April 8, 2014
This week we’re launching a new series on the blog called, “Good Dog or Bad Dog” featuring typical, non-aggressive dog behaviors that are difficult to correct because they’re so normal to a pup. We recently received an inquiry from a loyal Rover-Time blog reader, Paul Mac and his dog Lennon, who is fixated on sticks. Let’s hear what our resident expert, Lynda, has to say about this common canine characteristic.
My dog, Lennon, is a lovable Labradoodle.
Lennon LOVES sticks, as many dogs do. He likes the really big sticks that whack you when he runs by. He loves playing chase with a stick. He loves ripping off the bark. He loves sticking his butt in the air and teasing you with the stick.
Sometimes I’ll try to distract him by throwing his favorite ball or rope toy. He’ll chase the new toy down, but then he inevitably runs back to his stick and resumes his stick-chewing posture.
I’ve seen him literally locate one under 2 feet of snow and dig it out. He even forgets to poop sometimes because he’s so preoccupied with the sticks.
I don’t worry about him swallowing the little pieces because he always spits them out. And I never leave him alone with a stick.
At this point, I fear it’s too late to diminish Lennon’s obsession with sticks because I don’t discourage it. But should I be concerned with this addiction? Do I need to wean him off sticks? Or can I enjoy his enjoyment and just be careful when he has one?
Is it a breed thing? Or just a dog thing?
Perplexed Pup Pop,
Dear Perplexed Pup Pop,
Chasing, fetching, and – of course – chewing are totally normal dog behaviors! Although some breeds (retrievers and hunters) will tend to be more orally-fixated, chewing is a way for our canine companions to exercise their jaws and keep their teeth and gums clean.
Unfortunately, a dog that’s a stickler for sticks is at a higher risk than others. It’s good that your dog isn’t ingesting the stick pieces, but even the chewing can be dangerous. Your dog could unknowingly inhale pieces in the midst of their play. Splinters can break off and become embedded in the palate, trachea, gums, tongue, or between teeth. Some of these injuries may not be obvious and could lead to infection.
The actual pouncing on the sticks is risky as well. Some of those sticks have branches that could poke an eye or puncture a chest.
If you’re trying to discourage the stick-chewing (and from a strictly medical standpoint, I suggest you do), there are a few factors to consider:
1. Chewing sticks is inherently rewarding, and behavior that’s rewarded is likely to repeat. So, if your dog enjoys a good tasty treat, you can start making “drop it” and “leave it” into a fun game.
Start small. Select the safest stick you can find, and bring it inside to work in a low-distraction area. Let your dog take the stick. Put a really good treat up to your dog’s nose. He will have to drop the stick to eat the treat, so as soon as that cute little mouth opens, say “good” and pop that treat in his mouth while taking the stick away. Practice this a few times before you add the cue “drop it.” Increase the difficulty slowly, and use it when your dog picks up a stick while you’re out. Remember that what you trade for the stick has to be more rewarding than the stick. Otherwise, why would they ever give it up?
2. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks, but the older your dog gets the harder breaking these habits becomes.
Not impossible! Your dog has been “practicing” this very fun behavior for a long time. Just be patient and understand your dog doesn’t know what he’s doing could hurt him. Try trading him for something more appropriate. Exhaust your options. There are even wood dog toys out there that resemble sticks. Antlers are a good replacement too.
3. It’s hard to avoid the trigger for the behavior – sticks are everywhere! In the dog training world, sometimes we rely on good old-fashioned management. If your dog’s stick supply is the backyard, do a stick-removal recon mission once in a while. Clear out the dangerous sticks, and provide your dog with one of the toys or antlers mentioned above. Play fetch and let him chew on that instead.
In conclusion, your dog’s behavior is totally normal, but could result in a costly vet bill and pain for your pet eventually. The good news is you can work with your dog at their level to help them direct that energy more appropriately.
Do you have a question about your pet that our Team Manager could answer? Email Lynda at firstname.lastname@example.org. If she selects your question, we’ll feature it on our blog with a photo of your pet and we’ll surprise you with a little something in return as a thank you for participating! Win, win!