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.”