Why do dogs like sticks, and why are some dogs so committed they’ll carry sticks the size of a tree home if you let them? Not every dog cares about sticks, but they can get a bit obsessed when they do. Usually, it’s very cute and funny behavior.
Just see this adorable video of a dog that just can’t help finding the biggest sticks in the park.
Chewing sticks is a choking hazard and can cause intestinal blockages or damage from splinters. Carrying sticks in the mouth is harmless and as fun, but pet parents should not encourage their dogs to chew sticks. Chew toys and dog feeding mats better promote safe chewing and foraging behaviors.
But let’s take a look at the fascinating relationship between dogs and sticks.
Why do Dogs Like Sticks?
Dogs love sticks because chasing them stimulates something called prey drive. Looking for them in the woods stimulates their hunting and foraging instincts. And dogs carry sticks home when sticks become a high-value object or a “trophy.”
It all comes back to a dog’s natural instincts as a predator and scavenger.
Dogs chewing sticks is a perfectly normal canine behavior, but we don’t advise encouraging it. Chews and dental dog toys are much better for dogs to chew than sticks and hard objects like antlers.
But let’s break down why a dog loves sticks. To really understand it, we need to understand what sticks represent as part of a dog’s natural hunting instinct.
Instinctual Hunt/Prey Drive Where Sticks Become Treasures to Forage
A dog’s love for sticks has historical origins, where humans bred them to hunt, chase, and retrieve. These are natural behaviors that dogs kept from the wild. But humans emphasized some of these behaviors and suppressed others.
Some dog breeds usually have no interest in sticks. This is the case for many companion breeds like the Maltese or Mastiffs like the English Mastiff. Neither of these breeds was encouraged to hold on to much of their wolf-like hunt instincts, so they didn’t. But for other breeds, the hunt became vital for them. But only parts of it.
First, we need to understand how the hunt is broken down into different parts or different “drives” and how different breeds were bred for different parts.
1. Searching or foraging for prey
The first part of the hunt is the ability to search an area for a scent, sight, or smell of something to hunt. It is also part of their foraging for food instinct.
This behavior is most pronounced in hunting breeds like the Beagle, Catahoula Leopard Dog, Pointers, and Golden Retrievers. You also find it in terrier breeds once used for hunting vermin.
Dogs are selected for a good hunt drive when they need to find prey or objects, as in narcotic or explosive detection dogs. Dogs with a strong hunt drive love to look for something interesting to play with or chase. Sticks can often become the focus of this behavior.
This is one part of the hunt that isn’t a part of a dog’s stick addiction. Stalking is most obvious in herding breeds like collies or the Cowboy Corgi or, to a lesser degree, in hunting breeds like the German Short-haired Pointer.
Most breeds don’t have a strong urge to stalk unless they are playing together because there are not many doggy jobs where it is necessary.
3. Prey drive and dogs chasing sticks
Prey drive is the top reason that dogs become addicted to sticks. As soon as the dog learns that a stick is something they can chase, the stick becomes just as important and fascinating as a squirrel.
Typically, prey drive becomes “ball drive,” or a dog’s addiction to chasing the ball (or other small animals). If you like to hike, chances are you’ve thrown a stick for your dog to fetch. This immediately made the stick a high-value object to a dog with a strong prey drive.
This means that from then on, sticks have to be hunted for, retrieved, chased, and brought home as a trophy (object possession).
The prey drive is different from the hunt drive. Hunting is looking for prey and objects, usually through sniffing. Prey drive is a dog’s instinct to chase something. If you’ve ever thrown a ball for a Pug only to have them stare at you perplexed, you may know that not all dogs have a strong prey drive.
But prey drive, or the urge to chase, is very important for many breeds. For instance, Border Collies won’t have any instinct to herd sheep without a prey drive or the urge to chase. Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds also need a strong prey drive to work as police and service dogs.
3. Grabbing and biting, and sticks
If you’ve seen dogs tearing sticks apart, they probably still have an active bite/kill instinct and may not be safe around the family hamster. Many dogs do not have this instinct. For example, herding breeds need a strong urge to chase (prey drive), but biting and tearing apart would be a major behavior problem.
This is why the breeds that really enjoy ripping a stick to shreds tend to be terriers or dogs where the killing part of the hunt was still encouraged for them to do their job. This is more common in dogs that once exterminated vermin or were bred for dog fighting.
You should not see it as much (or as intensely) in breeds like retrievers whose job was to bring the prize back unharmed.
4. Eat or bring back to the den for the pack
Bringing back the prize to the den is the main reason that many dogs love bringing giant sticks home. This behavior may be strongest in retrievers and other dogs bred to bring prey to their owners. But you can see it in any dog that’s obsessed with sticks.
Generally, dogs bringing sticks home have a major sense of accomplishment. They usually hold their tails high and look very happy with themselves. And yes, the size of the stick matters. Many dogs will look for the biggest stick they can find to haul all the way home. Why?
Well, to a dog who has learned that a stick is valuable in that it is something they can hunt for and chase, bringing it home signals that have done something valuable for the pack, just like a wolf who has brought the biggest piece of meat to the den.
Bringing a stick back signals that the dog is valuable to the pack for making such a huge contribution. They are star hunters because they found such an essential item. It means they are very important because they own a giant stick. It’s exactly like someone who just bought a Ferrari. The item represents value and status.
In fact, this kind of object possession is quite important for a dog’s self-esteem provided it doesn’t turn into aggression (resource guarding). Notice this Dachshund’s body language when he brings a stick home, including how high he holds his tail. Can you tell what he is communicating?
Of course, the size of the stick isn’t important to every dog.
Other Reasons a dog likes sticks
But let’s look a bit beyond the hunting drives at some other reasons a dog chewing on sticks is a common occurrence.
Sticks are nature’s toys and resemble a bone
Chewing sticks releases a dog’s happy hormones, dopamine, similar to chewing a bone. The spongy texture of sticks further encourages gnawing on sticks for dogs. Chewing sticks offers physical stimulation when dogs throw and play with the sticks, making it an overall fun experience.
Sticks have various smells and tastes which excite their senses
The rich, woody smell of sticks entices dogs due to their sharp smell, which is about 10,000 to 100,000 more sensitive than humans due to their 30 million olfactory receptors. Sticks smell good as they have other animals’ scents and different outdoor aromas that are irresistible to dogs. The earthy taste of sticks also appeals to most dogs.
Chewing Alleviates sore gums for teething Puppies
Some puppies use stick chewing as a tool to cope with teething pain, and older dogs for gum inflammation causing discomfort. The pain-reducing impact of adding pressure to a pain point is an example of gate control theory.
Adding non-painful sensations can reduce and override feelings of pain. Therefore, the pressure from chewing sticks reduces the pain sensations from aching gums in teething puppies.
Indiscriminate Eating (Pica) and Potential Nutritional Deficiencies
The ingestion of non-food objects (pica) is still a largely unexplored phenomenon in dogs. Behavioral conditions like impulsivity, canine OCD, and anxiety are probable causes of pica in dogs. Dogs can consume sticks indiscriminately due to the neurological disorder pica.
Some people say dogs eat sticks or other items because of a nutritional deficiency, but there is no evidence for this.
Your dog might carry a stick to get you to play, particularly if you regularly play fetch with a stick. These dogs are likely bored or lonely and in need of a walk. Bored dogs may also bark at nothing to catch your attention, although they may be barking at sounds you can’t hear that you perceive as nothing.
Chewing reduces endorphins and has a calming effect on the brain’s adrenal-pituitary axis. Dogs with anxiety distract themselves with chewing sticks and may even hide their treats if they’re around unfamiliar people.
Is it Safe for Dogs to Chew on Sticks?
Chewing sticks isn’t safe for dogs because it poses multiple health risks, depending on the size of the stick, with smaller ones being choking hazards.
- Choking hazards: Dogs can choke when they chew on small sticks that can get lodged in their throat.
- Intestinal blockages: Both small and big sticks can splinter and lodge themselves in your dog’s gastrointestinal tract leading to digestive issues. These blockages can require surgery in severe cases.
- Dental issues: Splinters can get stuck between the teeth resulting in pain and abscesses when problem areas get infected.
- Toxicity and allergies: Sticks from walnut, black cherry, and red maple are toxic to dogs. Dogs with seasonal allergies can experience reactions due to pollen on the sticks.
- Bacterial and fungal infections: Any wounds in the mouth, face, or stomach can result in secondary bacterial infections when they get infected.
How to Stop Your Dog from Chewing Sticks
- Teach the “drop it” command.
- Leash your dog in public and in parks
- Redirect them to safe objects to chew on, and swap sticks for safer chew toys.
- Don’t reward the behavior with attention
- Remove sticks from the yard
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do dogs like bones?
Dogs like bones because they satisfy their instinctual desire to chew and are tasty. Chewing bones provides mental stimulation and releases feel-good endorphin hormones. Puppies chew on bones to relieve teething pain when the bone applies pressure to the gum.
Why do dogs like socks?
Dogs like socks because they have their owner’s scent, making them feel closer to them. Stealing your socks is your dog’s form of expressing affection because of the strong foot odor and sweat that reminds them of you. Puppies can also steal socks to alleviate teething pain.
Why do dogs like squeaky toys?
Squeaky toys trigger a dog’s hunt drive due to their high-pitched sound. The squeaky sound gives feedback that the bite is effective, triggering the reward hormone dopamine. Squeaky toys simulate caught prey, and dogs are wired to enjoy catching prey.
Why do dogs like ice cubes?
Ice cubes are refreshing treats, particularly on a cold day. Dogs enjou crushing and playing with ice cubes, and they satisfy dogs with a high chewing urge. Puppies love ice because it numbs the gum, reducing teething pain. Owners must be careful with ice because it can damage their dog’s teeth.
Why do dogs like tennis balls?
Dogs are programmed chase, so they love tennis balls because they trigger their hunting drive. If you have played fetch with a tennis ball with your dog, they have registered that the tennis ball can be chased and caught. Dogs grab tennis balls to get their owner’s attention or for stimulation because they’re bored.
Dogs like sticks because they can chew them like bones, savoring all the woody smells and tastes. The main reason dogs adore sticks is that it triggers their hunt drive when they catch the stick after chasing it. It’s endearing to watch dogs find fun with sticks, but they can cause intestinal blockages, choking, and toxicity, so the behavior should be discouraged.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.