Making the Pocket Critter Interactive Dog Toy

stitching closed a Pocket Critter Interactive Dog Toy | oxforddogma.com
Stitching the plush dog toy closed

When I set out to design the Pocket Critter Toy, I zeroed in on creating something that would give dogs a mental challenge — a problem to solve — in order to get a treat. Rather than handing a dog a biscuit for sitting, with this toy the dog would have to nose around until they discovered the treats, then figure out how to get the treats out.

The timeless-yet-cuddly materials

I wanted the interactive toy to be soft and cuddly. So with this in mind, I focused on choosing fabrics that would be thick and strong yet soft and cozy. The toys are made from a combination of wool (both reclaimed and from the remnants store), fleece, and flannel.

It was a lot of fun combining the fabrics and colors — there’s definitely an Ivy Leagues Classics influence there, but the combinations are a little more playful since it’s a toy. Well, a reserved playful. I’ll be upping the playful aspect even more with a new group of Mutt Love Pocket Critters, made from scraps and less “pure” (read: mismatched and unexpected).

The pocket has the most specific logistical requirements. After watching Pipsqueak chew threw some thinner pocket prototypes I chose a double layer of tough twill fabric for the pocket. Twill is a sturdy fabric (our jeans our made of a twill weave) that can stand up to some chewing.

Putting it all together

Once the fabrics for these little guys are all selected, I cut out all of the pieces, then start prepping the pieces for assembly. First I sew together the ears and the tails. For the tails, I use the freezer paper technique I learned about on whileshenaps.com. It makes the odd shape so much easier to sew around accurately, and then it’s a snap to trim them to size.

Pocket Critter cut out and ready to be sewn together | oxforddogma.com
The ears, tail, and pocket have been prepped, and back and front are ready to be sewn together

Then the tail gets sewn to the back piece and the bodies are assembled, with ears sandwiched in place. At this point, I feel a sense of anticipation as I turn the toy right side out — I get a kick out of seeing how exactly the ears came into shape. Each one is a bit different, which is one of the reasons I enjoy making this toy.

Pocket Critters ready to be stuffed | oxforddogma.com
The toys assembled and ready to be stuffed

Next, I stuff them with polyester stuffing (it’s more sanitary than cotton and washes well) so they’re full but not firm, and stitch them closed. Then I stitch the pocket (which has already been sewn together, and pressed into shape) on by hand.

Pocket Critters stuffed and ready for pockets | oxforddogma.com
This batch of toys is stuffed and ready for the pockets to be stitched on by hand

It’s fun to see them go from flat pieces to something with three-dimensional shape and character. I think they’re rather charming (and a little French-like), between the slightly bowed legs, the big ears, and the hand-stitched pocket. Someone who knows my overly-detailed tendencies well asked me if I count the stitches on the pockets. And perhaps the more surprising thing about that comment is that no, I actually don’t count them! I think it’s more playful and down-to-earth to eyeball it in this case.

The final step is to pop them into the washer and dryer to fluff them up and pass my quality control double-check. There’s nothing cuter than a dryer full of fluffed-up Pocket Critters, just waiting for their new doggie friend to play with them.

grey and herringbone Pocket Critter dog toy | oxforddogma.com

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Designing the Pocket Critter interactive dog toy

Field testing the Pocket Critter interactive dog toy | oxforddogma.com

When we got the DNA test results for our dog, Pipsqueak, we learned she’s part Jack Russell Terrier. And terriers like to participate in earthdog trials, where they use their keen sense of smell to hunt down little rodents (typically a rat in the trials). This fascinated me to no end, but our dog is shy and likes to stick close to home. So when she snatched up a little stuffed javelina toy that had tumbled onto the floor one day, we were delighted. To her, it looked like a little rodent — her terrier instincts were kicking in! We coined it her “little piggy” and it was the first toy we could get her to play with.

Fast forward several months, when we learned from her trainer that dogs like to be challenged by hunting for their treats or food. After hearing this, I ran to my workshop and attached a crude pocket to Pipsqueak’s little piggy. We stuffed some treats inside and waited in anticipation to see if she’d figure out they were in there, and if she’d figure out how to get them out.

pocket stitched to javelina plush | oxforddogma.com
The pocket is dirty, but it’s holding up great.

She did! It was so fun to watch her investigating, and from then on whenever we wanted to give her a treat or stimulate her appetite we’d put some food (her regular kibble) in the pocket and set the toy somewhere for her to find. “Little piggy” was now “pocket piggy”.

My design challenge was set: how could I create a soft toy that would keep dogs entertained and challenged, engaging them in a mental activity with a treat for a reward?

Design goals

My design goals for this new toy included:

  • a pocket that holds little treats or pieces of food to mentally challenge dogs
  • adding a floppy tail for grabbing (Pipsqueak likes to do drive-by toy grabs and sometimes these little appendages help her pick up the toy)
  • no plastic pieces, like eyes, that could get chewed off and harm a dog
  • roughly rodent-like (but cuter)

Inspiration

The inspiration for the Pocket Critter interactive dog toy comes from three main sources:

  • the rat that’s used in earthdog trials
  • the way dogs like to be mentally challenged and hunt for treats
  • the crude pocket I stitched onto the original plush toy

The design process

The design didn’t come easy. I’d only made one other stuffed toy before, the stuffed pig project from Martha Stewart. I actually modified that project to have a long pocket along one side, but the fabric was too thin and it got chewed up.

pig toy sewn with integrated pocket | oxforddogma.com
I learned that a single layer of flannel was much too thin for the pocket.

I scoured Abby’s great tutorials on whileshenaps.com and did all kinds of experimenting with different designs. The trickiest part was integrating the pocket into the design, and sizing it so Pipsqueak could actually reach the treats without just chewing through the pocket itself.

My final design was kind of a 180° turn from what I initially thought it would look like. Instead of being more true-to-life in shape, I sketched out a flat front-facing version that I fell in love with. The addition of big ears and a stuffed tail really help give it character.

field testing the pocket critter toy with Pipsqueak | oxforddogma.comAfter field testing the toy with Pipsqueak, I was happy with the design and ready to start making a bunch of them for a pop-up shop. (Spoiler alert: they were my best seller at the event.)

In my next post, I’ll be giving a look into the making of the cute and huggable Pocket Critter toy.

Does your dog have a favorite soft toy?

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Solving life’s little problems

Road Trip Leash Pouch | oxforddogma.com

Among our we-just-adopted-a-dog supply run was a pouch to hold clean-up bags. And it wasn’t good. So I set out to design a better solution and created this little Dopp-kit-like zip pouch. It’s so much nicer to use and I’m always prepared at walk time.

When something doesn’t work, I like to fix it. That’s how the Road Trip Leash Pouch was born.

Check out the leash pouches available in my shop >