Q & A with Nina Ottoson, designer of interactive dog toys by A. Pace
Nina Ottoson's fun, interactive dog games (www.interactivedoggames.com) are designed to stimulate a dog's brain while reinforcing his relationship with people. Nina Ottoson and I sat down for an intercontinental chat - Nina's in Sweden! - about these exciting and innovative products.
PP: Hej Nina, first things first, can you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to found Nina Ottoson Fun Interactive Games?
NO: I had worked in health care for 17 years. When my daughters were born in 1989 and 1990, I had my hands full with them, so I constantly had a guilty conscience for my dogs. I had two Bouvier Des Flandres that I used to compete with, and after my kids were born, I didn't have as much time to train with them as they were used to. So I started thinking about how to activate them at home, preferably indoors, together with the kids in a fun and mentally stimulating way. That's how I came up with the idea of hiding treats in different ways for the dogs to find - games for the owner to play together with the dog that is fun for both.
PP: How do you come up with the different ideas and concepts for your games?
NO: The games are developed to match the dogs' natural movements and instincts. Dogs have different levels of intelligence, just like humans, and I realized early on that the games must have different levels of difficulty in order for all dogs to be able to enjoy them. This became even more clear once I started testing the games on different dogs. In addition, some dogs are genetically predisposed to fetch, and for them games like the DogSmart/DogMagic where the dog is supposed to lift blocks, are easier than for dogs who first have to learn how to fetch. The choice of material is based on the fact that some customers prefer the natural wood that is genuine and heavier, and some prefer the plastic that is easy to clean and great for dogs who drool a lot, or when the games are used for more than one dog. The plastic is also perfect for dogs that prefer wet food. You can make "ice cream" with the plastic games by mixing some meaty food with water, put some of the mixture in each of the compartments and then put it in the freezer - a great activity for hot days!
PP: We love how there are many different levels of difficulty within your line and within each individual game. Can you explain a little bit about how one of your games can be made to be more or less challenging?
NO: Most of my games can be varied in difficulty by adding or removing blocks or pegs. This is a great way to make the game increasingly difficult as the dog learns what to do. This can be applied to the following plastic games: DogCasino, DogBrick, DogTornado, DogFinder, DogTwister, as well as the wooden games: DogCasino, DogBrick, DogTornado, DogFighter, DogTwister, and DogDomino. 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.
PP: Which games do you recommend for smaller dogs, and for larger dogs?
NO: Almost all the games can be used by dogs of all sizes, and also by cats, parrots, minipigs, monkeys and other animals. 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.
PP: Please tell us a little bit about how beneficial your games can be for senior or less physically active dogs.
NO: I have a lot of experience with older dogs that were not able to go for long walks due to worn out hips and joints, but they were still mentally active because we played games together. I am convinced that they appreciated this and it enriched their senior years a lot. I have also worked with dogs that have been placed in new homes for different reasons. At first they seemed under-stimulated and gave the impression of being less intelligent. When the new family showed them the easiest games, they acted like they didn't understand, and they didn't even want to try because they have never been given the opportunity to explore and play in this way. It takes a lot of practice, encouragement and praise, but after a while I have seen that when they start to understand and succeed in finding the treats, their self confidence increases and they are really happy. From not getting it at all, they have learned how to explore the games and get rewarded. The games are also great for teaching the dog basic commandoes like sit, wait, lie down, fetch etc in a positive and fun way, and they help strengthen the relationship between the dog and its owner. They learn how to "read" each other and how to interpret each others' signals. Another great use for the games is when the dog is injured, and cannot move about freely.
PP: What's your favorite things about your games?
NO: The dog 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 Bouvier, and Ville, a Bouvier/ Schapendoes mix. They like most of the games, and their favorite ones are DogBrick and DogTornado. They absolutely love it 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.
PP: What's next? Any future games, ideas, or concepts that you're especially excited about?
NO: 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 fall. I'm really excited about a completely new concept that I have been testing for about a year. I plan to release it around Christmas or the new year, and I look forward to seeing what dogs and their owners think about it.
PP: Are there any canine "game testers" who work with you as you design? If so, who are they?
NO: 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.
PP: And last, but certainly not least, how would your dogs describe you?
NO: 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!