Ding-dong, the witch is dead!

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

I recently came into some free dog toys that prompted me to do an experiment. This experiment was inspired by a blog post from my colleague Kristi Benson. You can read her post here.

Taking these particular toys home felt like a bit of a risk. In this house, we traditionally love anything made by Kong, because their products are virtually indestructible. I can't tell you when my dog got her first Kong Classic. But I can tell you that I thought I had stumbled upon something wonderful. I would stuff it with peanut butter, which she found entertaining AND I didn't have to buy a new one every week, which I found remarkable!

We started using Kong products out of a sort of desperation. I remember the last time I gave Portia, my 9 year old husky, a stuffed toy some 8 years ago. It was an orange duck, cheaply made and adorable. I handed her the prize and hopped in the shower. When I emerged roughly ten minutes later, I was met by a floor covered in orange fabric and stuffing. Portia laid amidst the carnage, glassy-eyed and blissful.

Then and there I established a rule: "No More Stuffed Toys." What was the point if she was just going to destroy them?! Particularly since I had the budget of a college student working part-time at a pizza joint.

I had not given this much thought until reading Kristi's post. Not long after, it was my fortune to be offered some free stuffies. So I thought, why not give it a try? From my recollection, Portia was not in the habit of eating the stuffing, so it did not present any immediate danger to her health in the form of intestinal blockage.

The toys I chose were Halloween themed (a witch, a bat and a black cat), for no reason other than I thought they were cute.

Perhaps not as fun as the real thing.

I brought them home and excitedly laid my bounty on the floor for Portia's inspection. She gave a cursory sniff, a modest squeak or two and promptly trotted off in search of better things. I was stumped. What had happened to her desire to tear these things to shreds?

The toys laid on the floor untouched for about a week. Once they had collected their fair share of dog hair, I ran them through the washer and dryer, then sat them on a shelf for a future Halloween display.

After a while, I decided to give it another go. I put them down again, and this time they seemed more interesting to her. Why, I do not know. But at least she was playing with them. She carried them around, squeaking to her heart's content. A couple of weeks passed with the toys still intact.

Then it happened. Stufficide took place right in my living room. Portia's ecstatic killer-grin returned and all was well in the world. I was thrilled to say my dog had been cured! She once again tore toys limb from limb when given the opportunity.

No real bats were harmed in the making of this blog post.

A few days later, the second toy fell. I was ecstatic.

If you've read this far, I imagine you may be as much of a dog nerd as I am. If not, you're probably wondering why in the world I find this so interesting.

Let me tell you why! Thanks to evolution, animals come equipped with what are known as fixed action patterns (FAPs) or module action patterns (MAPs). A fixed action pattern, as explained by The Khan Academy is:

an innate behavior, or behavior that's genetically hardwired in an organism. Given the right cues, an organism will perform an innate behavior without the need for prior experience or learning. Innate behaviors tend to be very predictable ... and they are often performed in a very similar way by all members of a species.

So what does that have to do with ripping toys apart? Dogs evolved from wolves. All wolves are born with FAPs that aid their survival. Dogs then, have inherited those same FAPs. Sort of.

Here's where it gets interesting. As wolves evolved into dogs, they had less of a need for these FAPs. When humans stepped in, we inadvertently relieved the natural selection driving the wolf population (and the continuance of those FAPs). Instead, we mixed it up by breeding for things like color, drive, conformation, etc.

With humans to care for them, and with less of a need to hunt successfully, the FAPs we originally saw disappeared. Sort of.

In the process of domestication, these FAPs regressed, morphed, faded into the background, became incomplete or were triggered by odd things. Undoubtedly, our dogs do possess some of the FAPs of their wolf ancestors, but they usually are not completely intact.

This is illustrated when your dog catches a rabbit but is unsure of what to do with it once she has it. Or, like Portia, when she chooses to tear apart a perfectly good toy duck that has no nutritional value. The squeaker inside can be said to emulate the sound of struggling prey, and thus trigger the "dissection" portion of the predatory sequence FAP.

Posing with her "kill"

For good measure, I'll include what that predatory sequence is exactly. According to wolf biologist David Mech, the predatory sequence of wolves in it's entirety consists of:

1) Search
2) Stalk
3) Rush/chase
4) Grab
5) Kill
6) Dissect
7) Eat

All of these predatory sequence components are fair game for expression in our dogs. They just tend to come out in weird ways. Another example would be a dog attempting to hide a treat under a cushion for later (known as caching), when that dog has never once missed a meal.

So why would I consider any of this important for dog owners who are not particularly interested in evolutionary biology? Because, I too am a dog owner! And sometimes I'm a bad one!

I work full-time, I take dog training clients on top of that and also help out other dog professionals from time to time. This does not always lend itself to being a remarkable dog mom. I'm often tired and uninterested when it comes to working with my own dog.

Sometimes we just need our dogs to go entertain themselves for a while and leave us be - so we can watch Netflix in peace. I am no exception to this.

Ultimately, when the Kongs have been de-stuffed, the Wobbler has been emptied of kibble and the walk is done, having one more option in my "easy enrichment" arsenal can be just the thing the doctor ordered. It may not seem like much, but giving my dog the opportunity to exercise her oh-so-satisfying fixed action pattern is good for her mental health AND mine.

So, if your dog is not prone to ingesting foreign bodies, I say let them rip up those cute toys. With some rudimentary sewing skills, you can even save yourself some money by choosing to save the innards and patch them up to be reused as I plan to.

Sing it high, sing it low, let them know the wicked witch is dead!

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