- Dogs are foragers at heart — Your dog’s stick obsession is likely the result of their natural ancestral instincts to hunt and gather.
- While carrying sticks is often safe, chewing is not — Oral injuries, stomach obstruction, and cyanide poisoning are all risks associated with ingesting sticks.
- Training can curb the habit — Offering up safe alternatives and using a “leave it” command can prevent your dog from eating sticks.
Is there anything more cliche than a dog with a stick in their mouth? From twigs to large branches, our favorite furballs unapologetically love these wooden delights. Whether you find this common behavior to be cute or concerning, you may be questioning the logic behind it. To know how dogs came about this impulse to chomp away on fallen tree debris they find in the yard or at the park, you’ll have to look to their ancestors.
The history of dogs and sticks
Domesticated dogs descend from wild wolves, who rely on their woodland environments for food and tools for self-grooming. While today’s dogs have access to pet spas and veterinary clinics, their ancestors had to hunt and forage for valuable resources. A stick may not seem like much of a necessity to humans, but a wild dog can chew on them to strengthen their gums and clean their teeth. Today, these wooden twigs can serve as a reminder for dogs of the natural world from which they originated.
Why dogs like sticks
Not every dog likes sticks for the same reason. In fact, some don’t really care for them at all! But rest assured that if your pooch does have a hankering for these weathered strips of wood, it’s quite common. Here are the reasons that experts believe dogs gravitate towards sticks.
Domesticated dogs maintain the natural prey drive of their wolf ancestors. Since your backyard likely doesn’t contain a lot of game to satisfy their hunting instincts, sticks will often have to suffice. Once a dog has “caught” a stick, they may trot around with it like a trophy commemorating their exploration skills, or try to tear it to shreds like the hunted prey that they view it as.
As much as your pup loves all those presents you bring home for them from the pet store, they actually prefer to source their own toys. Dogs have an evolutionary instinct to forage for resources. So while being handed a plush avocado their human bought off the shelf may be appreciated, it’s not as rewarding as finding something on their own – like the perfect stick. Sticks mimic the texture, size, and shape of a bone or hard toy, and gnawing on the wood can satiate a canine’s chewing needs. In this instance, your dog may even bring their stick findings over to you to initiate a game of fetch.
To us, sticks may just be tree litter, but to dogs, they’re a direct link to the natural world. With up to 300 million scent receptors, dogs have an incredible sense of smell . If your best friend has a stick obsession, they may be drawn to the earthy smell (and flavors) of these tiny branches. Sticks carry the aromas of wild animals that have interacted with them, as well as rain, moss, and bacteria that is unique to the woodlands.
Another theory posits that dogs chew sticks for their oral health. In general, chewing can help remove plaque from a dog’s teeth. Puppies especially resort to chewing for teething, and will gnaw up just about everything they can find (including you). Even as adult dogs, chomping on a stick could be a means of alleviating toothaches or other dental diseases. If your pup is holding the stick between their front paws, they are likely using it as a tool for tooth maintenance. Much like their wild ancestors, they are relying on the natural environment for self-grooming.
Owners should be aware that regular teeth brushing and oral check ups are better means of keeping their pup’s teeth healthy than simply letting them chew on things. If you suspect your dog is eating sticks or other objects because of oral pain, consult your veterinarian.
In some cases, your dog may be chewing on sticks because they are experiencing a nutrient deficiency. One example of a disorder associated with nutritional deficiencies is pica, a common condition that can result in your dog eating non-food items such as sticks, dirt, rocks, and even poop. In addition to medical reasons, pica can also be a behavioral problem, so it’s best to talk to your vet to understand the root of why your dog is ingesting foreign objects.
Dangers of sticks for dogs
At this point you’re probably wondering if there’s any harm in letting your dog engage with sticks. While picking one up and running around with it for a bit is usually harmless, the truth is that chewing on them can actually be quite dangerous.
- Oral injuries. Sticks break into sharp pieces as dogs bite into them, possibly resulting in punctures of the mouth and sore gums. Additionally, sticks or twigs can become lodged in the roof of your dog’s mouth, causing panic and thrashing as they try to get it out.
- Splinters. Your dog can get a splinter in the soft tissue of their mouth from chewing on a stick. Over time, a splinter can even travel to other areas such as the dog’s eyeballs, nose, or throat.
- Choking. Sticks are also a choking hazard for dogs. Owners should be careful of letting their dogs run right after chewing on them, as they can choke on lingering remnants in their mouths.
- Ingestion. If swallowed, a stick can still cause damage in the digestive tract. If the stick becomes stuck in their stomach or intestines, it can cause a potentially fatal obstruction.
- Poisoning. Wood from walnut, apple, black cherry, red maple, yew, and red oak trees are considered toxic to dogs, as they produce a chemical that can cause cyanide poisoning . Fungus and parasites on the sticks can also make your dog sick.
- Impaling. There have been instances of stick impalement where dogs have injured themselves running with a stick in their mouth. Be careful not to ever let your pooch run around with a big stick or branch.
Training your dog to not eat sticks
So how can humans curb their dog’s centuries-old evolutionary impulse to chew on sticks? As with any training, patience and positive reinforcement are key.
Cut off access — Sometimes the best method is the obvious method. To stop your dog from chewing on sticks, it’d be a good idea to remove them and all other tree or shrubbery debris from your yard. While this is harder to do around the neighborhood and at the local park, it at least keeps their home base clear of choking hazards.
Trade up — Next time you see your dog chewing on a stick, offer them an indestructible chew toy or high-value treat that will still satiate their desire to chew on something.
Use a “leave it” command — Teach your dog a command like “leave it ” by offering them a treat as a reward for looking at you when you say it. This will also help with other things you don’t want your dog getting into, like garbage or dead animals.
Put on a basket muzzle — Though people often associate basket muzzles with reactivity, they can also be used to limit scavenging. Owners should never use a muzzle for discipline.
Alternatives to sticks for safe play
Not letting your dog eat sticks doesn’t have to make you a killjoy. Offer up some safe alternatives that will still satisfy their chewing needs and help burn energy.
- Bones. While real bones from animals are considered unsafe, there are plenty of vet-approved bones on the market for your furry friend to safely enjoy. Bones and treats with a Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal are considered particularly good for a dog’s oral health.
- Hard toys. Getting hard toys for your dog is a safe way to work their gums and deal with frustration, boredom, or anxiety. Some are even designed to look and taste like real sticks!
- Balls and frisbees. Playing fetch with tennis balls, rubber frisbees, or flying discs is much safer than playing with a stick, which can lead to your dog accidentally impaling themself if it’s sharp enough. Squeaky toys can also be a fun way to capture your dog’s attention if you see them going for something they shouldn’t.
- Bully sticks. Typically made of meat, bully sticks are a delicious treat for dogs that keep them occupied longer than others and require a lot of chewing. They are considered a choking hazard, so be sure to monitor them.
It’s always interesting to see which traits of their ancestors that dogs hang onto. For the most part, it seems like a great deal of them share their wolf predecessor’s affinity for foraging, and sticks are readily available for their gathering needs. So long as owners exercise caution when it comes to chewing, they can rest assured that this ancient habit is as typical as it gets for our four-legged pals.
Frequently asked questions
Is it okay for dogs to eat sticks?
No. Sticks can cause an obstruction in your dog’s digestive tract, as well as a severe injury in their mouth. Additionally, dogs can be poisoned by certain types of wood, including black cherry, red maple, and walnut.
What dogs like sticks the most?
While gathering sticks is a common behavior for all breeds, sporting breeds like golden retrievers and labs are especially known for walking with sticks in their mouth because of their roots in hunting and retrieving prey.
How can I stop my dog from eating sticks?
Cleaning your yard of all tree litter, using a “leave it” command, and providing a basket muzzle are all ways that owners can curb their dogs’ stick-chewing habit.
Are bones safe for dogs?
While bones from animals are not considered safe (even if cooked), there are a good amount of vet-approved bones and hard chew toys on the market for dogs to safely enjoy. Keep an eye out for a Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal for treats with oral health benefits.
What do dogs like about sticks?
Foraging is a natural instinct for dogs, and sticks are easy to gather. They also mimic the shape and texture of bones, have a unique smell, and are fun for them to play with.