Some dogs are very keen to find twigs and sticks when out on walks, turning this into something of a scavenger hunt and often being very selective about what type of stick makes the grade. Whilst historically, dogs used to play with sticks very commonly and dog owners would try to find an appropriate one on walks to throw for the dog to retrieve as part of play, this is far less common today.
Sticks are not really safe and appropriate toys for dogs, and safe, specially designed dog toys are very easy to buy these days (if often rather pricey!) and so we don’t tend to allow, much less actively encourage, our dogs to play with sticks any more.
The risk of splinters, puncture wounds and even internal injuries if your dog chews bits off a stick, as well as the risk of impalement if your dog fell on a stick and the fact some sticks are rotting and full of spores, all mean that few dogs that are around today have ever been encouraged to play with sticks, as dog owners tend to be very aware of the risks for dogs.
Even so, many if not most dogs find sticks and twigs very appealing nonetheless, and will often actively seek sticks out to chew or carry around, even if you strongly discourage this.
So, why do dogs like sticks and what makes sticks so appealing to them? This is a question that crosses many dog owner’s minds, but it isn’t always easy to get a comprehensive answer! With this in mind, this article will explain all of the different factors that make sticks and twigs appealing to dogs. Read on to learn more.
We as humans explore the world using our hands, primarily; these are our main tools for touch exploration. For dogs, their main tool is their mouths, and this is why dogs are so commonly found chewing, picking up, licking, and eating things that might seem odd; it is an ongoing journey of explanation.
Retrieving dog breeds
Mouth exploration and the drive to hold things in the mouth to learn more about them is common to all dogs, but more acute in some dog types than others; particularly dog breeds from the retrieving group, which are said to have a “soft mouth,” which means they have a fine degree of control over the pressure exerted by the jaw.
This means that retrieving dog breeds like the Golden Retriever are apt to be more keen than others to carry sticks around.
The texture of a stick is part of its appeal, as is the fact that no two sticks are alike. From fresh, supple green twigs that you can bend over without breaking to dry, crumbling sticks so old that they fall apart as soon as you pick them up, the range of textures that can be found in sticks in the average park means there is a lot to explore and something to appeal to every dog.
A stick obviously smells like the tree it came from (to dogs; virtually all of the scent subtext of this tends to be lost on humans, other than for very fragrant trees like pine) but also the wider environment too; the ground, the air, and the general locale.
Your dog can pick up all of these smells from a stick, and they may even pick up a stick to transfer some such smells to themselves, both to learn about the area and to better blend in with it, as an evolutionary survival instinct that helps them not stand out to predators.
Smells from other animals
A stick that was previously in the mouth of another dog will have great appeal to your dog, and a stick that has picked up any other animal smells will too; even if that’s dog pee or the pungent smell of fox!
Sticks that have been on the ground for a while or in leaf mould or that have fallen from a dying branch will develop distinctive smells of decay, and may become colonised by fungus, insects, and other unpalatable things too! However, this may all add to the interest for your dog.
Dogs need to chew, and this actually helps to clean their teeth; all dogs should be provided with appropriate chew toys for the purpose. If your dog’s chewing urges aren’t satisfied or if they just like the mouth feel of sticks, then sticks can be highly appealing.
A dog of any size and muzzle shape will be able to find a stick that suits them as a chew, and virtually all dogs that like sticks will chew their stick up eventually.
A teething puppy or a dog of any age that has sore gums or dental pain will have a highly amplified urge to chew things, and may be much more likely than other dogs to want to chew sticks.
A dog that is suffering from nutritional deficiencies, either because they’re not fed a complete diet (like dogs fed on table scraps or a poorly planned homemade diet) will seek the nutrients they’re lacking in other areas, and this may mean sticks, and all manner of other odd things that are not necessarily food too.
Finally, getting a reaction out of their owners and holding their owner’s attention is very rewarding to dogs, and obviously the dog would prefer this attention and reaction to be positive; but a negative reaction is better than no reaction at all, in your dog’s mind!
The fact that dogs can sometimes be quite comical when playing with sticks and so, make us laugh rewards the dog and reinforces their behaviour.
On the flipside, if you try to get the stick from your dog because you know it’s a potential risk, this can quickly turn into a tug of war or battle of wits that is once more rewarding for your dog, albeit the attention in this case is negative on our parts.