When it comes to dog toys, pet owners have high expectations. Consumer demand is evolving, and manufacturers are working to meet the needs of dogs and their owners in many ways.
“There are a couple of ongoing trends that we see which have had some staying power,” said Sarah Johnson, account manager at P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You), a San Francisco-based manufacturer of pet toys, beds and accessories. “One is interactive puzzle toys, like our Wobble Ball, that gets dogs to really use their minds to figure out how the toy works. These challenges are good for mental stimulation for the dog, and pet parents enjoy watching their pups figure out how to use these toys.”
Johnson said that the other big trend has been creative plush toys—particularly those that are “camera ready.”
“People love snapping photos of their pups with fun, well-crafted toys to share with friends, family or social media followers,” she added.
P.L.A.Y. recently debuted some new plush toys including Canine Commute, a collection inspired by the transportation methods that city dwellers use to commute. The collection comes in 15-piece sets with a free merchandising display. In addition, the Merry Woofmas Plush Toy Collection features festive toys just in time for the holiday season.
Adam Baker, president and founder of pet toy manufacturer SodaPup in Boulder, Colo., said that he’s also noticed the popularity of novelty dog toys as well as enrichment toys in which dog owners can put food or treats.
“People are attempting to work from home, which can be difficult to do with dogs that ‘just wanna have fun,’” he said. “The beauty of enrichment toys is that they consume a dog’s attention for a longer period of time, giving pet owners more time to work or tend to their family. Many people fill their enrichment toys with moist ingredients that can be frozen. Giving your dog a frozen enrichment toy can keep them occupied for as long as an hour. That is precious time in our new reality of working from home and home-schooling our children.”
At press time, SodaPup was preparing to launch a retro-style van treat dispenser and a nylon dog chew toy in the shape of a marijuana leaf.
“It might offend some, but there are many people who will get a huge laugh watching their dog chewing on it,” he said, referencing the increased interest in novelty toys that can help lighten the mood of these trying times.
Matt O’Leary, owner of Felix & Oscar in Springfield, Va., said that toys that help provide “pet engagement” are top sellers at his store for the very reasons that Baker noted.
“Whereas pet owners were previously out of the home and looking for toys that kept their pets engaged while they were away, they’re now home and recognizing the need more than ever that their pet be entertained,” O’Leary said. “There’s still work to be done, even if online, and pet parents can see firsthand that their dog needs a toy they can enjoy.”
Spencer Williams, president and owner of West Paw, a Bozeman, Mont.-based manufacturer of dog toys, beds and accessories, agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the need for engaging toys.
“General trends we are seeing include the rise in ‘brain game’ toys and slow-feeder toys,” he said. “This became even more apparent at the height of the pandemic when more people were home and it was even more important to keep the dogs busy while they got things done.”
Williams said that on a broader scale, dog owners are seeking products that will solve problems such as chewing, boredom or eating too quickly. Toys that encourage exercise and mental engagement also help to drive sales. Retailers should focus on demonstrating how toys like this provide value to the customer for a minimal investment.
In August, West Paw introduced its newest treat toy, Rumbl. This slow-feeder toy fits one cup of kibble in the small size, and the large version fits two cups.
“Rumbl joins our other treat toys Tux, Toppl, Qwizl and Tizzi,” Williams said. “All toys are designed to be stuffed with food and treats to enhance mental stimulation and provide an increasing level of difficulty. West Paw recently launched our line of single- and limited-ingredient dog treats that fit perfectly inside all of our treat toys and two creamy treats that dogs love to lick out.”
Pattie Zeller, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., said she is seeing a lot of interest in toys such as lick mats and anything interactive—especially if one of the healthful soft foods or cannabidiol (CBD) peanut butter can be paired with them.
“We love it when we can cross-market both the food, supplement and toy all in one,” she said. “It makes a great upsell situation that’s easy for our staff to recommend.”
“General trends we are seeing include the rise in ‘brain game’ toys and slow-feeder toys.”—Spencer Williams of West Paw
A Toy for Every Pup
Having just the right mix of toys is no simple feat, especially considering breed size and that dogs have a wide variety of interests. Matt O’Leary, owner of Felix & Oscar, a pet store in Springfield, Va., said that trying to please everyone is never easy.
“No matter how many toys we get in, inevitably, there always seems to be someone who asks about a toy we don’t have,” O’Leary said. “But we try really hard to focus on using a variety of distributors and even dealing directly with the manufacturer in order to have unique toys that you can’t just find anywhere. At the end of the day, what sets the independent retailer apart is the uniqueness of their product assortment.”
Janet Monaco, owner of Pet Pros, a pet store in Rockledge, Fla., noted that given the importance of a vast assortment, she dedicates a lot of space to toys. After all, without the physical space, variety is difficult to achieve.
“I have an entire wall—about 20 feet long—dedicated to toys,” Monaco said. “Toys are a big seller, so it’s worth the space. Here in Florida, people want toys to keep their pet active like water toys, including ones that float.”
Pattie Zeller, owner of Animal Connection, a store in Charlottesville, Va., also aims to please as many customers as possible.
“We really try to be ‘all things to all dogs,’” she said. “We have a wide variety of soft, plushy toys to tough, durable options—keeping how they play in mind. We always ask our customers what their dog’s play style is and find the right fit for each customer.”
Adam Baker, president and founder of pet toy manufacturer SodaPup in Boulder, Colo., said that he thinks retailers should offer both the “sizzle and the steak” of toys.
“If you think of dog toys like the apparel business, there will always be a need for basics—like your black T-shirts—but we are also excited by newness, so you need to still bring in the fashion items to keep your assortment feeling fresh and interesting,” he said. “Otherwise, people will just go online to look for newness. My recommendation, especially for a limited space, is to stock those ‘go-to’ basic items that drive volume, but save 25 to 30 percent of your space open to buy novelty items that you can flow through and constantly change, perhaps seasonally.”
If a retailer is offering quality products, they don’t necessarily need a huge quantity building their selection, so even in a small space all needs can be met, said Sarah Johnson, account manager at P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You), a San Francisco-based manufacturer of pet toys, beds and accessories.
“Given their ongoing popularity, the primary groups to hit on are generally plush, outdoor recreation or tough-built toys, and puzzle toys,” she added. “One way to curate the best assortment is for retailers to talk directly to their customers and get feedback on new products. They can ask what else customers might be looking for or would like to see more of within the store’s assortment.”
Inspiration for Innovation
As manufacturers aim to keep up with consumer demand, their inspiration comes from a variety of places.
Adam Baker, president and founder of pet toy manufacturer SodaPup in Boulder, Colo., said that his company recognizes that dog owners are a diverse group of individuals and cannot be thought of as a monolith.
“Therefore, we have segmented consumers into different groups based on personalities and interests,” he said. “From there, we create dog toys in shapes that might be interesting to these different consumer segments.”
West Paw continually looks to trends happening in the marketplace including consumers, retailers, its “chew squad” and other key influencers in the pet arena to find out what dog owners are seeking, said Spencer Williams, president and owner of the Bozeman, Mont.-based manufacturer.
“For instance, that demand might be to curb behavior, such as boredom chewing, or to bond with their pet,” he said. “We are fortunate to have very engaged customers and retailer partners who share feedback on what they—and their dog—need. For example, many of our Zogoflex dog toy shapes came from consumers’ never-ending quest for an ‘indestructible’ dog toy. As we all know, no dog toy, even a West Paw dog toy, is indestructible, but trust us when we say we are working hard to come close. Because of frequent requests from customers for an ‘indestructible,’ or an extremely tough, dog toy, we have examined several shapes, sizes, and prototyping to design and manufacture a toy that stands up to dogs’ super-tough jaws.”