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If you, like us, enjoy cruising the internet for the latest greatest in pet gear, you won’t be surprised to hear that high-tech pet gadgets are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the pet marketplace. And a chunk of that expansion is thanks to the rise of electronic and robotic dog toys.
Electronic dog toys are everywhere, and they’re fundamentally different from traditional pup playthings. Unlike shreddable rope toys, chews, and well-worn plushes, electronic gear emphasizes playing smart, not hard. It’s often billed as offering unprecedented mental stimulation for dogs and autonomy for humans.
But are electronic dog toys good for your dog, and do they really offer the same benefits as their good old-fashioned counterparts? Can they stand up to wear and tear? And are they worth their significantly higher price tag? To find out, we took a look at some popular products and consulted Dr. Rebecca Greenstein, a Rover veterinary medical advisor and chief veterinarian at Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital.
Are Electronic and Robotic Toys Good for Dogs?
A robotic dog toy is a programable or pre-programmed machine toy that can 1) respond to its environment and 2) operate independently of a person. Some electronic dog toys are all about encouraging exercise and play, while others are designed to offer mental stimulation and provide a fun distraction—good for dogs with a strong need for entertainment.
There are a lot of reasons to like electronic and robotic dog toys:
- They can engage and comfort a lonely, stressed, or anxious dog when humans aren’t available
- They can exercise a high energy pup with minimal physical strain on a pet parent
- They offer novel challenges and new kinds of engagement
There are also, however, some good reasons to hesitate:
- Electronic dog toys are expensive
- They can be significantly less hard-wearing than traditional toys
- They’re hit or miss; they don’t have decades of pup-approved testing behind them
The benefits of electronic dog toys
Electronic dog toys are uniquely suited to meet an important need for a lot of pet parents: the ability to distract and engage a pup when humans can’t.
Dr. Greenstein correlates their rise in popularity with how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted dog guardianship as a whole. She points out that with so many pet parents working at home, our dogs came to expect a lot more human contact and stimulation than their predecessors. When pet parents returned to work—or just to their computers—not all dogs were ready for the change.
“I can tell you in the last two years of practice, I’ve never heard more about dog cameras,” says Greenstein, referring to gadgets like the Furbo that let you keep tabs on and interact with your pet, and even offer treats, from a distance. “It provides entertainment for your dog, but also a sense of security.”
Electronic dog toys are appealing for pet parents when they’re home too, whether they need to distract and engage dogs or simply want to add another mentally stimulating toy to their dog’s collection. A robotic toy can be a solid weapon in your arsenal to combat doggy boredom or fear.
“Anything that has a potential to be part of our toolkit, I think, has a lot of promise,” says Greenstein. “It’s just a question of making sure that everyone knows that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Another advantage of electronic dog toys: some can play longer and harder than we can. Our arms get tired, or our mobility may be limited in ways that prevent us from doing all our pups would like. But automatic ball launchers, for example, can keep going long after your shoulders are ready to quit.
Their novelty is another asset, since it lets the toys create novel challenges for pets, like button pressing, prey chasing, or ball loading. That variety is key for mental stimulation and an active brain—two things that can keep senior pups sharp and destructive dogs from acting out in boredom.
The drawbacks of electronic dog toys
While Dr. Greenstein doesn’t think pups are likely to suffer from playing with electronic and robotic toys, she does clarify that they’re not a replacement for quality time with a human, and they alone aren’t going to help dogs that suffer from severe anxiety or other behavior issues. They’re a tool in a toolkit—not a one-stop shop.
Their relative newness on the scene also tends to make them hit or miss buys. As Dr. Greenstein points out, “Dogs often can be a little bit hard to predict as to what they take to.” No matter how fancy a dog toy is, your dog may not be that interested in it. And while it’s not a big deal if a cheap plush toy is a flop, it feels a lot worse to have spent upwards of $50 or even $100 on something your dog doesn’t enjoy.
The same goes for the toy’s ability to endure hard play. Some electronic dog toys can be finicky, experiencing connectivity issues, loose wires, or broken parts that make the toy difficult to salvage. Unlike with a rope toy or chew toy, relatively little damage can render an electronic or robotic toy useless.
How To Pick the Right Kind of Electronic Dog Toy for Your Pup
There’s a huge range of high-tech toys and tools out there—how do you avoid picking an expensive flop? One thing that can help narrow the field is to suit the toy type to your pup’s play style and needs.
Electronic treat-tossing dog toys with cameras, for example, can be good for long-distance boredom-busting and anxiety reduction, particularly if your dog is treat-motivated. Many have cameras, like the popular Furbo, a stationary robot that provides a 160-degree view via HD pet camera, has two-way audio, and is equipped with a treat tosser. Our tester loved that it sent a push notification to her phone when her pup was barking (spoiler alert: it’s always the mailman).
A wheeled variation on this is the Rocki, which vaguely resembles BB-8 from Star Wars. It rolls around on wheels and comes equipped with an HD camera, a 15-chamber snack dispenser, and an arm for toys. Both are pricey, and for simple monitoring, a less fancy camera would do. What sets these apart are the promise of additional engagement, whether that’s treat flinging or play.
Interactive dog toys are another style of electronic toy. They respond to your dog’s play and are popular as distraction and engagement tools. Interactive electronic toys tend to appeal to different senses, so they key is to target the ones that speak to your particular pup.
The Wickedbone, for example, is a high-tech toy bone that appeals to dogs with movement. It syncs with an app and can roll, spin, and bounce on its own (our test pup gave it four paws up). Others, like the squirrel-like Hyper Pet Doggie Tail, pair movement with barking sounds to mimic another animal.
Interactive electronic toys are just as prone to flopping as any other electronic toy. The Ricochet, for example, utterly confused our test pup, who was agitated and not amused by the two rubberized, egg-shaped balls that make sounds to encourage your dog to run back and forth between them. Our tester eventually herded the balls close to each other, actively avoided the one making noise, and pinned and tried to chew the other one—and it’s not a chew toy.
Automatic ball launchers are a surprisingly practical electronic dog toy that set out to exercise your energetic pup and save your throwing arm. Some dogs have even been trained to load the launcher so they can play fetch with themselves. Our reviewer was a big fan of the GoDogGo Fetch Machine, noting that on its highest setting, it can launch a ball more than 40 feet away. We also loved the iFetch Too, which comes with three balls and can launch them between 10 and 40 feet.
The Bottom Line: Are Electronic Dog Toys Worth It?
Sometimes! While there are undoubtedly some winners like the Wickedbone, the Furbo, and the GoDogGo Fetch Machine, the possibility of turning up a flop like the Ricochet makes the search for a good robotic dog toy akin to a game of Russian roulette with your wallet.
It’s a risk—but the rewards might be outsized too. Dr. Greenstein explains that the customizability of a robotic toy or an app interface might help you and your dog adjust to life changes, whether that’s the aftermath of a pandemic or more mundane shifts in routine.
Our best advice is to identify the robotic dog toys that really meet a need for you and your pup. For example, if you’re ready to start leaving a young dog alone for longer stretches but anxious about how they’ll handle it, a treat-dispensing pet cam might be a solid investment. Or maybe your arm is falling off every morning at the park, but you’re still not tiring out your high-energy pup—so a fetch machine could be a great idea.
Robotic dog toys are useful for:
- Aiding in separation anxiety
- Keeping bored pups entertained at home while pet parents are otherwise occupied
- Energetic dogs and pet parents who would like a bit of a break
- Enrichment: Many of these toys help teach your dog additional problem-solving skills
Who they’re not great for:
- Destructive dogs
- Fearful pups who struggle with sudden environmental changes
- Those looking for a one-size-fits-all toy
Affordable Alternatives to Robotic Toys
If you’re seeking a general-purpose enrichment toy, we recommend taking a hard look at reviews and asking yourself if there’s not a cheaper, simpler toy that might get the job done for a lot less.
“Treat balls are really popular, and I like snuffle mats,” says Greenstein, who appreciates how simple but effective these toys can be for some dogs. They have the benefit of allowing you to feed your dog treats or kibble in a way that feels like a game. Starmark makes a couple of great treat balls, the Chew Ball and the Bob-a-Lot.
Several Rover pups love lick mats, spread with their favorite dog-safe treat. And you can hide treats in the tendrils of the popular Paw5 Wooly Snuffle Mat, which encourages your dog’s natural foraging instincts.
How We Chose Our Electronic Dog Toys
The products featured here were selected based on a combination of our own hands-on testing, a comprehensive look at customer reviews across a wide variety of retail platforms, and interviews with veterinary experts, including Rover’s Dog People Panel. We’re also guided by the experience of living and playing alongside our own much-loved and strongly opinionated pets, who are never stingy with their feedback.