Is Giving a Dog a Stick a Radical Act?

Tue., Sep. 28, 2021

By Rob Maganja , Horticulturist

A month or so ago, I saw a mulberry branch in the back of someone’s cart.  They’d obviously cut it out of their garden because mulberry is not seen as worthy of taking up space in most ornamental gardens.  And while I somewhat agree, I saw a totally different use for the branch.

So I pulled it out of the cart and gave it to my coworker for her friend’s dog. 

Apparently, the branch was a hit.

I recently came to Holden after working for a spell at the Akron Zoo.  Zoological horticulture isn’t massively different from arboretum horticulture, but one of the big differences is the concept of “browse”—all the branches, leaves, and flowers that animals eat to supplement their diet. 

At the zoo, most animals that need browse are either hoofstock (alpacas, goats, gazelles) or primates (lemurs, tamarins, gibbons).  In the wild, they would browse for browse at their will.  So, in captivity, it was necessary to give them browse at regular intervals.

But, other animals used browse for other reasons.  Ants let fungus grow on leaves, and then they harvested and ate that fungus.  Bears played with sticks, but never actually ate them.  Storks wove long branches into nests. 

So, even though I’m back at Holden—where ornamental horticulture reigns supreme—I can’t possibly scrub the animal/plant intersection from my mind.

I cut elm and honey locust suckers and I cringe when I throw them into the compost pile.  I cringe when I ask my volunteers to dead-head daylilies and they’re also thrown into the compost pile.  And—you guessed it!—I cringe when I see branches of many different species of woody plants on our chipping road, knowing that they’ll never meet a carnivore’s canines.

So, a couple weeks ago, I decided to start cutting branches to do a little science experiment.

I cut willow, sassafras, tulip poplar, and staghorn sumac.  I cut the branches to similar lengths, but I varied the diameters.

And, then, I presented them to different dogs.  To see which ones the dogs preferred.  To see which stick got the First Impression Rose.  Which stick was #RelationshipGoals.  Which one was shredded beyond recognition.

Really, the whole experiment was science-lite.  I aimed to get the opinions of five different dogs.  But, in the end, I failed to actually follow up with some of the dogs. 

In my defense, though, when I actually began research into what reputable sources thought about the best species of sticks were best for dogs, I got one resounding thought: You’d be crazy to knowingly leave your dog alone with a stick.

As it turns out, there’s serious concerns over dogs getting splinters in their mouths or gums, and ulcers forming, and surgical extrication being required.  Sticks reportedly get lodged in the roof of the mouth or in the throat.  And that’s not to mention the mud that was on the stick, and all the bad bacteria that was in the mud, and how quickly that bad bacteria can make its way into the dog’s bloodstream. 

Scary, right?

The obvious solution is to just use squeaky balls or plastic teething bones or Frisbees or similar man-made alternatives.

But these come with their own problems.  Because pieces of nylon and other synthetic polymers can be swallowed.  And rawhide woofed down in totality is a choking hazard.  And really anything can lodge in the esophagus or ultimately mess with the digestive system.

I just get slightly concerned any time someone goes on a crusade to rid the world of dangerous natural products and/or ideas in favor of man-made fix-alls.

After all, something like the omnipresent Nylabone only entered the market in 1955, after technological advancements and better rubber production made manufacturing more feasible.  Call me a cynic, but the idea of supporting the plastics and oil industries for the sake of a safer dog toy—when dogs have chewed on sticks for millennia—seems odd.

In many ways, horticulture is the taming of Mother Nature’s wildness.  It’s the controlling of natural succession and natural order in favor of humankind’s own ideals of beauty and order. 

Humans have tamed plants and landscapes just as we’ve tamed dogs.  There’s beauty in control.

But through a different lens, according to philosopher Mark Alizart, we co-evolved with dogs because we need them.  It’s this beautiful symbiotic relationship where the roles of submissive and dominant don’t really apply.

So, it’s ignorant to think that, in the art of horticulture, horticulturists have full control over the natural world.  Because, even in the most highly-manicured gardens, the obsession that grips the brain, and the precision and the inordinate expenditures of time to keep nature in check belie a more mutualistic and balanced relationship.

To me, the greatest art form is the garden that properly weaves together animals, plants, and humans—the browse garden.

It’s a fully-integrated system.  The browse species are obsessively pruned to get the most usable leaf material possible.  The animals never go without the full-bodied diet that only browse can manifest.  In return, the browsing animals give back through fertilization and weed and pest control.  And the humans eat the animals. 

One might call this more of a farm than a highly-manicured horticultural endeavor.  But, I think the definition of what horticulture actually is is morphing to adapt to our ever-changing world.

But, let’s jump back out of this philosophical rabbit hole!

What is the best stick to give your dog?

So, here’s the deal.  I picked sassafras and tulip poplar because the wood smells good.  Willow has salicylic acid—you know, the stuff that led to the creation of aspirin.  And staghorn sumac is nothing special, honestly, but the inner bark is like a metallic Gobstopper. 

My theory was that older dogs would prefer willow because it would relieve their joint pain.  And I figured younger dogs would prefer sassafras, because it’s got the most intriguing smell. 

When the results came in, one dog really liked chewing on sassafras.  One completely avoided it.  One loved shredding willow and tulip poplar.  One liked tulip poplar and sumac, but only wanted to fetch them.  And one dog had access to a funky birch branch that had peeling bark and weird angles and totally preferred that to the ones that were actually part of the study.

So, basically, all the branches were winners.  And there were also no conclusive winners.

But this was to be expected, I think.

I think different dogs will always prefer different tree species. 

So, when choosing sticks for your dog—and I certainly hope you do—you should just follow the advice the ASPCA gives pet owners for picking out man-made dog toys: Choose ones that are appropriate for the species, the size, and the chewing habits of your dog.  Basically, you just have to do your own research and listen to your dog.

And, in the words of the American Kennel Club, if we just check our dogs a little more frequently for bleeding, lacerations, and general well-being as they play with their toys—man-made or nature made—they’d be better off. 

Have a conversation with them.  Or maybe even a deep philosophical conversation.  See where it goes.

Trees and Shrubs Toxic to Dogs

American HollyIlex opaca
AppleMalus spp.
Apricot, Cherry, Peach, PlumPrunus spp.
AzaleaRhododendron spp.
Black LocustRobinia spp.
Black WalnutJuglans nigra
BoxwoodBuxus spp.
BuckeyeAesculus spp.
Burning BushEuonymus occidentalis
English HollyIlex aquifolium
HydrangeaHydrangea spp.
LaurelKalmia spp.
PierisPieris japonica
PrivetLigustrum spp.
RhododendronRhododendron spp.
YewTaxus spp.

Trees and Shrubs Non-Toxic to Dogs

Autumn OliveEleagnus spp.
Black HawViburnum lentago
ChestnutCastanea spp.
HawthornCrataegus spp.
HemlockTsuga canadensis
HibiscusHibiscus syriacus
HickoryCarya spp.
Honey LocustGleditsia triacanthos
LindenTilia spp.
MagnoliaMagnolia spp.
MulberryMorus spp.
Oregon GrapeMahonia aquifolium
Oriental PlanePlatanus occidentalis
Purpleosier WillowSalix purpurea
Red MapleAcer rubrum
Tulip PoplarLiriodendron tulipifera

Works Cited:

Rob Maganja

Rob Maganja


Rob Maganja graduated from Hiram College in 2013 with a BA in Environmental Studies. He started as a seasonal at the Holden Arboretum in 2013, and in the 8 years since, has worked several more seasons in all the different gardens. Additionally, he’s spent time with the United States Peace Corps in Cameroon and was an IPM intern at Longwood Gardens. He currently is the horticulturist of the Rhododendron Discovery Garden and is also one of the stewards of Holden’s Core Natural Areas. He looks forward to the Core Natural Areas becoming a bona fide agroforestry demonstration.


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