Ground Scratching: Why Does My Dog Do It?

Summer scratching

Why do some dogs scratch with their paws after they eliminate?

I recently read a discussion on Facebook about the meaning of this dog behavior. Some people’s speculations about the reasons for the behavior included:

  • Avoiding something or another behavior (displacement)
  • Expressing anxiety
  • Expressing boredom
  • Relieving stress
  • Expressing frustration
  • Calming oneself
  • Calming another dog
  • Expressing enjoyment of a previous activity
  • Being stressed
  • Expressing high arousal
  • Marking (territorial)
  • Marking by scent
  • Marking visually

Note that all but the last three of these have to do with an emotion or internal state.

I was interested in particular in the conjecture that the behavior was linked to some kind of stress. My dog Summer is a “scratcher” and she does it with what I observe to be exuberance and satisfaction. (You’ll see in the movie.) Interestingly, she doesn’t scratch only after eliminating. She will also scratch where there are scents of another dog’s elimination. Summer also lifts her leg to mark with urine. More on that later.

What Does the Literature Say?

Dirt scratching, or scraping, has been studied by ethologists. These are mostly observational studies, where numbers of canids were observed performing various elimination, sniffing, and marking behaviors. The behaviors are counted and the surrounding circumstances recorded. Dr. Marc Bekoff points out that it hasn’t been studied all that much in dogs though, compared to the study of other animals.1)Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75.  He and others are gradually filling in the blanks, however.

Here are some of the functions for ground scratching that ethologists have proposed:

  • Dispersing scent from the dog’s urine or feces2)Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.3)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.4)Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.5)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.
  • Dispersing scent from glands in the dog’s paws6)Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.7)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.8)Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.9)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.10)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
  • A visual demonstration in real time, in the presence of other dogs11)Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.12)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.13)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
  • A visual demonstration in the form of leaving marks on the ground14)Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.15)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.16)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.

Note that none of these hypotheses is linked to an internal emotion, although one source did note that ground scratching was seen more often “when the individual was aggressively aroused.”17)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132. The main discussion revolves around function, and even then, the conclusions are very circumspect. Dirt scratching may be communication to other dogs, but speculations by ethologists about the content of that communication are still very conservative.

This is a valuable reminder to me that as much as we would love to, we can never know exactly what is going on in our dogs’ minds.

What’s the Smelly Feet Thing About?

One of the hypotheses for the function of the behavior is that glands on the dogs’ paws may give off a scent, and that scratching may deposit and disperse it. What are these glands? Most sources mention sweat glands.

“…paw pads in dogs are one of the few locations that contain eccrine sweat glands. In dogs, apocrine glands are the major type of sweat gland, and the distribution of eccrine sweat glands is limited to the footpads and nose.”  18)Miller, William Howard, et al. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology 7: Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013.

However, there are other glands that may be involved:

“…It has been suggested that the scratching action itself may leave scent in the environment produced by either interdigital glands, sweat glands on the foot pads, or sebaceous glands in the fur between the toes.” 19)Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

From what I read in the literature, there has not yet been a definitive finding about whether scent from the paws is involved, and if so, from which source.

Male vs. Female Behaviors

Summer scratching 2Two studies by Marc Bekoff showed that approximately the same percentages of male and female dogs performed ground scratching (about 10%), but also that the males who ground scratched did so much more frequently than the females. 20)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848. 21)Bekoff, Marc. “Scent marking by free-ranging domestic dogs: Olfactory and visual components.” Biology of Behavior, 4, 123-139. Another study showed that among females, those who were spayed were more likely to scratch than those who were intact and not in estrous. (Females in estrous were not included in the study.) 22)Wirant, Sharon Cudd, and Betty McGuire. “Urinary behavior of female domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): influence of reproductive status, location, and age.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85.3 (2004): 335-348.

The same study also found that females four or more years old directed the majority of their urinations at objects in the environment (marked) and directed more of their urinations when walked off their home area than when walked within their home area. Both of these are true for Summer.

Raised leg urination such as many male dogs perform has also been theorized to have the function of visual display, since it is sometimes performed without urination.23)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.24)Cafazzo, Simona, Eugenia Natoli, and Paola Valsecchi. “Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs.” Ethology 118.10 (2012): 955-966. Male dogs have also been observed to raise their legs more frequently to urinate when in the presence of another dog.25)Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75. Some female dogs raise their legs as well, including Summer.

So What Does Summer Do?

The movie shows Summer enthusiastically scratching the ground in several different situations:

  1. After squatting to pee;
  2. After raising her leg to pee;
  3. Immediately after entering an area with interesting smells and without eliminating at all; and
  4. After smelling another dog’s droppings (also without eliminating).

If Summer’s behavior is functional, and not some kind of twisted evolutionary leftover, it may support the “dispersing odor from the paws” hypothesis. See what you think.

Link to the movie about ground scratching for email subscribers. 

Function vs. Emotional State

I’m not an ethologist; I’m a pet owner. So while I’m fascinated with the possible function of the behavior of scratching, I’m also interested in my dog’s emotional state when she does it. And I’d simply say she is enjoying performing a natural doggie activity. The prompts for her behavior seem to be scents, nothing more complex than that.

Summer is a primal sort of dog. Her breeding is so mixed that she resembles a village dog in all but her double coat. She has a strong prey drive and scavenger drive. And although our bond is strong and she loves doing things with me, her natural inclinations are very, very dog-y. In many ways she is more “wild” than my feral-born dog, Clara, who appears to have a wealth of “I like to partner with a human” genes. Go figure.

In any case, Summer seems to love scratching the dirt. You could say she gets a real kick out of it.

How about your dogs? Males, females? When do they do it? What is their demeanor when doing so? Do tell!

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Notes   [ + ]

1, 25.Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75.
2, 6.Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.
3, 7, 12, 15, 23.Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.
4, 8.Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.
5, 9, 16.Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.
10, 13, 17.Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
11, 14.Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.
18.Miller, William Howard, et al. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology 7: Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013.
19.Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
20.Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.
21.Bekoff, Marc. “Scent marking by free-ranging domestic dogs: Olfactory and visual components.” Biology of Behavior, 4, 123-139.
22.Wirant, Sharon Cudd, and Betty McGuire. “Urinary behavior of female domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): influence of reproductive status, location, and age.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85.3 (2004): 335-348.
24.Cafazzo, Simona, Eugenia Natoli, and Paola Valsecchi. “Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs.” Ethology 118.10 (2012): 955-966.
  1. My 3 yr old female JRT does exactly like Summer. She seems to do it excitedly and quickly on our walks..rushing to the next place to pee. My 1 yr male JRT has never done it and the 17 yr JRT rarely but he does lift his leg long after he has gone dry! So, all different .I’ve always wondered why exactly but sounds like we’ll never know for sure 🙂

    • That’s cool. I had always assumed that leg lifting after the pee is gone was just some kind of…mistake. So interesting that it could still be functional. Thanks for the comment!

      • Whatever it means, it’s no mistake. In years of walking thousands of different dogs at shelters, there are a few who are very intent and careful not to miss a leg lift at a good odor, long after they’ve run dry. I’d guess at under 4% always doing this. But when walking many dogs on the same path, you’ll find a few locations that many more will lift for. Habit? Satisfaction? Who knows…

        • Who knows is right! It’s fascinating to watch, though. Wish I knew what was going in in their little doggie brains. Thanks for the comment.

  2. My female (9 years, CKCS/Jap chin mix, spayed before 6 months, she was born in a shelter) is a religious ground scratcher. She does it after she pees, after she marks (she doesn’t lift her leg but does mark), and if she’s in another dogs yard (a yard which belongs to a house who has a dog, even the front yard) and gets worked up (excited, frustrated, etc.) She is also very people reactive but is very confident and comfortable with dogs.

    My male (3 yr old Siberian Husky, neutered at 7 months) scratches sometimes. He’s so “bad” at it that it looks like he’s not even consciously doing it, like it’s an uncontrolled motion. It only happens if he was worked up, marked, and then does a funny little back stratching motion, he almost looks like a horse kicking but more twitchy. And all of those behaviors have to happen in order for it to happen otherwise it wont. He is basically bomb proof with humans and dogs

    My roommates male (1 yr hound mix from the south) NEVER scratched until he saw my female doing it (learned behavior maybe ???) and even then it’s only after he poops, never pee. He does not mark, nor lift his leg when peeing. He is pretty confident with both dogs and humans, and when startled recovers quickly (very juvenile esk, barks, retreats, investigates, it’s all good)

    • Would love to see your Husky! That sounds cute. Interesting about the hound mix. That’s kind of young to be scratching, seems like. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Wow Eileen, you’re 99% of the way to her wiping her feet on your doormat. I’ve been working on that behaviour with my two but only have front feet scratching so far as neither of them is a natural scratcher.

    Very interesting post, as always. Thanks.

    • I have certainly toyed with the idea! Also, she does her front nails on a nail board, so I’ve been looking at that hind leg scratch with a gleam in my eye regarding that, too. But I’m going to wait until we aren’t doing agility anymore. I’m bad at stimulus control and I just don’t want to see her backing up onto a dog walk and scratching instead of performing her contact behavior…

  4. Eileen, I love your posts! Here’s my experience with a dog that scratches.

    Dog’s history: Male Parson Russell Terrier Cody joined our family in May 2014 at 17 months with a history of submissive urination and anxiety. While there have been no incidences of submissive urination with us, he has exhibited anxious behaviors in new environments, especially if people, dogs or unusual things surprise him.

    Previous scratching behavior: He would scratch occasionally after peeing. More often, he would scratch when he got out of the car, followed by a thorough all-body stress-relieving shake. Once is a great while he would scratch after another dog appeared and then left the area. His body was stiff, stance tall, front legs straight, scratches usually four to six hard scratches with stiff rear legs. I think his triggers for scratching were multiple, but primarily expressing anxiety and relieving stress.

    Current scratching behavior: About three months ago, I decided to capture the behavior as a “trick” to use in freestyle routines, concentrating mostly on his scratching when he got out of the car so that he didn’t think the click/reinforcement was earned for peeing and scratching. During the capturing process, I was fascinated with how his demeanor changed upon exiting the car and then the way he morphed the behavior into something different. Broadly, this is what happened over time:

    Baseline behavior—look around, scratch and body shake while surveying the environment; sometimes reacting with barking (I was able to get him to orient to me on a hand-touch cue at this stage)
    Look around, scratch and orient to me (to get reinforcement after the click)
    Orient to me, scratch
    Orient to me, scratch and repeat scratch with relaxed body posture and face
    Offer single incidences of scratching both near and away from car
    Offer repeated scratching after reinforcement — I began adding verbal cue “skritchy”

    Sometime while he was learning the skritchy cue, Cody changed the scratching behavior quite a bit. He appears to enjoy his version of the behavior. (Video clip of his skritchy: http://youtu.be/FinJfWOVVoU )

    Whether due to his positive experiences in new venues with counter conditioning/ desensitization or as a byproduct of my putting the behavior on cue or a combination of it all, he no stiffly scratches when he gets out of the car but immediately orients to me. He offers his skritchy behavior often when we’re playing. As long as this appears to be a feel-good behavior for him, I think I will be able to use it as a cued stress-reliever as well as a fun reinforcement behavior during a freestyle routine.

  5. Interesting post Eileen, as usual, you bring interesting material and there is always something new to learn. I have always assumed that ground scratching after elimination was to leave a visual marker of their accomplishment. My confident (can turn any dog away with just a look)Teena does so with great self satisifaction and gusto, you don’t want to be standing behind her when she does. On the other hand/paw my Taffy who does not have the “attitude” that her sister Teena has, has NEVER ground scratched after elimination. But, Taffy will paw at bedding endlessly to get it just right for nesting. WHat this all means? I have no clue!

    • I sure don’t know either! In one study (I hope I haven’t written this here already), researcher studied tail carriage in peeing dogs and got results that showed that other dogs paid more attention to urine left by dogs with high tail carriages. EDIT: I got that wrong. Dogs with high tail carriages were more likely to over mark the urine of other dots.

      But lest I run out and start making assumptions about dominance, confidence, or whatever you want to call it–Summer has very high tail carriage, but is not at all a confident dog. She just looks that way when she marks! Thanks for commenting.

  6. a thorough study could be done. i think the most interesting subjects are females that both squat and lift a leg. my jarah is in this category. she’s also the confident / doggy police type. and scratches after peeing, but not if she lifts a leg. i’m going to make notes for a week. not only observing if scratching occurs and what elimination happened before that, but also what happened before the elimination, such as sniffing the “spot”. if lots of people made the observations, this could be correlated with the personality of the dog too. interesting stuff. so much still to learn about the behaviour of dogs.

  7. All those reasons make sense to me. But I’m pretty sure my Murphy does it as a form of communication to other dogs. Normally large males. (haven’t determined if those dogs are fixed or not- Murphy was fixed as a puppy). He will just look at a dog and start scratching.

  8. My Chi mix does this, but he will bounce and flit about when he scratches the ground. He will usually do it after eliminating (thought not always) but recently during his tracking class he has started it without eliminating. I think for him it’s partly to show dominance, but when he’s in the backyard, I get the feeling he’s just playing around. Riley is about 4.5 years old and neutered. I adopted him about a year and a half ago and don’t know much about his life prior to living with me.

  9. My 1.5 year old Siberian husky recently started scratching the ground BEFORE she pees. Sometimes she poops as well, but it seems like she’s trying to hit the spot she dug. I can’t seem to find anyone else online who has witnessed this.. It seems the norm is scratching after. She is the runt of her litter and has always been a little skittish, especially lately with the intense Summer sun. I’m wondering if maybe she is trying to hide her scent instead of spread it around? Any thoughts would be appreciated! 🙂

    • Hi Caro,

      That’s a pretty good mystery. I think I mentioned in the post that my dog Summer actually ground scratches what are apparently other dogs’ odors sometimes. That’s the only thing I can think of; maybe your husky is interested in scattering other scents. But digging a hole to pee in–wow! Dogs do cool things, don’t they!