Virtually all dogs that like to play fetch or even just carry things in their mouths (as is the case for many gundog breeds such as the Springer Spaniel) will naturally seek out sticks in the park if they haven’t got a ball or something else to play with, and sometimes even if they do.
This is something that we as dog owners tend to be so familiar with that we rarely pause to wonder why this is, or even start to look for a logical answer to the question of why dogs like sticks in the first place. However, once the question crosses your mind, it will probably occur to you that dogs enjoying finding sticks doesn’t strictly make much sense, particularly given how reluctant some dogs are to give their sticks up – and how ambitious some dogs can be about the size of sticks they want!
In this article, we’ll bring together an outline of all of the various factors that contribute to dogs wanting to pick up, carry and play with sticks, and also talk in more detail about whether or not this is ok, if dogs playing with sticks is safe or not, and what the potential risks may be.
We will also break things down in more detail in a later article, covering what specifically it is about sticks that the average dog finds so appealing. Read on to learn more.
If you’re heading out for a walk with your dog and they enjoy playing fetch or running around with things in their mouth, you’ve probably got quite the arsenal of toys for the purpose, including balls, other things that can be thrown, and a range of other types of toys your dog enjoys.
You may even have some toys that are for “best” or those that you leave at home if you know another dog might make off with them, and some dog toys are fairly pricey, with balls for some launcher toys alone costing over £10 each.
However, it may come as a surprise to people who have only owned dogs for a decade or less that the proliferation of dog toys on the market and the number of toys the average dog has is a rather modern thing.
Up until a couple of decades ago, the average dog might have a tennis ball and a chew toy, and would be expected or even encouraged to go out and find a stick on their walk to play fetch with and abandon before going back home.
Whilst this element of things is a learned behaviour for dogs that have never played with sticks and we don’t tend to encourage dogs to pick up sticks any more, dogs learn by observation of other dogs. Ergo, the association with sticks and play is something that younger dogs, who have never been encouraged to play with sticks, picked up from older dogs; and passed on to other younger dogs again in their turn. Collective species memory!
So, what makes dogs pick up sticks? The above explanation goes a little way towards explaining things, but is not sufficient on its own to explain why dogs are often so keen on sticks.
If your dog is used to playing fetch or carrying something in their mouth and you forgot their toy or it got lost in the park, they may well look for a stick as a substitute. However, some dogs still prefer a stick to a toy regardless, and there are a few reasons for this.
Sticks are often available when toys are not, such as if you try to only use your dog’s toys when they’re alone, so another dog doesn’t take it or your own dog doesn’t get possessive over it. This means that a stick is a neutral option for play with another dog, and we’ve all seen two dogs (that may well have only just met) haring around the park with a long stick held between them in their mouths, often with a chunk of foliage on the end and looking quite comical!
The range of shapes and sizes (and even degrees of density) sticks can be found in means there is one to appeal to every dog, and as mentioned, a stick is a neutral toy that can enable play between two dogs without one of them being possessive over it; albeit a dog may soon become possessive over a stick that was simply a windfall find a few moments before.
The smells, tastes, textures and sheer variety to be found in sticks means that dogs tend to like sticks because they can pick and choose, and once they’ve held it in their mouth or their owner has picked it up, these familiar aromas transfer to the stick and increase its appeal too.
Obviously any given dog might like or dislike (or pick up or ignore) any given stick, but there are indeed some types of sticks that more or less all dogs will ignore, or outright avoid; even if you found it for them and painstakingly trimmed it as a gift.
These types of sticks come from some trees that are actually poisonous to dogs; because the taste and smell of them (which tend to be indetectable to us humans) are unpleasant, generally bitter, to dogs. This is not true of all sticks that are toxic to dogs, but some common ones like yew tend to be actively avoided.
Unfortunately, sticks aren’t safe for dogs and aren’t appropriate toys for them, and so it is not a good idea to let your dog chew sticks or play fetch with them. There are various reasons for this, but the main one is of course the risk of splinters and larger sharp, pointy parts of the stick, which might cut or pierce your dog’s mouth or even internal organs if they chew the stick up.
Playing catch with a stick is risky as well, as your dog might slip or land on a pointed stick and impale themselves. Additionally, fungus, mould, and other potential toxins can be found on some sticks, as well as thorns and other risks, and so it is much wiser to substitute a stick for a safe toy and avoid having your dog play with sticks at all.