Whether you are a long-time pet owner or you have just recently become a new parent to a pup, you have probably already seen your dog in this sedative state of bliss - chewing on a bone-shaped stick, crunching his troubles away. And surely you have seen other dog owners playing fetch with sticks in the park and allowing their dogs to gnaw on the “nature’s chew toys” - also known as tree branches. So it must be safe, right? While you may be thinking that you’re doing a good deed by allowing your dog to do what seems like all the others dogs do, you might be actually doing him a disservice in the long run. The momentary tail wagging of appreciation can quickly be overshadowed by a visit to the vet with a dog that has a mouthful of splinters - and that’s not even the worst-case scenario. But fear not, you can actually teach an old dog new behavior even if your dog is a stickler for sticks - it just requires a lot of patience and consistency.
The Root of the Behavior
Looking at the behavior from a psychological perspective - there are many reasons your dog enjoys the common behavior of chewing on sticks. It can be a form of exploration that satisfies his curiosity or a way for him to deal with teething and gum irritation - especially during puppyhood. Most commonly, and this applies to dogs of all ages, it is a way to cure boredom by having something to focus on, especially while you are away. However, if your dog chews on things primarily when you are gone, it could also be a sign of him having separation anxiety, and chewing is a way for him to calm himself down during your absence. In both cases, it is essential to make sure your dog has enough durable toys he could chew on and that none of them are small enough for him to swallow. It is also completely normal for your dog to want to chew on things. Not only is it a natural way for dogs to keep their jaws strong and gums clean but the activity itself is also inherently rewarding. Our canine companions have done so since back when they were used primarily for hunting and carrying things. Even more so, when you are throwing your dog a stick you’re tapping into his primal instincts, he gets to hunt and chase before he chews, which further reinforces the already self-reinforcing behavior. Though many dogs would prefer the real thing, most happily settle for the musky, dirt-covered sticks that remind them of a prey’s bones and provide a similar crackling sound of destruction and victory. While completely normal, chewing is also more common in some breeds more than others. Retrievers and terriers are notorious chewers and require more attention and training in that department, the sooner the better.
As for the safety of chewing on sticks - to know for sure you need to know which type of stick your dog is chewing on and if it is all that he is doing with it. If the answer to either of these questions is “I’m not sure” then you might be putting your dog at risk of choking or getting poisoned, as some trees are toxic to dogs. This includes the Walnut tree, the Black Cherry tree, and the Yew trees, to name a few. In this case, it is better to be safe than sorry and stay away from branches all together, using actual dog toys to play with your dog instead.
Encouraging the Behavior
Other Solutions and Considerations
If your attempts at getting your dog off his stick addiction don’t show progress, consider seeing a professional. Both a veterinarian and a dog trainer could provide useful insight into his behavior. Especially, if your dog recently acquired the habit of chewing on sticks - it could be a way for him to deal with pain from an onset of a medical condition. If you find your dog’s behavior concerning or he is acting differently than usual after having chewed on some sticks the same day - make sure to take him to the vet and run some blood tests to rule out any poisoning or blockage in his intestines.
Letting your dog chew on sticks might satisfy his curiosity momentarily but unless you know for sure he’s not swallowing the pieces and you can recognize all the poisonous trees that grow in your climate - it is better to stay clear of them. And if your dog doesn’t seem to be convinced by any of his current rubber toys, experiment - there are hundreds of choices (including scented toys, toys shaped like sticks, toys that you can hide treats inside). Most pet stores nowadays allow dogs to come inside, so take him with you and let him pick - even if his pick is a Kong toy, it will still be cheaper than a potential veterinary bill.