Dog Toy Innovator, Nina Ottosson shares why it is crucial that dogs get mental stimulation and how this can improve our relationship with them.
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Nina Ottosson story
The original designer and developer of dog activity games & toys since 1990
Nina Ottosson’s range of durable interactive games have been designed to stimulate a dog’s brain whilst reinforcing his relationship with people. Each design has a unique mechanism that requires
mental as well as physical dexterity to work through the challenges and reveal hidden food rewards. They can be set to differing levels of complexity, to satisfy all ages and breeds of dog. So whether you have a ‘Forrest Gump’ or an ‘Albert Einstein’, there is a Nina Ottosson game design to suit every dog!
Mental activity – why
Dogs as well as humans need a certain amount of activity. But it’s important to find a balance of
activity and inactivity, so that the dog does not get stressed by under- or overactivity. Walking is a great activity, but dogs also need mental stimulation. All dogs need to use their head sometimes in order to feel good, and some dogs have a greater need than others. If they don’t get to channel their energy into an organized activity, they can sometimes create their own “fun”, which is not always appreciated by the owners, such as chewing on things, or just get hyperactive. At the same time it’s important to just be still and wait while we stand and talk to someone, or just lie next to us on a bench and watch dogs and people walk by without reacting. Activation of your dog can be anything from tracking in the woods to obedience training, learning different tricks, or hiding treats or a toy to find in a room.
In the summer when the weather is good and it is not raining, the dogs normally get more stimulation, it is easier and more fun to be outside and play and come up with activities for your dog. In the fall and winter it can be boring when it is raining or snowing, or cold and windy. At the same time it is often hard to vary the activities indoors and think of fun activities that are entertaining, simple and stimulating. Mental activation is something many dog owners may not have time for, or have difficulty coming up with things to do, and may not realize how important it is for the dog’s overall health. It would significantly reduce the number of “problem dogs” if everyone understood how important it is for the dog to use both its head as well as its legs. My philosophy is that the dog has four legs and one head, and all five need activity in different ways – dogs need a mix of physical and mental activity.
Why I began to develop dog activity toys & games
I had worked in health care for 17 years and when my (Nina Ottosson) two kids were born a year and a half apart, 1989 & 1990, I did not have time to activate my dogs the way they and I were used to. I had two Bouvier des Flandres that I used to train and compete with. My bad conscience made me start thinking about how to activate my dogs in a simple, fun and varied way indoors, together with the kids, and since 1990 I have worked with development and design of dog activity toys and games that stimulate the dog mentally, or “brainteasers” for dogs.
The toys are fun and creative, easy to play with indoors or outdoors, and are developed with the dog’s natural movements and instincts in mind. I started my company the Zoo Active Products AB in 1993, with development and design of dog-activating toys and games for dogs and dog-owners, which is to mentally activate the dog in a positive and educational manner. The activity toys are very much appreciated and are used by dogs and other animals and their owners in many countries. The dog activity toys are also recommended by dog psychologists, veterinaries, dog-trainers and other dog-owners. Today, the company works with product development, design, manufacturing, sales and distribution to retailers in different countries. Nina Ottosson and Hans Molin run the company together with their employees.
I have nearly all my life had dogs and other pets, worked with and been interested in dogs. When I had children, this meant that I did not have the same amount of time to train and activate my dogs, the way both I and they were used to. My bad conscience made me start to think what I could do to activate my dogs in a simple, fun and varying manner indoors, and since 1990 I have worked with the development and design of dog-activating toys/games that will mentally stimulate the dog, i.e. “brain exercises” in a fun and creative way. The toys are also easy to get out and use indoors and are specially developed to match the dog’s natural movements and instincts.
How do the activity toys & games work
The dog activity toys and games, which most dogs love to play with, are designed for the dog to work with problem solving in different ways, by finding hidden dog treats, e.g. to lift blocks, turn discs, push blocks, put blocks inside something etc. The purpose of these games is that the owner can activate the dog in an easy and fun way at home. While the games are being used, the dog and the owner will get a chance to have more contact with each other and strengthen their relationship. At the same time, there is a learning process of common everyday obedience during fun and positive moments, like for instance: sit, lie down, stay and wait.
Dogs & pets motivation to learn – what we want
Wild animals get natural mental stimulation when hunting for food, which has inspired me when developing the games to match the dog’s natural movements and instincts. The dog has to work to get food or treats, not just have it served from a bowl. Dogs have different drives to be susceptible to praise when teaching them different actions or movements. Some dogs are interested in objects, where the reward can be to get the favorite toy when doing what’s expected. Many dogs are willing to learn something new if they get a tasty treat. For some dogs, pets and cuddling with the owner is the best reward, while others are inspired by smells, hunting or movements, where the reward can be to catch a ball, follow a track or fetching an object while hunting. In addition, there are a small number of dogs that are very hard to motivate.
Many of these dogs can get motivated by combining several of these rewards to increase the benefit of performing or to get the dog’s attention. Eating is the primary driving force, since it is important for survival, which is what I have based my products on. Then I have added other things like movement, hunting, object interest and pets, since the dog will get praise and pets when it works to find treats in the games. All of these components together mean that most dogs regardless of breed, size or age are interested in and can use the games.
Intelligens, motivation or genetic advantage
However, dogs have different levels of intelligence just like us humans. I realized from the beginning, especially after having tested these games on different dogs, that my games must have different levels of difficulty to fit as many dogs as possible. In addition, some dogs with a genetic disposition for fetching will find certain games easier than dogs that first have to learn how to fetch. All dogs enjoy a variety of activities and appreciate trying new things. The same goes for these games – some dogs are happy with games that are simple and easy, while others need increasingly difficult ones. It’s the same for us humans and crossword puzzles, some people are happy with the simple ones, while others continue to challenge themselves with ones that are more and more difficult. Some people wonder if the dogs get tired of the games. I compare that to playing games like Monopoly – we know how to play it but it’s still exciting and fun to play, and the same is true for dogs and the activity toys and games.
I recommend to start using the games with puppies that are about 10 weeks old, which is what I have done with my dogs. It’s very important to start with games that are simple and easy, and only play for a very short time, max 10 minutes. It’s also important to play together with the puppy, be positive and give a lot of praise and don’t use negative words like “no”. My dogs have learned words like wait, sit etc extremely fast because it is fun, they get treats and we do something fun together.
Excellent to use for injured and old dogs
These games are also excellent to use for dogs that are injured as well as senior dogs. I have a lot of experience with older dogs that were not able to go for walks due to worn-out hips and joints. Despite this, they were very alert because we played games together daily. I am convinced that their final years were enriched because of this. When my dogs have been injured I have placed the games on a chair or in my lap, so they have to work with the nose and not with their injured paw. It can be very challenging to keep an injured dog still for several weeks, but the games are a great activity that lets the dog get an outlet for all its energy. They are also great for dogs that are underweight and don’t eat. Many dogs will eat more when the food is put in the games instead of the food bowl.
Rescue dogs, strength the self-confidence at and the relationship with people
I have also met several dogs that have been placed in new families for different reasons. At first they have seemed under stimulated and not very intelligent. When the new family started testing the easiest games, the dogs have acted like they don’t want or dare to understand how to act. They simply don’t want to try because they have not been encouraged to be curious and playfully explore the world from when they were puppies. After a certain amount of time we have seen that when the dogs start to understand what to do and start trying, their self confidence has grown and they show such happiness when they are successful and start finding the treats. With lots of praise and with increased self confidence and trust in the new family, they can handle increasingly difficult games.
Play the games together with the dog
Activity games and toys that contain treats shall always be used together with the dog or under supervision. The first times the games are used, I recommend to hide many small treats, encourage and praise the dog a lot when it does the right thing, and carefully try to redirect it if it tries to bite the game or is too rough, by putting a hand over the game or lifting it up, wait until the dog has calmed down and then try again.
Increase the level of difficulty
Most games can be made more difficult by locking certain parts with blocks or pegs that the dog has to lift up in order to get to the compartments with the hidden treats. These should only be used when the dog understands how the game works, and that it should work its way to the treats and not bite the parts. It’s important to not use games that are too difficult in the beginning, you have to give the dog some time to understand how the games work. Most dogs quickly understand that they have to work to get to the treats and that it pays to listen to directions from the owner.
This communication between the dog and its owner is very rewarding, it leads to a deeper understanding while having fun. For example, the premise of the DogCasino is that the dog shall learn to pull out flaps with treats around the game with its paw, and when the dog understands that, you can lock each flap with a peg on top of the game. This increases the difficulty, since the dog has to solve two problems in order to get to the treats. Another example is the DogBrick, where the dog shall slide bricks in order to get to the treats underneath. These bricks can be locked in place with blocks, which means that the dog first has to lift up the blocks in order to be able to move the bricks and thereby find the treats. If putting the games on a chair or similar it will be another challenge for the dog which also is perfect if the dog has injuries on legs or paw and needs to be calm and not move too much.
Materials, wood or plastic, why
My Nina Ottosson Dog Activity Toys are made of two materials, wood and plastic. The wood is natural and genuine with a heavier design, excellent for dogs that get excited and tend to get rough. The plastic have a design who is colorful and stable, easy to clean, and can be used with both wet and dry food and great for dogs who drool a lot, or when the games are used for more than one dog. This means that you can use most of the plastic games to make “doggie ice cream”: Mix some meaty dog food with water, pour some of the mixture in the compartments, put the game in the freezer and let it set. This is perfect for hot days or when the dog needs some extra activity. These shall be used under strict supervision.
My dogs Nisse and Ville
The games are a lot of fun for both dogs and their owners. I love it that my dogs have fun with the games! I have always had Bouvier Des Flandres (my favorite breed of dog), and right now I have two dogs: Nisse, a big 2 year old Bouvier, he is very cosy and intensive and maybe not the most intelligent Bouvier but I love his energy , and Ville, my small 7 year old Bouvier/ Schapendoes mix, he is very curios and very faithful to me and he is very smart. They like most of the games, and their favorite ones are DogTwister and DogTornado. They absolutely love when I put the plastic games in the freezer to make “ice cream”. Sometimes they wait by the freezer until I take them out. At work, they like to play with the Pyramid next to me when I’m working, which is great.
Develop new products, by dogs with dogs for dogs not by a computer
I’m always working on new ideas! Right now, I’m developing ideas for a couple of new activity games that will hopefully be ready this year. I’m really excited about a new concept that I have been testing for about a year. I always try to release new products around Christmas, so my dogs every year can have new games in Christmas present as they also have helped me develop and they really love it, and I always, every time I launch a new product, looking forward to see what dogs and their owners think about it and it´s very exciting and little scary each time.
My testing dogs
My own dogs always test my ideas first, and they love to try new games. If it goes well, then I have a mix of different dogs to do the second round of testing: Bizzy, a very energetic and smart Jack Russell who loves new challenges and does not give up. Wilma, a Cocker Spaniel who is more careful and needs more time to learn new games. Elsa, a tiny (2 kg) mix of Papillon and Poodle, who likes to work only if it’s fun and she gets treats. And finally Lexus, a young Golden Retriever who is very excited and a little rough and tries to solve the games and find treats by force. These dogs are a great mix of different types, characteristics, sizes and ages, and I also test on several other dogs as well. Other dogs see me as a fun ”play and food mom” with lots of treats in my pockets who lets them play with fun games. My dogs think I’m in charge of fun and exciting stuff, since they always get to go with me both at work and when I’m off. The very few times they have to stay home they think I have abandoned them forever. They would probably describe me as stubborn, energetic, weird, impulsive, animal lover, adventurous, fun, works too much, likes walks in the woods, and that I exaggerate in teaching them different weird but fun tricks, and finally that I’m probably a pretty good owner!
What pets and animals can use the activity toys and games
Almost all the games can be used by dogs of all sizes, and also by cats, parrots, rabbits, ferrets, minipigs, monkeys, lemurs , iguanas, wildcats and other animals at the Zoo. For small dogs or cats, you can tie a string on to the blocks or flaps if they have difficulty gripping them. Other than that, size is not really an issue. We, the dog owners, sometimes put too many restrictions and limitations on our dogs. I have tested the games on all kinds of animals of all sizes and ages, everything from dogs and cats to monkeys, ferrets, and iguanas, but mainly on dogs – from puppies to old dogs and from really small dogs to very large ones. The main factor that determines if the dog likes the games is if the dog is motivated to work for the treats or food that you hide. I would say that approximately 75% of the dogs are and 25% are not motivated to work for food or treats.
My Company and Trademark
I am the designer and I develop all products in my company named Zoo Active Products AB based in Sweden, but we are only working with the trademark Nina Ottosson. We are today distribution the products in a lot of countries but in the beginning we only sold them here in Scandinavia. The wooden toys are made in my factory in Sweden and the plastic toys are made in China. I only use the best material which also can be recycled, you can read more about our quality, who is very important for me because I care of the environment and both my dogs and your dogs shall use my products.
Wishing all dogs and their owners much pleasure with our dog activity toys.
Best wishes, Nina Ottosson