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Puzzles for Dogs
Innovative toys help dogs develop problem-solving skills
Ottosson with Ville and Zigge
Ottosson with Ville and Zigge

Nina Ottosson calls her Zoo Active Products “party games” for dogs, and—judging by the enthusiasm dogs display when they play with the toys—she’s definitely on to something. Ten years ago, Ottosson came up with the first of her dog puzzles, which she based on her dogs’ natural movements and instincts, and since then, has added several more to the mix. Collaborative play is an important aspect of this Swedish company’s attractive product line. These aren’t toys that you toss to the dog and walk away—you also need to come to the party.

Curious to find out more about the story behind these clever toys, we went to the source and spoke with Ottosson herself about her background, her philosophy on toys for dogs and the importance of canine “brain gymnastics.”

As might be expected, Ottosson has lived with dogs for as long as she can remember. Having two children within the space of 18 months, however, dramatically reduced the time she had to train and interact with her pups. Before her children were born, she and the dogs were accustomed to spending time together, and she felt badly about not being able to do more with them. This concern prompted her to look for other simple and enjoyable ways to keep them active and stimulated indoors.

Though she has no formal training in the subject, Ottosson says she has always been interested in design. Before venturing into dog enrichment toys, she had a textile business in addition to her “day job” as a nurse at a local hospital. She continued to work as a nurse until Zoo Active was established; now, conceptualizing and developing dog toys is her full-time occupation.

Observations of her own and other dogs and reading scientific investigations into canine cognitive behavior helped Ottosson identify the benefits of toys that require the dog to use his or her capacity to solve problems.

“The best fun is developing new toys,” Ottosson says. “My dogs and I love that. I’m always working on new ideas, and we come up with at least two new products every year.” Ottosson also takes into account her customers’ opinions and experiences. “I listen to what other dog owners have to say about my products, both positive and negative. As a mother, I am also inspired by children’s toys—the difference between small children and dogs is very small [when it comes to toys]. One can help both dogs and children develop with positive encouragement, love, creative toys and firm rules without violence.”

Ottosson’s two canine co-developers are Zigge, a massive 60-kilo (132-pound), seven-year-old Bouvier des Flandres, and Ville, a four-year-old Bouvier/Schapendoes cross. Both dogs love to learn new tricks; carrying in firewood, answering the telephone, dancing, counting and even packing away their toys in their toy box are among their repertoire. Their favorite job, however, seems to be as “test drivers” for the new products, a task they love to do, says Ottosson.

“First of all, we make a simple prototype, which I test with my own dogs. If that goes well, we make more advanced prototypes—I have a company with my own factory and employees—and these are tested initially by my dogs and then by other dogs of different breeds and sizes. After testing, we often find we need to make some adjustments before we can put them into production.”

According to Ottosson, dogs react in various ways to her products. “Certain breeds are more active than others, depending on their original purpose. Working dogs, such as Sheepdogs, often need more mental stimulation and more difficult activity toys than, for example, smaller companion dogs. Other breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers and some Terriers, are also more motivated to look for edible treats. Because of the different motivating factors, I have designed my activity toys with various grades of difficulty. You can begin with the easiest, then try the more challenging. After all, dogs are just like us—the more we try to solve problems, the better we become.”

But what about the human half of the equation? Is there any particular type of person who’s more likely to buy and use her products? “Not really. We have customers of all types and ages! It seemed to be mostly women at first, but the number of male purchasers has increased a lot over the last few years, possibly because many vets recommend these products for dogs who are lame or have been through an operation. We have also seen that many dog trainers and dog psychologists are talking about, demonstrating and using the products.”

Sweden is known for its environmental consciousness, and Nina is proud that her toys are as environmentally friendly as possible. The wood comes from timber that cannot be otherwise used, and the nonwooden parts are made from recycled plastic mixed with the fine sawdust that’s a manufacturing byproduct of the wooden sections. And, as is common in Sweden, at the end of their useful lives, the toys can be left at recycling stations so the materials can be reused.

Currently, Ottosson is in discussion with U.S. retailers. “It will be exciting and interesting to see how America takes to the toys and if [U.S. customers] appreciate them as much as the rest of the world. I hope that the dogs in America will also appreciate the opportunity to work and play with my toys.”

Ottosson is clearly passionate about canines. “It is vitally important that dogs have the opportunity to exercise their brains as well as their bodies. Just like people, they need stimulation, play, exercise and rest. And, just like people, different dogs need different levels of each—understimulated, they can develop their own, less attractive behavior patterns,” she says. But best of all, the most valuable result of this collaborative play is the strengthened bond between the dog and his person.

Nina Ottosson Zoo Active Products

Available in the U.S. through
Paw Lickers Bakery & Boutique for Pets
Greenfield Center, N.Y.

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 48: May/Jun 2008
Robin Bell has published three nonfiction books and several children's books and has contributed to numerous online and print magazines. Born in Suffolk, England, he now lives in a small cottage in the forests of Sweden in the company of his two dogs, Wally and Gralle. robinbell.se

Ottoson Photograph by Steffan Johansson, Pixation Photography

Product Photograph by Mark Compton

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