Do you use the carrot, or the stick? In it’s regular meaning, the stick is used to prod the donkey forward, so it’s not the kind of method I use for dog training. But sticks can be used as rewards, too. I use sticks to reward my dog, Peanut, for walking politely. I can surprise him with a ‘treat’ without carrying anything on me at all. Surprise rewards are the best kind to use when training your dog.
But are sticks safe for dogs?
Last night, I talked about sticks with veterinarian Greg Combs of Lake Forest Park Animal Hospital, near Seattle. I mentioned giving sticks to my dog, and he actually cringed. Uh oh. I quickly ran through the ways that I make sticks more safe for Peanut, and he approved of those, adding on some more points to consider that I hadn’t thought of. The list is below, so that you can help keep your dog safe around sticks.
Here are some common ways that dogs can injure themselves with sticks:
- Impaling on the stick. To me, this is the most obvious way a dog can hurt himself with a stick. Visualize a person throwing the stick, the dog getting there just as it lands, and stabbing himself with the stick on arrival. This can injure several spots – in the mouth, eye, throat, eek. You get the picture.
- Knocked on the head with the stick. This can happen with any toy, but sticks are hard and sharp. If a dog gets there before the stick lands, it can fall on her head or hit her elsewhere on the body.
- Swallowing stick pieces. If a dog swallows bits of a stick, it can basically plug the dog up. Plus, sticks are sharp, so you get internal injuries, to boot.
- Stick Stuck in the mouth. I hadn’t thought of this one, but Dr. Combs said that he’s seen at least a few dogs have a stick wedged into the roof of their mouth, stabbing into the soft palette. Ouch.
There are probably other dangers, for example, if the stick itself is something that’s toxic to dogs. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the trees in Seattle are safe in that way, but not necessarily the shrubs. At least sticks don’t wear down your dog’s teeth, like tennis balls and bones.
Safety tips. This is what you can do to ensure safe stick fun for your dog.
- Impaling on the stick. ‘Dead retrieves’ only – the stick is down before the dog goes to get it. Whenever I throw the stick, I put Peanut in a stay first. I release him only when the stick is safely on the ground.
- Knocked on the head with the stick. Same as above, dead retrieves only.
- Swallowing stick pieces. If your dog chews up and swallows sticks, don’t let him chew on them. You may need to avoid fetching altogether and make sticks off limits, or you might be able to get away with only using sticks for fetching, as above. Only fetch with pieces that are big enough to not be swallowed.
- Stick Stuck in the mouth. Same as above – no chewing/swallowing and only big pieces.
Play with any toy that can be chewed up should be supervised, and that includes sticks, as well as rope toys and balls.
As a side story, I have a confession that I’m a terrible dog mom. I’m sharing it so that you might avoid doing it yourself, although playing fetch with a bouncy ball may be so dumb that nobody else would try it. Several years ago, I bought a 1.5″ rubber bouncy ball from a vending machine. I thought I was clever, because the ball fit nicely inside my pocket.
We played fetch with this slippery ball of death for about 2 weeks and then one day, Peanut ran in to scoop it up off of a bounce…and it slipped right down his throat. I carried him, stumbling and running, to the car and drove quickly to the vet as he tried to throw it up. He was still breathing, but there wasn’t much room for the air to get through. Fortunately, he vomited on the way there and it came out. I was not saved by own intelligence, just luck.
Note to self. Watch out for toys that can jump down your dog’s throat, and take a first-aid class for dogs.