Anyone who has ever been around a puppy for more than five minutes outdoors has probably had to fight them for a stick that they wouldn’t let go of. Which is probably extra annoying when you consider how many other dog toys that are already at home or something. So while you try and get your dog to give up another (or watch as someone else struggles), why do dogs even like sticks?
Why Do Dogs Play With Things in the First Place?
It might be best to first look at dogs and their relationship with play. Even older dogs need to get their energy out somehow–even if they’re sprinting around a lot less than they used to.
Further Reading: Why Do Dogs Get the Zoomies?
Most of the time when dogs are playing you’ll see either predatory, antagonistic, or some kind of courtship going on. This applies when you’re looking at dogs playing with humans, other dogs, and random inanimate objects. Like sticks.
Anyway we’ve been talking about puppies a lot, but adult dogs (at least the domesticated kind) still engage in a lot of what we might consider juvenile play. That’s called paedomorphosis, which just means young traits are carried over into adulthood. Many think that dogs play like this because in the process of domestication we encourage juvenile play. Therefore the behavior persists into adulthood, as we reward our dogs for play with attention–and sometimes food.
It has been argued, though, that play patterns in dogs are drastically different depending on whether or not they’re playing with dogs or people (or again, a stick). Instead, it has been argued that the playfulness of dogs through adulthood is something that has been actively selected for during the domestication of dogs. Instead of a byproduct of domestication, playfulness is instead seen as an adaptive trait. Example: dogs play fetch now as we bred certain hunting instincts into them. Specifically not only chasing prey, but retrieving it and bringing it back to a hunter.
You and your rubber ball might not make much of a hunting troupe, though.
Anyway, there are three key ways dogs play. When they’re playing with other dogs, they are often competing with each other. Dog play, while social, is often also a dominance contest. When playing with humans, it has been found that this is less often the case. Dogs tend to be more cooperative with humans in play because neither party is generally trying to exert dominance over the other.
What’s most relevant to the stick thing is how dogs play when they’re alone. Well, not necessarily alone, more like how dogs interact with inanimate objects. You can see this particularly with squeaky toys. Solitary play, with dogs, mimics and exercises predatory behavior. When it comes to squakers, dogs almost universally prefer them because they mimic the sound of a dying and scared prey animal. For a similar reason, dogs prefer to play with things they can destroy, as it simulates killing something. That’s why getting an “indestructible” dog toy is pretty tough for most dog owners.
So, sticks. One of the most common explanations is that a stick is the closest thing your dog has to a bone in the park. Unless something died pretty recently at your local park, your dog is going to have a much easier time finding a stick than they are a new femur to play with. This is one of the few explanations more unique to sticks–as dogs will also chew on pretty much anything to relieve stress, excess energy, and even pain.
Speaking of playing with dogs, here’s some puppies in weird outfits.