Does your dog love to tote a stick twice his size home from every walk? Here's why he does it and what you should know about it.

By Jennifer Nelson
June 16, 2021
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If every walk around the neighborhood or hike through the woods has your dog carrying home a big stick, take heart, this doggie-favorite activity is quite common. "Dogs are naturally curious creatures and a walk in the park or trip around the backyard offers so many sights, sounds, smells, and flavors," says Dr. Antoinette Martin, head veterinarian at Hello Ralphie, a telehealth company that connects pet parents to licensed veterinarians, and she also practices in North Carolina.

Sticks have a unique smell and texture that make them great for chewing and exploring. "Dogs and especially puppies explore the world with their mouths so looking for and picking up sticks is only natural," says Dr. Martin.

Nature's Dog Toy

A stick is nature's dog toy. Dr. Martin explains they come in all shapes and sizes so no matter your dog's size, they can search for and find the perfect stick for their preferences.

In fact, your dog may seek out a similarly sized stick on every outing. Typically, it's the size they like best-whether gigantic, barely there, or somewhere in between, it's what's comfortable in their mouth as far as diameter, weight, and length.

"Some dogs like the challenge of dragging along a big stick," says Dr. Martin. These are the kind that are several times the length of the pup, while others like nothing better than carrying around a compact version they've selected that you might hardly notice until you catch a glimpse of them toting their newfound treasure.

What's Up with the Habit?

While no one can be certain where their fondness for foraging comes from, a few theories include:

  • Sticks remind your pup of a bone since they're similar in size and shape.
  • Their wooden spongy-like texture is perfect for sinking teeth in and gnawing on.
  • They love to forage and find treasures, and sticks are readily available.
  • Sticks feel like a reward for the conquest of traipsing through the woods.
  • Sticks carry a musky, earthy forest smell of woodlands and wild animals, which is attractive to your dog.
  • One of the main drivers for the behavior may be a dog's affinity to have something in their mouth. "Retrievers and lab breeds, for example, love to have a toy, such as a ball or stuffed animal, in their mouth at all times," says Dr. Martin.

"They may also be positively rewarded by an owner's actions and therefore continue to do this behavior," she says. For instance, if you've laughed or praised your pup for his great feat in carrying home a stick twice his size, he'll likely continue to do it. He loves that positive attention from you.

Should You Curb the Stick Carrying Habit?

What should happen with the stick once you get home or back to the car? For instance, should you let your pup continue to have his stick and chew on it too?

Carrying it is totally fine. But Dr. Martin advises against letting him chew on the stick. Chewing is a great natural way to remove tartar from teeth and keep the mouth healthy but not on sticks where they can splinter and break into pieces that are swallowed but aren't small enough to pass through the GI tract. "This can cause a very serious and potentially life-threatening condition known as an obstruction," says Dr. Martin.

Plus, chewing on a sick can also lead to small shards of it getting stuck between teeth which can cause significant oral pain and even infection. It's best chewing is left for dental chews and dog chew products designed for your pup's oral health.

What's more, playing fetch with a stick can also be problematic due to a stick's sharp edges. Dr. Martin says stick impalement, often at the base of the tongue or roof of a dog's mouth, is a common injury that walks into the veterinary ER often because of playing fetch with a stick.

Walking with a stick is ok, but best to bring along a ball or toy for fetch and leave the stick in nature when it's time to go home.

As always, consult your vet with any questions or concerns about your pet's behavior.