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- Outward Hound's Nina Ottosson Interactive Dog Toys challenge dogs with complex problems that are fun to solve. Dogs are rewarded with treats hidden inside the puzzles.
- The popular dog puzzle toys tap into a dog's natural instincts to forage, scavenge, and problem-solve.
- Outward Hound offers 10 interactive toy models available in three levels of difficulty, ranging in price from $11 to $26.
A decade ago, when I was a dog lover working to become a professional dog trainer, a friend gifted me the Nina Ottosson Dog Casino toy. "My dog can't figure it out," she told me. "Maybe you can use it."
Inside the box was a blue plastic tray with drawers tucked into its sides. White bone shapes anchored to the top of the tray had to be moved in order for its corresponding drawer to open, revealing treats hidden inside.
I experimented on little Roo first. He sidled up to the toy, sniffing for the treats hidden in its drawers. I left the dog bones loose to start, making the game a little less complex until he got the hang of it. Half-an-hour later, Roo was moving bones and opening drawers like a champ.
If Roo could work through the Dog Casino in under an hour, what could Bentley, the smartest dog I knew, do? Watching the Australian Cattle Dog figure out how to approach and solve the problem at hand was 10 minutes of pure joy.
Not everyone excelled at the game, which Outward Hound scores a level 3 out of 3. Scully ran around the tray pawing and whining. Within two minutes she had given up. Charlie sniffed it twice, then returned to the couch. But I was hooked. Enrichment had taken on a whole new dimension.
Why many (but not all) dogs love Outward Hound's Nina Ottosson Interactive Dog Toys
These dog puzzle toys are used for enrichment. The term refers to the activities and objects that provide mental stimulation and encourage a captive or domesticated animal to tap into the natural behaviors they (or their ancestors) would practice in the wild. For dogs, toys that promote scavenging, foraging, and problem-solving, as well as novel sights, scents, and experiences are considered enrichment.
Sold in three different skill levels — Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 — each Nina Ottosson puzzle requires a dog to problem-solve in order to earn a food reward. The Dog Tornado, for example, has four layers of bone-shaped trays that can be stocked with treats. To release it, the dog must rotate each layer.
Nina Ottosson Interactive Dog Toys are made of high-quality plastic or composite wood-plastic. Even though my Dog Casino regularly earned the scars left by hard-thinking doggy teeth and paws, it never succumbed to a serious injury. The toys are sturdily made. Fill their drawers and nooks with soft food or peanut butter, and they can even be frozen.
Drawbacks to Outward Hound's dog puzzle toys
I recently traded another trainer my much-loved Dog Casino for the Dog Twister, another Level 3 Nina Ottosson toy where the dog must move blocks around a round tray to locate the treats. For extra complexity, the blocks can be locked with pegs that the dog has to paw open before moving a block.
I introduced the Dog Twister to Ripley soon after. Not the most confident dog on the block, Ripley was uncertain. She considered the toy, sniffed it, retrieved a treat I uncovered for her and then sat staring at the humans like we'd set the whole thing up as an elaborate trick. Maybe she'll get the hang of it in time…
That's the way it goes with the Outward Hound's Nina Ottosson toys. Some dogs excel, others — usually less confident dogs or dogs whose intelligence may not be geared toward complex problem-solving — become confused and quickly give up. If the puzzles aren't a great fit for your dog, there are other options for play and stimulation including the Kong Classic or chew toys.
For those dogs that figure out Level 2 and Level 3 puzzle toys in short order, there's a different problem. Once they know how to solve the puzzle, they do it quickly and unceremoniously. The less of a challenge it presents, the less enriching it becomes over time. If only there were a puzzle toy library for exchanging Nina Ottosson Interactive Toys so boredom would never be an issue.
My only other issue with the toys is in the cleaning department. Though the material is easy to clean, with their rotating pieces and drawers, the puzzles are a challenge to scour properly and, once washed, never seem to completely dry out.
The bottom line
I love Outward Hound's Nina Ottosson Interactive Dog Toys for the enrichment they provide, but they are not for every dog. Those with drive and confidence will love these puzzles — at least until they've conquered them over and over. Those who are timid or unmotivated probably won't quite know what to do. For a smarty-pants dog, these toys are a win, but it's worth making an investment in several models (from $10 to $25 per toy) and rotating them to keep the puzzles novel for as long as possible.
Pros: Provides a high level of enrichment and mental stimulation, sturdy and made of high-quality materials, 10 models with different levels of difficulty
Cons: Timid or less motivated dogs may not be interested, difficult to clean, sharp dogs may become bored with them once the puzzle has been solved several times
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