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Category: Elimination

Ground Scratching: Why Does My Dog Do It?

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.
Poop in my Pocket: Life with an Old, Old Dog

Poop in my Pocket: Life with an Old, Old Dog

The very first thing I do every morning when I wake up is turn over and take a careful look at my very old dog Cricket. She has a special place on the bed surrounded by pillows on three sides and me on the fourth. Here is what I often see.

Cricket, a small terrier dog, mostly black and white, is asleep between some pillows. Her tongue hangs out a little. She is so relaxed that it is unclear whether she is alive. (She is.)
Cricket sacked out in her fortress on the bed

First, frankly, is she breathing? Then, what is her alertness level? Is she still sacked out or is she looking at me?  Big “oh-oh” if she is sitting up or trying to get off the bed. I have to make an important decision right away. Who gets to go to the bathroom first? Me, Cricket, or Clara the puppy?

Cricket, a small black and white terrier dog with very large ears, is sitting up on a bed. She looks uncomfortable and poised to move.
Cricket needs to go

These days it’s usually Cricket, although once in a while she sleeps in enough that I can get a head start. The other dogs virtually always have to wait since it is not safe for me to leave her out of my sight on the bed.

Cricket has neurological weakness in her back legs and a bit of arthritis. She needs some help in the morning.  And as soon as she stirs, I don’t have very long to get her outside. She is 16 years old, and when she needs to go, it’s right now. In that case I put on my glasses, throw on a robe, step into some shoes, and grab my phone. I lift her up a little and stand her on her four feet on the bed so she can get her bearings and practice standing. Then I pick her all the way up. I usually have a treat in my pocket and I offer it to her (I have taught her to associate being picked up with good things). Amazingly, even bleary-eyed and dry-mouthed, she usually wants the treat. Her teeth are in good shape.

I tuck her under my arm and she chews on the treat as I carry her down the hall. I unlock the door, go down the steps and take her into the front yard. Without fail, as soon as I step out the door she takes a deep sniff, then snorts a little. Then I make the daily search for a moderately level place on which to set her. Every degree of slope counts against us in the morning.

After I choose the place, I put her down very gently but don’t let go. I keep my hands under her abdomen and help her stand up. I try to get her pointing downhill (there is nowhere completely flat). If she needs to pee first, I let her go and she manages. If she needs to poop, she often needs a little more help. I keep ahold of her, switching my grip to keep her from falling over backwards.

Cricket, a small black and white terrier with large ears, is standing by a door, looking up at the camera. She looks a little anxious.
Cricket waiting to go to work with me

Things improve after that first trip outside. Like a lot of human people, Cricket is stiff in the morning and a little slow to get going mentally. But even though she has dementia, she definitely perks up as the day progresses.

By the time I leave for work, she is generally crowding me at the door to make sure that I don’t forget to take her along.

And later in the day, she is downright frisky.

Here she is getting her supper:

But back to the title of the post. The other day I went through our morning routine. I took a look at her and the answer to the daily question was clearly: Cricket needs to go. As I was carrying her down the hall, I offered her a treat but she seemed distracted. This happens sometimes. I took her outside and she peed, but that was all. Now that is very unusual. We stayed out for quite a while, but no go. I got bored and reached into my robe pocket for my phone.

Not yet.

I pulled out my iPhone.

Now.

Perched on the top edge of my phone case was a small, neat piece of brand new poop. I stared at it for quite a while in disbelief, willing it to be something else. It remained poop. I transferred the phone to my other hand and very carefully peeked into the suddenly very interesting pocket. Nothing else. I very carefully removed the phone poop with a leaf curled in my fingers and stuck it under a rock or something. I actually don’t remember that part, even though an embarrassing amount of my brain power is normally spent keeping track of the location of poop. Amazingly it had not smeared around on my phone case or in my pocket. It had just perched there politely. But even a moderate poop cleanup is not something you can do later.  But neither could I run frantically into the house to clean things up because I still had a 16 year old dog toddling around in my front yard. Also, there was a very important question: where was the rest of the poop?

So holding the phone a bit outstretched (wouldn’t you?) in my left hand, I picked up Cricket with my right and tucked her above my hip in her usual place, noting the positioning of her butt and my robe pocket for future reference. Watching my step, I trekked back to the house for cleanup and a change of clothes.

Once inside, I saw the rest of the poop in the hallway where she had dropped it while I was carrying her down the hall. I have never been so glad before to see poop on the floor!

Thanks for reading!

Those of you with old doggies, do you have stories to tell?

Cricket, a small black and white terrier dog, is lying on a chaise lounge facing into the sun. Her large ears are back, her eyes are squinted shut and she is panting but she looks relaxed and happy.
Cricket in the sun

 

Resources

My book on canine cognitive dysfunction:

Remember Me 3d

 

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