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Basic Training

Toys that alleviate boredom are all the rage among pet owners that need extra help curbing bad behaviors and overcoming training challenges.


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Pet owners are choosing to educate themselves and become more involved in the process of training their pets, creating ample sales opportunities for pet specialty retailers. 

“[Training] not only creates a more disciplined environment for the pet, but helps pets and pet parents to strengthen their bond,” said Patricia McCune, senior product manager for Petmate in Arlington, Texas. “Behavior and training toys are being designed and created with both the pet and ‘trainer’ in mind. Simple, effective function is the goal.”

Toni Lynn Mark, training and behavior education specialist for PetSafe, a brand of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Radio Systems Corp., said one of the most popular trends the company has recently noticed is to present the dog with a challenge.

“Toys that encourage dogs to work for their food or reward can be both mentally and physically stimulating,” she said. “This type of enrichment is very helpful for all dogs, especially ones that might have a lot of energy or dogs that do not have regular opportunities to enjoy new things.  Toys that present a challenge can also be great for redirecting a dog’s destructive chewing behavior with items such as shoes or a child’s toy.”

Sue Tasa, director of education at Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California, said that the stores are seeing the most innovation in the interactive toy segment.

“Manufacturers are producing toys that are challenging more and more of a dog’s natural behaviors and even engaging multiple senses such as sight and smell,” she said. “This creates not only an interesting and engaging experience for the pet, but we find that pet owners really enjoy watching their pets interact with these types of toys. Subsequently, we find these customers coming back again and again, seeking out new and innovative toys to add to their dog’s ‘toy box.’”

At Wag N’ Wash Natural Food & Bakery, which has stores nationwide, customers are using treat and puzzle toys to resolve behavior and training concerns. 

“An occupied and mentally stimulated dog is a better-behaved dog,” said Dan Hutchison, owner of Wag N’ Wash in Eagan, Minn.

Pattie Boden, manager of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., said that any behavior toy that involves a dog figuring out how to get a treat out of the toy flies out of her store.

“Especially the ones that combine a longer-lasting treat like a bully stick rather than kibble or tiny treats,” she said. “As far as training toys go, things made out of seatbelt-type fabric, toys that float and toys that last during dog park play are what work best for our customers.”

Emily Benson, marketing director for Starmark Pet Products in Hutto, Texas, said that as pet owners are looking for more ways to keep their pets occupied, manufacturers are responding with more innovative and complex designs for puzzle toys.  

“Many of these toys function so that the pet must use or manipulate the toy in some way in order to receive a food reward,” she said. 

“Clicker training with treats can be beneficial in the grooming environment to make the job easier on both the pet and the groomer,” Benson added. “With this training aid, groomers, as well as pet owners, can accustom their pet to standing in position, having feet held, and even the sounds and sensations of the equipment being used.”  

Toys That Train

Numerous innovations have been introduced to the market as manufacturers aim to respond to the increased demand.

Petmate has partnered with celebrity dog trainer Brandon McMillan, star of the Emmy Award-winning CBS show “Lucky Dog,” to create effective training tools for everyday pet owners. 

“The Brandon McMillan line of training solutions provides owners with the tools to build trust, establish focus, and control and master training techniques with their pet,” said Patricia McCune, senior product manager for Arlington, Texas-based Petmate. “Two new products available at retail are the Shake and Break and Lure Stick.”

The Shake and Break is designed to stop unwanted dog behaviors such as jumping on furniture or people, barking, etc. The noise made by shaking the bottle breaks the dog’s focus and directs its attention to the pet owner to correct the behavior. The Lure Stick is a treat reward tool that helps stop smaller dogs from pulling on a leash and encourages them to heel. The stick reaches the noses of short dogs without the owner having to crouch and keeps distance between the owner’s hands and dog’s snout, McCune said.

Starmark Pet Products in Hutto, Texas, introduced its Treat Dispensing Puzzle Ball, which dispenses a variety of treats or kibble and holds a cup of food to turn mealtime into playtime, with some challenge for the dog.

Tell a Story

Retailers with familiarity of the features of the toys they carry are instrumental in guiding customers to the right toy for their dog, according to manufacturers.  

“Asking questions to get to know the needs and preferences of the customer and their dog also lends to a personal experience that goes beyond reviews or product descriptions,” said Emily Benson, marketing director for Starmark Pet Products in Hutto, Texas.

Toni Lynn Mark, training and behavior education specialist for PetSafe, a brand of Radio Systems Corp. in Knoxville, Tenn., said the company takes great pride in the materials and resources it provides to its customers to help increase sales. 

“From instruction manuals to online videos, we create high-quality informative educational pieces that make sure the customer understands how to play with the toy and the benefits of the toy,” she said. 

Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California, has found success selling these items when its sales associates have used the toys with their own pets, or have seen the toys used by their co-workers, friends or family members.

“At the very least, we share stories verbally with one another on how we used the toys and how they worked with our animals,” said Sue Tasa, director of education at Pet Food Express.

The staff at Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., occasionally takes a batch of new toys and treats to the local dog park and hosts a “toy-testing afternoon.”

“Our clients will go out of their way to attend these events,” said Pattie Boden, manager of the store. “Also, if the vendor supplies digital video to show how the toy is used, that is a great thing to post on our social media.”

Displays Can Make a Difference 

Toys and training products displayed fully assembled and in accessible areas help consumers better understand their function and effectiveness.  

Patricia McCune, senior product manager for Petmate in Arlington, Texas, noted that packaging also helps showcase product function, features and simple instructions to further explain how to use each tool.

“In addition, instructional videos for products are always helpful, so consumers get a first look on how to properly use each training tool,” she said. 

At Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California, samples of toys are displayed outside of packaging for customers to explore and play with. At Wag N’ Wash Natural Food & Bakery in Eagan, Minn., owner Dan Hutchison’s favorite merchandising trick is keeping two different puzzle toys full of treats on the floor near the point-of-sale system so they are discovered by pets on their way in and out of the store. 

“It’s a great way for owners to see the interest their companions have in these types of toys,” he said. 

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