A dog’s bathroom ritual is quite a spectacle to behold. Every time your canine companion relieves himself, you may have noticed that he turns his back on his excrement and kicks his back legs. You will be forgiven to assume that your dog, just like cats, is trying to cover his mess. But dogs are not in the business of tidying up or covering up their excrement. If anything, they want to leave it out in the open, so that when other dogs come by, they will know that territory is marked. When your dog behaves in this way, he is saying to other dogs, “Hey! Andy was here.” You are probably wondering at this point that it’s one thing to use poop to mark territory, but why the back-leg shuffle?
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The Root of the Behavior
As mentioned above, it is in your dog’s best interest to leave his poop uncovered as this sends a message to other dogs that the territory belongs to them. But while the excrement, due to its odor, is the seemingly obvious territory marker, your dog has an even more powerful tool for marking territories: his paws. Your dog secretes pheromones through glands on his paws. The pheromones are released and kicked around the territory during the backward paw scratching. It is estimated that depending on breed, dogs have between 125 million to 300 million scent glands, putting their scent perception 25 to 60 times sharper than that of humans. The scent of the pheromones will be picked up by other dogs and they will steer clear of the area. What’s more, even after the feces have dried out and lost their potency, the scent of the pheromones will linger.
In the wild, where dogs had to safeguard their food, or where they could be targeted by other predators higher in the food chain, this technique came in handy. In modern times, where the furthest your dog ventures out is probably the park or your backyard, this kicking of the back legs might not seem to serve any purpose because you feed your dogs in a bowl and there are no predators to watch out for. But dogs are still territorial and the last thing they want is another dog staking a claim over their area. If you have more than one dog, you will notice the alpha dog doing this and the most likely reason is that he is protecting his pack and sending a message to other alphas that might want to stake their claim over his pack. Dogs of all sizes and genders mark their territory, therefore this behavior should not alarm you. For submissive dogs, spreading of pheromones protects them by informing dominant dogs of their presence and their intention to steer clear of the dominant dog’s path.
Encouraging the Behavior
Since this behavior is natural and occurs in all dogs, you shouldn’t try to discourage or change it. It also should not worry you, unless your dog seems to get anxious while doing it or if your dog suddenly abandons the kicking before he has finished. Pain in the legs or an injured paw might, for instance, discourage your dog from kicking his hind legs. Every time you take your dog for his walk, you should patiently wait for him to relieve himself, allow him to kick up his pheromones and only then should you pick up his poop. Remember that, as mentioned above, the pheromones are the most important element of this ritual, so by collecting your dog’s excrement, you are not interfering with your dog’s natural process.
You might not like the kicking or the spreading of pheromones, but you should realize that your dog is operating from instincts and he can probably sense other dogs from a mile away, which is why he is behaving this way. Do not tug at him in the middle of the process as this will heighten his anxiety. Discouraging your dog from kicking his back legs after excreting could also leave him ‘exposed’ to other dogs because they will not receive the message that an area is marked.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Your dog might destroy your lawn if he is frequently kicking up the yard. But rather than have him continue to relieve himself in your yard while denying him the kicking session, it’s better to take him to the park or let him excrete on a surface that doesn’t have grass. There are concerns among some dog owners that allowing your dog to continue kicking his back legs will make you lose control over him, especially if he is dominant. While there is no research that proves the direct correlation between your dog's kicking and the need to assert dominance, if your dog seems to get unruly during his walks, it is worth raising this with a dog trainer to recommend alternatives.
This particular behavior might not be convenient for you. Your dog could be ruining your beautiful lawn, or he could be making quite a mess with his kicking. But when it comes to doing what a dog is naturally meant to do, you shouldn’t interfere. Just get out of his way and let him finish his business.