When you are out on a walk or in the backyard with your dog, do you ever see him squat to poop and then start kicking at the spot where he did his business? If so, you are far from alone. Many dogs tend to scratch at the ground with their back feet after pooping, and humans often think they know why.
The common assumption is that a dog kicks at his poop in an attempt to cover it up. But have you ever noticed that most dogs who kick are fairly bad at effectively covering up their droppings? This is because in most cases, the intent is not to hide but rather to highlight the dog's scent. Here is a basic explanation.
The Root of the Behavior
If you are one of those owners who figured that their dogs have been trying to cover up their poop, try not to feel bad. It is a reasonable conclusion, particularly for those owners who are also cat people. Cats do scratch at their litter box to cover up their poop, often as a way to avoid drawing attention to themselves. In a domestic setting, this is often the cat's signal to the owners that they are the alphas in the house. In the wild, it is just as likely to be a way of hiding from predators.
Dogs are less prone to cover up their poop in an effort to hide their scent. It does happen on rare occasions, primarily when a dog is trying to keep his presence in the area a secret from potential predators. If the dog is looking to communicate submission to another dog, however, he is more likely to stop scratching the ground than to start. This is because when a dog scratches at its poop, he is not trying to hide but rather to highlight his presence.
Dog paws contain scent glands that release pheromones, the scent of which is unique to the individual dog. When a dog scratches at a fresh pile of poop, these pheromones transfer to the ground and are perceptible by other dogs passing by. This serves as a kind of emphasis to dogs who may come by and sniff the pile of leavings, because it confirms the identity of the dog that has squatted on that spot. It also allows the dog's scent to be perceptible to passers-by for a longer period of time, as the scent that comes from feces tends to dissipate as the leavings dry.
The marks themselves send a message to other dogs as well. Because dogs tend to kick at their poop with their back legs, they make relatively long trenches in the ground with their claws. This tells other dogs that the animal who preceded them is powerful, strong, and not to be challenged.
Encouraging the Behavior
As a dog owner, you may not be thrilled with your dog's attempts at becoming the local alpha. It is true that a dog's repeated scratching of the ground can eventually become an eyesore, particularly if he tends to poop in the same place. You may be courting trouble with your neighbors, as you can pick up your dog's poop but may be able to do little about the scratch marks, or you may be dealing with a bare spot in your own back yard.
If either of these concerns seems familiar, you can rest assured that you are in good company. This is a common behavior in dogs and thus a common concern of owners. Unfortunately for your lawn, veterinarians urge owners not to try to squelch the behavior. It is a manifestation of a natural instinct and is healthy for the dog, while posing a relatively minimal inconvenience to the owner.
Instead of encouraging the behavior, try thinking of ways that you can further minimize its effect on your day and your lawn. For example, wait to pick up the poop until your dog is done scratching, so that you don't end up with grass, dirt, and even dog poop on your clothes, hands, or face. Meanwhile, try to walk him often so that he can poop in a variety of spots around the neighborhood.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If the scratching truly becomes a problem for your yard or your neighbor's yard, you may be able to re-direct your dog's attention. Experts recommend bringing bits of chicken on your walk so that you can hand your dog a piece as soon as he finishes pooping, and potentially draw his focus away from the ground.
In most cases, however, scratching at poop is such a normal behavior that it may be more problematic if your dog stops doing it. If you have a dog that is a frequent scratcher and he all of a sudden loses interest, resist the urge to celebrate. Instead, watch him and see if he is moving the way he normally does. The lack of scratching may indicate a reduced mobility, potentially due to arthritis. This can lead to the dog's ultimate inability to squat when he poops, thus making the defecation process significantly smellier and messier.
Dogs will be dogs, and there will always be behaviors that owners wish were not a part of their dogs' repertoire. As these behaviors go, though, scratching at poop tends to be relatively easy to live with. Take an attitude of gratitude and be thankful that your dog is acting like a normal, healthy canine, and that he is taking these instincts out on the ground and not on your carpet or furniture!