On a recent errand run, I stopped by a local bank, post office and coffee shop. My dog companion, Bertie the Scottish terrier, had his own plans. Bertie, who belongs to a vacationing colleague, investigated the nether regions of a corgi mix near the bank, relieved himself briefly on a light pole while approaching the post office and performed an impressive tree-side No. 2 -- complete with vigorous hind leg back kicks -- as a grand finale toward the journey's pooper scooper end.
While Bertie looks about as menacing as a furry doorstop, all of his actions connect him to his distant wild wolf ancestors. Both animals are what some experts have described as "in-your-face poopers." Forget shy and squeamish bathroom behaviors. Wolves and dogs take pride in their poop, and they're not afraid to share their eliminations with the rest of the world.
Isabel Barja, a zoologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, recently had the inelegant task of inspecting wolf scat in a mountainous region of the Iberian Peninsula. In a study published in the journal Animal Behavior, Dr. Barja found that wolves chose to do their business on plants that maximized visual impact and odor distribution. She now believes that "in wolves, visual aspects govern the choice of plants for fecal marking."
She explains that fecal marking is when an individual's feces can provide information to others about territory control, identity, mating status, foraging efficiency and more. Lisa Peterson, director of communications for the American Kennel Club, says dogs do something similar when they pee or poop on fire hydrants and other urban landmarks. "A dog could probably smell another dog's urine on a central fire hydrant from 30 yards away," Peterson guesses.
Barja suggests wolves would go on the highest plants and trees possible were it not for limitations in their body size. That's because height can be associated with strength and intimidation, especially among male dogs. Like an athlete pumping up his chest and muscles to look big and impressive, male dogs "literally compete to be top dog by leaving their mark on prominent landmarks," Peterson explains.
That's easier said than done for dogs like tiny terriers, Chihuahuas and poodles. When little dogs urinate, they often lift their back leg as high as possible, sometimes looking as though they're falling over, because they're trying to pee as high as they possibly can.
Hind Leg Kicks
Dogs also may perform a hind leg kicking ritual under certain circumstances. Think of a matador and bullfighter in a ring. Each may move its limbs back and forth in the substrate to demonstrate territory marking. Peterson has observed dogs doing something similar after running through an agility course.
Instead of performing a football player-type victory dance, the dog might "voom-voom" with its back legs after going to the bathroom, spreading around its feces scent. Agility and other group events involve many competing dog participants, so there's often a lot of leg action taking place behind the scenes.
Butt Scoot Boogie
Even if your dog isn't much of an athlete, you might have seen it scooting its butt along the ground or sniffing the rear end of other dogs. That's because all dogs and wolves possess internal glands called anal sacs. They release "calling card" odors with each bowel movement. And when dogs sniff each other, they're actually investigating the odors released by the anal sacs.
Butt scooting can be just another marking move, or it could be a health problem symptom, since the sacs may become infected. Be sure to do the following:
Whether your dog is an Irish wolfhound or a fur ball like Bertie, there is definitely a method behind its bathroom behavior madness. While no owner looks forward to doggie cleanups, at least consider that you're not just picking up any old poop. You're hauling away a sophisticated marking tool, unique to your dog, which is part of a communication system that took thousands of years to evolve in your pet's distant wolf ancestors.
About the Author: Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor for The Dog Daily. She has written more than 20 books on animal, science and nature topics.
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