Dogs scratching the ground: smell, sight and ecstasy

Scraping the ground as part of a composite signal

I am often asked why dogs sometimes scratch the floor after peeing or pooing. I was also asked why a dog sometimes scratches the floor without first peeing or pooing. A few weeks ago, a woman at a local dog park asked me why her dog sometimes scratched the ground after peeing, and today I got an email from Salima Brown that began: “J have an intact 5 year old male Labrador Retriever who itches with enthusiasm, often making the most hilarious deep chest growls that sound, nonetheless, ecstatic. And the expression on his face looks like laughter. I’ve often wondered if the scratching was really to spread a scent, but not the smell of poo or pee, but sweat on the pads. ”

Mrs Brown’s note made me think back to scratching the floor, as the reason (s) why dogs do it remains somewhat of a mystery. In Freeing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, Jessica Pierce and I notice that dogs also often scratch the floor after peeing or pooping. Dogs have scent glands in their paws and when scratching, they may try to send an olfactory message to other dogs by diffusing the scent from their paws or by sharing the smell of the pee or poo that they have filed. Scratching also leaves a visual mark on the floor. Floor scratching could be another form of social communication, and together peeing, pooping, and scratching the floor is a good example of how dogs can use what ethologists call composite signals to improve their messages to others. dogs, using both olfactory and visual. Components. And, as Ms. Brown points out, there could be an auditory component as well.

Salima Brown’s note motivated me to revisit a research article I published in 1979 titled “The scratching of the ground by male domestic dogs: a composite signal“, most of which are freely available online. The missing part is cited here as my summary of the research in italics, and the references for this essay can be found in Note 1 below. My students and I learned:

“GS [ground scratching] by male dogs after RLU marking [RLU = Raised Leg Urination during which a dog raises a leg and urinates], RLD = Raised Leg Display in which a dog lifts one paw and does not deposit any noticeable urine, often called dry marking]or simple urination has been influenced by the presence of other dogs. Because GS did not always follow these behaviors even in the presence of other dogs, it does not seem essential to convey the message “the urine has just been deposited”. However, GS is most likely passing this information on, as it rarely happened before or in the absence of these behaviors. GS after RLD could give the wrong message, since no urine was deposited. However, odor from the interdigital glands could also have been deposited and a visible gash produced. ” (See “When small dogs pee, do they say it’s really not me?” For a more detailed discussion of the different patterns of urination.)

I concluded:

“The scratching of the ground can be thought of as a composite signal (Smith, 1977; Wickler, 1978) combining chemical and visual components that carry information over different distances at different speeds. For example, GS can be used to communicate immediately, over long distances the urine has been deposited, thus extending the more limited range of urine odor, the slash visible on the substrate, or the odor of the interdigital glands. GS can also be a manifestation of bullying (Ewer, 1968) The visual aspects of odor deposition should also be investigated such as the olfactory effects of various chemicals. In many species, the selection of visible labeling behaviors that were not necessary for the deposition of a peculiar odor (eg, male canines urinate without performing the raised leg posture) is evident (Hediger, 1949). “

The observations of the famous ethologist Dr RF Ewer that scratching the ground could be a display of bullying are very interesting. My friends Tyla and John Talley told me that their dog Rigby had never scratched the ground before another dog, Bodie, joined their household, after which Rigby began to do so regularly, although Bodie did. was not there. (See Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and “Dog Piss Matches: Territorial, Great Fun, or Both?”)

In the essay, “Soil Scratching: Why Does My Dog Do It?Eileen Anderson sums up my study and others well, provides some useful references and discusses the behavior of her dog, Summer. She writes, “My dog ​​Summer is a ‘scraper’ and she does it with what I consider to be. exuberance and satisfaction. . [You’ll see in the movie.] Interestingly, she doesn’t just scratch after eliminating. It will also scratch where there are odors of eliminating another dog. Summer also lifts her leg to mark with urine. More on that later. ”She also writes:“… It has been suggested that the scratching action itself can leave an odor in the environment produced by the interdigital glands, sweat glands on the foot pads or the foot pads. sebaceous glands in the fur between the toes. “

If a dog scratches the ground, let it be

My own observations and those of others, including those of Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Anderson, show that in addition to all the messages that can be sent when dogs are engaging in scratching the ground, dogs often like to do so and that ‘it’s important to let them do it. Mrs. Anderson uses the words “exuberance and satisfaction” and Mrs. Brown writes that her dog makes “the most hilarious chest growls that sound, nonetheless, ecstatic”. Being allowed to scratch on the ground seems to be very important to dogs doing it, when on a leash or on the loose let them do it. One of the dogs I shared my house with scratched himself so vigorously that he often fell while doing so. He seemed to have the time of his life because he was lost in the moment. In Freeing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible Jessica Pierce and I write: “… let your dog finish his message – give him time to scratch after peeing or pooping – before continuing your walk.” ”

The best explanation for ground scratching by male dogs, and perhaps also by females, is that it probably has different functions depending on who is doing the scratching of the ground, who else is around and what they are trying. to communicate, if necessary, to others. There are visual, olfactory, and possibly auditory components that could serve as a composite signal and some dogs might just like to do it. Composite signals contain information from different sensory modalities and may contain more information than signals from a single sensory modality. (See “Why Dogs Growl” for more information.)

We still don’t know much about female scratching of the ground, however, Ms. Anderson’s observations of Summer’s behavior offer some clues. In this sense, in a study of roaming dogs, my students and I found that males scratched a lot more than females after tagging and males did it a lot more when other dogs could see them doing it. (See Bekoff, Marc. “Odor marking by domestic dogs in the wild: olfactory and visual components”. Behavioral biology 4, 123-39, 1979).

Expect more talk about why dogs scratch themselves. There is still a lot to learn and it is clear that much more is happening than what we are seeing.

Literature cited in “The scratching of the ground by male domestic dogs: a composite signal

BEKOFF, M. 1979. Odor marking by domestic dogs in the wild: olfactory and visual components. Biol. Behavior, 4: 123-139. BIRCH, M. 1974. Pheromones. Elsevier, New York, 495 pages. EISENBERG, JF AND DG KLEIMAN. 1972. Olfactory communication in mammals. Anne. Rev. School. Syst., 3: 1-32. EWER, RF 1968. Ethology of mammals. Plenum Press, New York, 418 pages; 1973. Carnivores. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, New York, 494 pp. HEDIGER, H. 1949. Saugetierterritorien und ihre Markierungen. Bilds. tot de Dierdke, 28: 172-184. JOHNSON, RP 1973. Olfactory labeling in mammals. Anim. Behavior, 21: 521-535. KLEIMAN, DG 1966. Odor marking in Canids. Nice. Zool. Soc. Lond., 18: 167-177. MÜLLER-SCHWARZE, D., AND MM MOZELL. 1977. Chemical signals in vertebrates. Plenum Press, New York, 609 pp. MYKYTOWYCZ, R. 1972. The behavioral role of mammalian skin glands. Die Naturwiss., 59: 133-139. PETERS, RP 1974. Wolf sign: odors and space in a large predator. Unpublished. doctorate dissertation, Univ. Michigan, Ann Arbor, 227 pages. PETERS, RP AND LD MECH. 1975. Odor marking in wolves. Bitter. Sci., 63: 628-637. SCOTT, JP 1967. The evolution of social behavior in dogs and wolves. Bitter. Zool., 7: 373-381. SEIDENSTICKER, JC IV, MG HORNOCKER, WV WILES AND JP MESSICK. 1973. Social organization of the mountain lion in the primitive region of Idaho. Wildl. Monogr., 35: 1-60. SMITH, WJ 1977. Communicative behavior. Harvard University. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 545 pp. SNEDECOR, GW 1956. Statistical methods. Iowa State Univ. Press, Ames, 534 pages. SOKAL, RR AND FJ ROHLF. 1969. Biometrics: The Principles and Practice of Statistics in Biological Research. WH Freeman, San Francisco, California, 776 pages. SPRAGUE, RH AND JJ ANISKO. 1973. Elimination models in the laboratory beagle. Behavior, 47: 257-267. VON UEXKÜLL, J., AND GE SARRIS. 1931. Das dutfeld des Hundes. Z. Hundesforschung, 1: 55-68. WICKLER, W. 1978. A particular constraint on the evolution of composite signals. Z. Tierpsychol., 48: 345-348.


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