Why Does My Dog Think Her Toys Are Puppies?

Many dog owners have observed their pooches treating toys as if they were their own puppies. This intriguing behavior sparks the question: Why does my dog think her toys are puppies? This phenomenon reveals interesting insights into the psychology of our canine companions. Understanding what motivates this maternal behavior can strengthen the human-animal bond and provide your dog with optimal care.

This article will explore the leading theories behind why dogs exhibit mothering behaviors towards toys. We’ll examine key factors like maternal instincts, pack mentality, anthropomorphism, attachment needs, scent cues, breed traits, and when toy attachment may become problematic. Learning what makes your dog tick can help you provide the best home environment to keep her happy and enriched.

Maternal Instincts

Female dogs have strong maternal instincts that kick in once they give birth to puppies. According to the AKC, a mother dog’s maternal instincts emerge right before the puppies are born as she starts nesting and preparing for their arrival [1]. These instincts continue after birth as the mother cleans, feeds, and cares for her puppies. She attentively watches over them, keeping them warm and safe in the nest.

A mother dog’s maternal behavior is driven by hormones like progesterone, prolactin, and oxytocin which rise during pregnancy and remain elevated while nursing [2]. The mother-puppy bond formed through nursing further stimulates her maternal instincts. According to a 2019 study, mother dogs exhibit maternal behaviors like nursing, anogenital licking, retrieving, and protecting pups [3].

In summary, female dogs have strong inborn maternal drives to take care of their offspring from birth through weaning.

Pack Mentality

One theory is that dogs view their family and human caregivers as their “pack.” According to the pack mentality theory, dogs have an instinctual hierarchy within their pack. [1] Just as wild dogs consider their puppies and other pack members as vulnerable members to care for, domesticated dogs view their toys in a similar way. When dogs treat their toys like puppies, it stems from their innate desire to protect and nurture the young and vulnerable members of their pack.

Since dogs see their family as pack mates, they will often treat their toys like fellow pack members – specifically puppies requiring care and attention. This is why dogs will gently carry around, cuddle with, and even whimper over their toys. Their innate pack mentality leads them to care for toys as if they were real puppies. [2] Providing dogs with enrichment toys that allow them to engage this instinct often brings them comfort and satisfaction.


While dogs do not actually think their toys are real puppies, their behavior often suggests a strong attachment and caregiving instinct toward certain toys. This is known as anthropomorphism, which is the tendency to attribute human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities like animals, objects, or natural phenomena.

An owner might observe their dog mothering a stuffed animal for instance, by carrying it around gently, sleeping with it, and exhibiting protective behaviors. The dog is not confused about the toy being a real puppy, but their innate programming compels them to respond maternally to triggers like a toy’s size, soft texture, or high-pitched squeaker.

Security Objects

Similar to a child’s attachment to a blanket, dogs can form strong bonds with toys that provide them comfort and security. Just as a child’s blanket represents the warmth and safety of their mother, a dog’s favorite toy can represent feelings of comfort from the security of their pack. According to Puainta, “One of the primary reasons why dogs become attached to toys is the sense of comfort and security they provide. Dogs, like humans, have natural instincts to find comfort in familiar objects.”

This tendency likely stems from early puppyhood when dogs would stay close to their littermates and mother for safety and protection. The bonding process with a cherished toy mimics the warm, nurturing bond between a mother dog and her puppies. This object attachment helps relieve anxiety and serves as a transitional object when their human parent is away.

Scent and Texture

Dogs have a highly developed sense of smell, so the scent of their toys plays a major role in their enjoyment. According to The Science Behind How Dogs Choose Their Favorite Toy, dogs’ toy preferences are strongly influenced by scent because their olfactory bulb is much larger compared to other mammals. Many dog toys try to mimic the natural scent of puppies through the use of synthetic pheromones. This makes the toys more enticing and rewarding for dogs during playtime.

The texture of toys can also remind dogs of real puppies. Plush, soft toys often closely resemble the feel of a puppy’s fur. Rubber chew toys have a similar consistency to a puppy’s skin and bones. Providing toys with these scents and textures allows dogs to act on their natural maternal behaviors in a harmless, appropriate way.

Play Time

Dogs have a natural instinct to play, stemming from their ancestral wolf ancestors. In the wild, wolf pups learn important survival skills like hunting and fighting through play with littermates (Stilwell 1). This instinct carries over to our domestic dogs. When dogs play with toys, it allows them to tap into their natural drive for play just like they would with real puppies. The toys become “pseudo-puppies” that dogs can shake, toss, and play tug-of-war with while expending pent-up energy. This type of interactive play also strengthens the human-animal bond.

It’s important to set boundaries during playtime to reinforce that toys are for play, not training. Allow your dog access to certain soft toys only during active play sessions for maximum engagement. Put the toys away afterwards so your dog learns to associate them with fun, rather than having free access that diminishes their novelty and appeal (Taylor 2). By tapping into your dog’s natural instincts and setting appropriate boundaries, playtime with toys becomes a rewarding experience for both owner and pet.

Breed Differences

Some breeds show stronger toy attachment than others. According to a 2021 study by Lenkei et al., dogs from ancient and spitz-type breed groups obtained lower attachment and attention-seeking scores compared to herding, toy, and mastiff-type breeds (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159121000186). This suggests herding, toy, and mastiff breeds may exhibit stronger maternal behaviors towards objects like toys. Additionally, smaller breeds like Chihuahuas and Yorkies tend to show higher levels of attachment to toys than larger breeds (https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Differences-in-Toy-object-attachment-between-dogs-average-and-extreme-on-Ball-toy-and-or_fig4_323727482). Their small size may contribute to viewing toys as puppy replacements.

When It’s a Problem

Extreme attachment to toys can sometimes signal underlying issues like anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder in dogs. As one Reddit user commented, “Overthinking it. He’s just overly attached to the toy! The attachment will likely lessen with time. What should be considered an issue is if he shows anxiety or stress when the toy is removed” (source).

Problematic attachment is characterized by negative behaviors that emerge when the favored toy is taken away, like whining, pacing, destruction, or even aggression. If a dog becomes extremely distressed without their favorite toy, it could signify separation anxiety, OCD, or other psychological issues that should be addressed with training and potentially medication.

Additionally, some dogs may become possessive or protective of their favorite toy and react angrily when humans or other pets interact with it. This resource guarding behavior stems from anxiety and should be curbed through positive reinforcement training.

In most cases, mild attachment to a beloved toy is perfectly normal and harmless. But if the attachment seems obsessive or prompts negative behaviors, consult with your veterinarian to determine if there are any underlying issues that need treatment.


In recap, there are several reasons why dogs may treat their toys like puppies. It often comes down to natural instincts like maternal caregiving and pack bonding. Dogs form strong attachments to objects that provide comfort and security. Certain toys that resemble puppies in scent, texture, or sound can trigger a dog’s instincts to nurture. Breeds with high predatory drives are more prone to treating toys as prey during play. While harmless in most cases, obsessive attachment to objects can sometimes signal underlying anxiety issues that may need addressing. Overall, our dogs enrich our lives in many ways, including their endearing quirks like mothering their toys. Their behaviors provide a window into the fascinating inner world of our canine companions.

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