys more, and why?

Any breeds in the terrier group are very likely to shake their toys. These dogs have been bred to hunt and kill vermin, so it makes sense that their killing instinct is a lot stronger than many other breeds. Jack Russells, for instance, are still used to control rats on farms – they can burrow into small spaces, and have lightning-quick reflexes to catch their prey, killing them with a strong shake of the head. Over the years, dogs that are better at killing would have been bred from, resulting in very strong shake-to-kill instincts that are present even in pet dogs.

On the other hand, gundog breeds rarely shake their toys. These dogs have usually been bred to have a ‘soft mouth’. After all, you wouldn’t want your recently-shot pheasant to be bruised and battered with an over-enthusiastic shake. While any dog could be trained not to shake, centuries of breeding dogs that are gentle with their retrieve (and by extension, their toys) has led to an instinctual shift away from killing, and towards gentle carrying. Did you know a Spaniel breed can gently carry around a hen’s egg around in their mouth all day, never cracking the shell?

Of course, many dog breeds have a purpose that doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘groups’ of the kennel club. If your dog is a keen shaker, look up their breed history, and see if there’s a good reason why. For crossbreeds and designer breeds, consider their parent breed histories. But remember, all dogs are individual. Their personalities and early life experiences can help explain why some dogs shake their toys, while others do not.

Is it okay for dogs to shake their toys?

If you’re wondering, is it ok for dogs to shake their toys, the good news is that it is completely normal behavior for dogs. As long as it isn’t harming anyone, it doesn’t need to be discouraged. In fact, allowing dogs to display natural behaviors is one of the ‘five freedoms’, and is part of being a good pet parent. 

However, there are some times when you may need to stop your dog from shaking his toys. The first is a training issue. As puppies, many dogs will shake their toys. The longer and flappier, the more fun they seem to be to shake. The problem comes when it’s a child’s toy, a favorite shoe, or another object your dog shouldn’t have. In this case, consider teaching your pup a ‘drop it’ command in order to retrieve the item without a chase. You’ll need to then help your dog learn which items he is allowed to play with, and which he isn’t. 

Another time you may need to stop your dog shaking his toys is if he has a medical condition. Ear problems, jaw problems, and bad backs could all be worsened by vigorous toy shaking, so it may be that you need to discourage this behavior in some dogs.

Lastly, don’t forget that damaged toys can be dangerous to dogs. Supervise your pup when playing, and regularly inspect toys for damage, removing any that have loose parts or where the stuffing is falling out. Try rotating dog toys into a cupboard so there’s always something ‘new’, but you may have to buy new good dog toys from time to time!

Conclusion

So while we aren’t 100% sure over why do dogs shake their toys, we have a pretty good idea from watching hunting dogs in action. Breeds in the terrier group, or other dogs bred for hunting and killing, are likely to be more prone to shaking their toys because this instinct has been honed through years of selective breeding.

 But toy shaking is an individual thing, and no matter what breed or age your pup is, it’s okay for them to shake their toys, or not, depending on their personality. Just remember to ensure their toys are safe, and that they’re not injuring themselves. 

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.