A dog with a stick is a happy dog. Just watch Rover next time he finds one. He’ll pounce on it, let it go and pretend it got away, grab it again, then proudly bring it home. Some dogs have even been observed ignoring their toys in favor of a found stick.
But why? Why are pieces of broken wood so magically appealing to dogs? The reasons can be found in the nature of dog play.
Like other intelligent carnivores, much of dog play revolves around the skills needed to hunt – chasing, shaking small objects in their jaws the way they would kill small prey, and bringing the prey home. Sticks are great for these exercises, especially if you play along by throwing them.
Why? Here are some reasons why dogs consider sticks the ultimate toy.
1. Shapes of Sticks Resemble Prey Animal Limbs
If you’ve ever watched a wolf pack hunting on Discovery Channel or Nat Geo, you’ll see these creatures often grabbing deer or bison by their legs to keep them from fleeing. For dogs, grabbing a stick with their jaws is practice for catching their prey.
You can greatly enhance this game for them by throwing the stick.
Have you ever seen dogs throwing sticks by themselves? They can after a fashion, but they’re not good at it.
However, throwing the stick helps simulate prey even better because now there’s also a reason to chase after it. Every breed of dog has an instinct to run after moving objects, which is why they’re so attracted to rolling balls, running squirrels and kids, and cars.
Sight hound breeds like Greyhounds and Salukis, and herd dogs like German Shepherd Dogs and Collies, have especially powerful instincts to chase moving objects. For these dogs, a chance to chase something thrown far and fast is like a shot of espresso for us.
Terriers, most of which were originally bred to hunt small animals like rabbits and rodents, get their stick kick by shaking and worrying the stick. This simulates how they subdue small prey.
You’ll see the terrier’s natural feistiness and tenacity in the way they pounce on and shake their sticks. In his mind, even your tiny Yorkie is a champion stick-slayer!
Retriever breeds in turn have an instinct to bring prey home to their pack leader – you.
They enjoy the mental and physical challenges of finding a thrown stick, crossing obstacles such as water, and the praise you give them when they bring it back.
They enjoy it even more when you throw the stick again!
2. Sticks Resemble Bones
Because dogs can see sticks as resembling animal limbs, they can also see them as resembling bones.
And what does Rover enjoy chewing even more than sticks?
When there’s no bone to be had, a stick is the next best thing.
3. Sticks are Trophies
Because sticks stand-in for prey, a stick is also a trophy for your dog to bring home. When Rover brings you home a stick, he’s saying, “Look! Me a good hunter! Me worthy to be of your pack!”
Proving his ability to retrieve things is validation for your dog, so play along and praise him for it.
4. Sticks are Fun to Chew
Dogs have a strong instinct to mouth and chew things as a combination of feeding and play behaviors.
Chewing relieves stress for dogs, the way handling fidget toys does for us. That’s why a lonely dog will often chew stuff, including your sofa if it can’t find better alternatives.
Chewing also releases the flavors and odors of the wood.
Remember that your dog’s nose can be as much as ten thousand times more sensitive than yours, so for it, a stick can carry the ever-intriguing aromas of the wilderness the way the aroma of chocolate or Cuban cigars can trigger your associations of the good life.
Growing puppies have an even stronger reason to like chewing sticks. When they’re teething, the pain in their gums can be relieved somewhat by chewing, and the act also helps the development of their jaw bones and muscles.
Dogs also have fun tearing things apart, as it simulates the final stage of a successful hunt; enjoying the prey.
Most dogs have the sense not to carry this play too far, but some don’t, and end not only tear up their sticks but also eat them. There are also some kinds of wood that aren’t healthy for Rover to chew on because of splinters or toxins.
You’ll find the details below.
Dangers from Playing With Sticks
While most of the time sticks are safe toys for your dog, there are also some hazards from them.
Soft, dry woods like pine splinter easily and can injure a dog’s mouth, eyes, or digestive tract.
Sometimes dogs find pieces of lumber and play with them like fallen branches, but these may have nails in them or maybe coated with harmful chemicals.
It’s also possible for a dog to get a piece of wood wedged into his mouth, preventing him from closing it and chewing. The woods of some common trees, especially fruit trees of the Prunus family, contain toxins that can make dogs sick.
Keep your dog from playing with sticks thin enough for him to swallow, from easily splintered wood and used lumber, and learn to identify the toxic trees and plants in your neighborhood.
Trees Toxic to Dog
Quite a few trees and plants common across the United States are toxic to dogs. Make sure to keep your dogs away from the branches, stems, leaves, fruit, and seeds of these.
If you’re not familiar with these plants, you can download some handy phone apps for identifying them.
The following trees are poisonous to dogs:
- Apple contains cyanide in its wood, leaves, and seeds.
- Apricot contains cyanide in its wood, leaves, and seeds.
- Plum contains cyanide in its wood, leaves, and seeds.
- Cherry contains cyanide in its wood, leaves, and seeds.
- Peach contains cyanide in its wood, leaves, and seeds.
- Pear contains cyanide in its wood, leaves, and seeds.
- Nectarine contains cyanide in its wood, leaves, and seeds.
- Boxwood contains poisonous alkaloids that cause dehydration and diarrhea.
- Black Walnut fallen nuts can contain a mold that is deadly to dogs and horses.
- Red Oak acorns contain dangerous amounts of tannic acid that can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
- Red Maple leaves contain a toxin that gives dogs impaired red blood cell function.
- Yew contains a toxin in all its parts that gives dogs vomiting, tremors, and seizures, and can be lethal.
- Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) and other cycads contain a toxin that causes liver failure in dogs. All parts of the plant are poisonous. All parts are poisonous. Cycas revoluta is different from the True Sago Palm, Metroxylon sagu, which is not poisonous. However, Cycas revoluta is the more common ornamental in the United States.
Garden Plants Toxic to Dogs
The following ornamentals, flowering plants, and vegetables are toxic to dogs:
- Azalea contains a toxin that gives dogs digestive problems.
- Oleander contains a toxin in all its parts that can give dogs abdominal pain, diarrhea, and low blood sugar; it can be fatal.
- Tomato contains solanine, a poison that causes digestive problems, difficulty breathing, and cardiac problems. All green parts of the plant contain the poison.
- Eggplant contains solanine, a poison that causes digestive problems, difficulty breathing, and cardiac problems. All green parts of the plant contain the poison.
- Potato contains solanine, a poison that causes digestive problems, difficulty breathing, and cardiac problems. All green parts of the plant contain the poison.
- Foxglove contains a toxin that can cause heart failure, not only to dogs but also to us! All parts of the plant are poisonous. Fun fact: digitalis, the toxin found in foxglove, is the basis of several heart medicines.
- Lilies, especially Peace Lilies, Calla Lilies, Amaryllis, Autumn Crocus, Lily of the Valley contain a toxin that can give a dog vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures.
- Belladonna contains a toxin that can cause heart failure, not only to dogs but also to us! All parts of the plant are poisonous.
- Wolfsbane contains a toxin that can cause heart failure, not only to dogs but also to us! All parts of the plant are poisonous.
- Asparagus fern berries can give dogs vomiting and diarrhea, and the leaves can cause severe skin irritation.
- Cyclamen can give dogs vomiting, excessive drooling, and diarrhea.
- Daffodil can give dogs vomiting and convulsions. The toxin is especially concentrated in the bulbs.
- Larkspur is dangerous to both dogs and humans. Its toxin can cause arrhythmia, weakness, abdominal pain, paralysis, tremors, and seizures.
- Hemlock is dangerous to both dogs and humans. Its toxin can cause panting, seizures, convulsions, severe abdominal pain, and even sudden death. Interesting fact: Socrates was executed by making him drink hemlock.
- Hyacinth bulbs cause drooling, diarrhea, and breathing difficulty.
- Hydrangea can give dogs depression, elevated heart rate and temperature, and vomiting.
- Ivy can cause dermatitis and gastrointestinal damage in dogs.
- Laburnum can give dogs nausea and vomiting.
- Lupin can cause loss of coordination and appetite, frothing, convulsions, liver damage, and respiratory failure in dogs.
- Chrysanthemum contains a natural insecticide (pyrethrum) that can cause drooling, coughing, vomiting, agitation, and shaking in dogs.
- Peony can give dogs nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
- Morning Glory can give dogs diarrhea, anemia, loss of coordination, vomiting, liver failure, tremors, and even hallucinations. The toxin is similar to LSD.
- Rhododendron can give dogs vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, leg paralysis, abnormally slow heartbeat, shortness of breath, seizures, and coma.
- Rhubarb can cause dogs to have bloody urine, arrhythmia, tremors, and kidney failure among other symptoms. The toxin is most concentrated in the leaves.
- Sweet Pea can give dogs abdominal pains and cramps, diarrhea, tremors, and seizures, and can be fatal.
- Tulips can give dogs abdominal pain, arrhythmia, diarrhea, dizziness, tremors, seizures, and difficulty breathing, and can be fatal.
- Umbrella Plants can give dogs swelling of the face, mouth, and gums, vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal upset. Umbrella plants are also known as umbrella trees, Schefflera, octopus tree, Australian or Queensland umbrella tree, and parasol plant.
- Wisteria can give dogs confusion, dizziness, diarrhea, severe vomiting, and stomach pain. It can be lethal.
What Toys Make Good Alternatives to Sticks?
If you have hazardous trees in your neighborhood, or you’ve found that your dog tends to eat sticks, give him safer alternatives. Balls, chew toys, Frisbees, Kong toys especially when stuffed with peanut butter, and rawhide bones all make safe and appealing alternatives for Rover’s playtime.
Make it even more fun, and give yourself a workout, by taking an active hand in his play. Nothing beats having some sweaty fun in the sun, especially after a long winter made even longer by the pandemic.
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