Once upon a time, I owned a fetching fool of a Border Collie named Rupert. This dog lived for fetch, and he’d fetch anything; he wasn’t a flying disc specialist or a discriminating snob for a certain type of ball, like my current fetcher (Woody). There didn’t even have to be a toy! If no ball or Frisbee was at hand and someone seemed like a throwing candidate, Rupe would go looking for a stick. He’d grab any twig or branch he could find, drop it at the potential thrower’s feet, and do a little dance-step backward, staring at the stick, mouth open in anticipation. “Throw it! Throw it!” he’d be saying with every molecule in his body.
Again, this was well before WDJ, and I was young, dumb, and broke. I didn’t buy special toys for my fetch-obsessed, athletic dog in our first few years together; often I just threw the sticks that he found and brought to me. That is, until the accident happened.
My then-boyfriend and I had taken Rupie to the beach, and we were all having a blast. Rupert was deliriously happy with the quantity and variety of driftwood on the beach. He brought stick after stick to us to throw for him – until one stick hit the sand like an arrow might fall from the sky, lodging in the sand just a millisecond before a racing Rupert grabbed at it. He was going so fast, and the stick stopped so suddenly, that his teeth failed to close on the stick before the other end stabbed him in the back of the throat. He fell backward, gagging in pain, as blood dripped from his mouth.
Thank goodness, he survived. We rushed him to an emergency veterinary clinic, where they sedated him and examined his throat with an endoscope. His trachea was severely scraped, but not punctured. As you can imagine, that was the last time I ever threw a wooden stick for my dog.
SAFETY FIRST WHEN PICKING A STICK TOY
Throat-piercing isn’t the only potential hazard of playing with natural sticks. Dogs have been known to consume enough chewed-up wood and splinters to require emergency surgery; wood splinters can also get lodged between dogs’ teeth or in gums, starting painful dental conditions. Dogs who are playing tug-of-war with another dog using a branch can spin around and put out another dog’s eye.
Given my past experience with Rupert, more knowledge about the dangers of sticks – and enough income to afford to buy toys for my dogs now – today, I throw only rubbery, commercially manufactured sticks for my dogs. None of these products could possibly puncture a dog’s throat – or, for that matter, put out a dog’s eye or break a dog’s tooth.
These toy “sticks” are not only fun for throwing and fetching on land or in water (they all float), but also can be used in games of tug-of-war. And no one will get a splinter!
SUCCESSFUL STICK TOYS
The first toy stick for dogs I remember seeing for sale was the Kong Company’s Safestix. It may not have been the first toy stick for dogs on the market, but its resemblance to an, ahem, adult human toy makes it unforgettable (and a bit uncomfortable to throw for your dog in public!).
We like the fact that Safestix comes in three lengths, with the longest (27 inches!) being the best candidate among all the sticks for playing tug-of-war with larger dogs. But since safety is the whole reason we are looking at this category of dog toy, we have to downgrade the Safestix for Kong’s failure to disclose what the toy is made of, or whether it’s free of any chemicals (such as BPA, phthalates, or latex) that have been associated with health problems or allergies.
That’s why we gave our top rating to only two of the five products we tested. Only West Paw and RuffDawg manufacture their toys in the U.S. Also, both companies disclose the contents of their products – and both companies seem to do their homework about what dogs like, too: These continue to be the most popular toy sticks for unprompted play between our test dogs.