Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Many dogs shake their toys when playing and dog owners often wonder what this behavior is all about. The behavior surely grants some giggles as Rover grabs the toy and starts shaking it with a quick side-to-side neck movement, but what does this behavior mean? What is your dog trying to accomplish?
An Outlet for Primal Instincts
It may seem like your dog is on a mission to destroying all the toys you give him, but here's the thing: playtime can be a great way to let your pup burn off some excess energy, while at the same time, providing your dog with some beneficial outlets for his strong primal instincts.
Turns out, every time you observe your pooch play, and he happens to grab a toy shaking it side-to-side, what you're really looking at is your dog's kill instinct. No, this doesn't mean you need to worry about your sweet pooch waking up one morning and trying to eat you up.
Rather, this behavior is reminiscent of the olden days, going back all the way to when your dog was in the wild, getting ready to go in for the kill.
Hunters at Heart
Despite the fact that most dogs nowadays are fed in shiny bows, sleep on comfy beds and wear collars studded with rhinestones, they remain hunters at heart and therefore come equipped with strong predatory instincts.
This doesn't mean though that dogs are wolves. There are many differences between dogs and wolves, to the extent that, comparing them to each other is sort of like saying that humans are chimps!
To better understand the behavior of dogs who shake their toys it's therefore helpful taking a closer glimpse into a dog's evolutionary history and the underlying original purpose of this behavior.
Your Dog's Point of View
While humans possess quite a wild imagination, especially during childhood, dogs tend to lack such sophisticated creative thought processes. This means that it's highly unlikely for dogs to play in the terms of "let's believe." Play rather happens at a more instinctive level.
So, while children's play may emulate adult activities such as cooking, cleaning or playing dress-up, dogs utilize play as a way to relieve their instincts and practice certain hunting skills. These skills may no longer be necessary for survival nowadays (as humans provide them with shelter, warmth, water and food), but it’s still hardwired deep into their brain.
Dogs, therefore, see a bouncing ball or a squeak toy as a fleeing bird or squirrel. If you think about it, the dog toy manufacturing industry indeed knows this too well. As a matter of fact, you'll find that they routinely sell products that look, feel and sound like small critters so to better engage your pup.
Now, once again, this isn’t something you need to worry about. Your pup is just following something that's deeply ingrained in their furry little minds. They are simply rehearsing behaviors that are part of the so-called "Predatory Sequence."
This may sound intense, but it’s simply a way to describe different components of your pup’s behavior you likely see during playtime. So let's take a closer insight into what the Predatory Sequence entails, shall we?
Introducing the Predatory Sequence
So let’s take a look at what a dog's predatory sequence entails. At its most basic level, the sequence encompasses the following sequence of behaviors: search, stalk, chase, bite, dissect, consume. Let’s break these down a bit more.
Most predators have never obtained great success in lying down in one spot with their mouths wide open, hoping their prey will just jump into their mouths. Most successful predators required some course of action to meet their most basic needs for a meal and much-needed nourishment.
For a successful predator therefore some waiting around for the right prey to come along was necessary. This entailed keeping an eye open, carefully scanning the environment, listening to the most subtle sound and a good amount of sniffing.
Once the prey has been spotted, a predator needs to approach his prey, but it's important to do so in the least evident manner. Predators may, therefore, stalk their prey, slowly approaching so to decrease chase distance. They may be therefore following through underbrush or other tall grasses in a crouched position in hopes of concealing themselves.
Once a predator is at a closer distance, this leads to easier prey capture, considering that, all the predator need to do next is blast into a chase.
This is perhaps the most thrilling part of the process as the predator lets off a burst of energy and speed to catch their prey. Often, the weaker, younger or older prey are the easiest to capture. These animals may, therefore, be singled-out.
Chase may take place for short distances, but can also entail long distances sometimes. On some occasions, astute strategies may be employed and a dog's ancestors often had some ace up their sleeve.
For instance, they may be chasing animals in the direction of other waiting wolves, or they may have had other members lag behind so to catch any prey animals that circled.
This typically happens in two stages. The first is the catch-bite where the predator latches on to the prey and stops it from escaping. Then there’s the kill bite. This can take a few forms from gripping the throat to severe the jugular and carotid arteries to shaking side-to-side to snap the animals' neck or spine. Sounds familiar?
Humans use a knife and fork to cut up their meals into smaller pieces, while predators must use their sharp teeth. After killing, predators therefore follow-up by dissecting so to reach the most nutritious parts which are the internal organs.
This part of the sequence is quite self-explanatory. After dissecting, a dog's ancestors would start to eat, and as mentioned, would firstly consume what is considered the “prized meat parts,” that is, the internal organs such as the liver, heart, kidneys, spleen, and other vital organs. Interestingly, the most cherished parts from a human standpoint, (that is, muscle and flesh), are left for last.
"Watered Down" Instincts
Over time, selective breeding has led to certain dog breeds having portions of the predatory sequence eliminated from their hard wiring, while others had certain aspects of the sequence enhanced or overemphasized. This was done so that dogs could be become excellent working partners, helping human hunters in a vast array of tasks.
This is therefore why you’ll see bloodhounds focusing more on the search aspect of the hunt, sniffing out rabbits and alerting when they're on a "hot trail;" collies stalking and rounding up livestock (yet without harming sheep), pointers pointing rather than chasing, and retrievers bringing back downed birds to the hunter after the chase (without leaving any teeth marks!).
The majority of dogs with a high prey drive will enjoy chasing a squirrel, but are not likely to kill or even injure the squirrel if the opportunity presents itself. This is due to domestication and breeding practices that have softened the predatory aspect of the prey drive.
— Joan Klucha, Control your dog's predatory instincts, North Shore News
Going for the Kill
Back to modern dogs, in a domestic setting, that side-to-side shaking of a toy mimics what their ancestors did with small prey animals. As explained, the purpose was to kill the animal by breaking its neck.
And when your dog lies down and starts chewing on his toys, attempting to get all the stuffing out, he's likely mimicking the dissecting part of the predatory sequence as if it were the meat of a tasty bird or some other woodland creature.
Here you go, now you know why your dog has such a satisfied look on his face when he has destroyed his new toy!
We can't blame him though: From his perspective, he has just chased and killed a hard-to-get predator, while you are all upset about him destroying once again toys you have spent your hard-earned money on.
A Matter of Fun
Of course, killing a furry toy is just for play, although carried out on instinct. If your dog shakes toys when playing, there is usually nothing to worry about.
For sake of comparison, tossing a toy in the air, then grabbing it and then shaking it, is somewhat similar to children playing supermarket, where they pretend to buy groceries (including meat which comes from animals too!), cook them, and enjoy their home-made goodies eating by the table. Playing this way, therefore, feels great to your puppy or dog!
An Invitation to Join
If your puppy or dog starts shaking his toy in front of you while looking at you, with his tail wagging and rump in the air, and then he takes off, there may be chances that he's trying to entice you to chase him.
Dogs love to play games of keep-away and often spend lots of time playing this way with each other. Watchdogs play and you may notice that one may try to tease another dog to play by shaking toys and even shoving toys in the other dogs' face, and then they'll take off quickly in hopes that the other dog engages and tries to steal the toy from them. This often leads to a game of tug-of-war, with both dogs tugging on the opposite sides of the toy.
Exceptions to the Rule
As mentioned, if your dog shakes toys when playing, there is usually nothing to worry about. Shaking toys doesn't necessarily make your dog an avid cat or squirrel killer.
Indeed, there are many dogs who shake toys, but then when they find themselves face-to-face with small furry critters, they might not even have an idea of what to do with them should they end up catching them.
However, as with most things, there can be exceptions to the rule. For instance, take several of the smaller working terriers. Terriers are "finishers" which means that they were selectively bred to kill what they catch. These dogs may, therefore, have a strong instinct to chase and kill small furry critters.
"Dogs who are known finishers are better managed (kept away from opportunity)," points out Jean Donaldson, in the book "Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker."
On top of this, we must consider the phenomenon of predatory drift. "Grab and shake is often present in predatory drift incidents. Most of us have seen dogs grab and shake toys. Even if non-lethal pressure is exerted, a grab and shake inflicted on a small dog can break its neck," warns Jean Donaldson.
It is therefore important to use caution when large dogs are allowed to play with considerably smaller dogs, and when there is the involvement of a finisher, or dogs teaming up against a smaller dog, considering that this increases risk.
Puppies (and adult dogs) almost all enjoy shaking, ripping, and tearing apart toys. Violent shaking of the toy followed by "evisceration"-the toy is held between the front feet and ripped apart -appears to be related to the kill portion of the canid predatory sequences.
— Linda P. Case, Canine and Feline Behavior: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends.
Providing Outlets for Your Dog's Instinctive Behaviors
Engaging in innocent predatory behaviors helps your pup expend energy and satisfy urges that couldn’t otherwise sate without play. Unless of course, you’ve trained your fur baby for a particular purpose like barn hunting. But, more often than not, your city or suburban-dwelling pooch will need an outlet to get out these instincts. Here are a few things to remember and some toy recommendations depending on breed.
- A dog’s need to stalk and chase and bite is all part of their DNA. Let them play with their toys. Engage with them. A little tug-of-war played by the rules will make your pooch happy.
- Remember that depending on your dog’s breed, certain parts of the predatory sequence may be exaggerated or accentuated. So don’t be surprised if your collie likes to round up balls during playtime while a retriever won’t be happy unless they’re off chasing a ball or other toy to bring back to you. Remember to praise them when they do. Positive reinforcement can never go amiss.
- For some dog breeds like terriers who have been bred to actually hunt and kill rodents, consider getting them rat or mouse toys to play with to remind them of that purpose. Just don’t be surprised though when you find the real thing dropped at your feet one day! So do everything possible to keep these dogs away from the real stuff.
- Consider getting your larger dog toys that look like weasels, raccoons or larger rodents that they might chase in the yard to give them the satisfaction of catching that critter that’s always out of reach.
- If you get toys made with real animal fur (like tug toys made out of rabbit fur) be aware that some dogs might try to guard it, especially if they are prone to resource guarding. If you know your pup would react this way, it’s probably safer to stick to synthetic toys.
- For dogs with high prey drive, you will find these tips helpful: tips for owners of dogs with high prey drive.
- Control your dog's predatory instincts Joan Klucha, North Shore News, APRIL 19, 2015 12:00 AM
- Linda P. Case, Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends.
- Jean Donaldson, in the book "Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker."
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 09, 2020:
Loved to read your dog's stories around shaking toys. My male Rottie used to shake toys a lot, but he never really caught any critters other than a small bird that once he caught with his mouth that was flying in our home by mistake. He ended up killing it when he caught it, but I think he didn't mean to from the look on his face.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 09, 2020:
Hi Linda, there are always interesting things to learn about dogs. It seems like every day something new pops up. Dogs are fascinating!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 07, 2020:
Though I knew why dogs shake their toys, you've included some interesting and useful facts in this article that I didn't know. Thanks for sharing another informative article, Adrienne.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on August 06, 2020:
Dogs are amazing! I know now why they do that. Just never thought of it much but wondered when my dog did that. I looked and thought maybe it is their way. Interesting and informative as always thank you
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 05, 2020:
I surmised from your title what this article would address. That instinct that they have is strong and since most dogs are domesticated, it is just fun for them.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 05, 2020:
I wondered why my dogs shooke their toys like that. Thanks for another good article. It is interesting to learn the history of our pets an why they have particular behaviors.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on August 05, 2020:
It's interesting to read about this as I've witnessed this behavior in dogs on many occasions and I've never thought much about it. Now I know why they behave in this manner. Great article.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 05, 2020:
We've had some toy shakers. But not too many. Mostly lazy goldens who know where their food bowls are.
But we've had a few female dogs with prey drive. Our first golden did bring her game kills (squirrel) home, dropped it by us like, "Hey, let's eat." A later golden girl was a stalker and did pick up some baby bunnies. But as you note, she didn't know what to do with them. Our current cattle dog girl is an unsuccessful squirrel hunter, but watches and chases them anyway.
Interestingly, only a couple of them tore their toys apart. Our successful squirrel hunter girl was notorious for it.
I can definitely see terriers being the finishers. I have a friend with a Yorkie that continually tears up the toilet paper.
Anyway, great insight into our furry friends, as always!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 05, 2020:
Hi Fluorish Anyway,
While it is true that certain dog breeds are more ‘wired’ to be finishers, ultimately any dog (who has had a positive experience carrying out the entire predatory sequence-not in play) may become prone to attacking and potentially killing small critters given the opportunity.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 05, 2020:
Hi Ivana, dogs are quite fascinating, and you never really end learning new stuff about them. I am quite addicted to studying dogs and their behaviors.
FlourishAnyway from USA on August 04, 2020:
I’m not a dog owner so I wasn’t aware of terriers and their status as “finishers.” It’s helpful to know as I have cats and I want to keep them safe.
Ivana Divac from Serbia on August 04, 2020:
I've always wondered why dogs do this! This is a great article, very informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing!