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Why Are Dogs Creatures Of Habit?

What do gamblers, sports figures, comics, and dogs have in common? They perform rituals.

People rituals are seen as quirky habits they make up to help them cope or bring them luck. Take former Red Sox slugger Wade Boggs. He woke up at the same time each day, ate chicken before each game, took exactly 177 ground balls in practice that started precisely at 5:17, ran sprints at 7:17 and wrote Chai (Hebrew for “living”) in the dirt before each at bat and he wasn’t even Jewish. 

Yet a dog’s ritual of “scraping after pooping” is considered weird. But this ritual is part of a dog’s evolutionary heritage and it’s instinctual.  People can’t use that excuse. Take away the poop factor, and really which behavior is more bizarre?  

So what exactly is scraping and peeling?

It’s when a dog kicks the ground with their hind legs after defecating or urinating. Dog paws contain scent (eccrine) glands in between the toes. Scraping them against the ground helps release the pheromones that increase the scent near “their business.” These pheromones contain information about a dog’s gender, age, and overall health.

But why do dogs do it? 

Dogs are descended from wolves which also scrape. Wolves needed to mark their territories often because they were too large to patrol every day. If other wolves encroached on their territory they could steal game or mating opportunities. By scent marking and scraping, they were sending a message to other wolves to keep away or be ready to fight.  Before domestication, dogs also wandered in large territories and this particular instinct has not yet been bred out of the domestic dog. 

Solving a Problem

When dog poop dries, it loses its pungent fragrance and hence its poop power to ward off the enemy. So by releasing the scent glands on the ground they act as a kind of booster scent saver and enhancer. Paired with visually deep and long scrape marks it becomes hard evidence that shouts BEWARE!  One big kick butt dog was here! It’s almost like a dog’s unique scratch and sniff business card.

Behavior Modification

Some dog owners find pooping rituals uncivilized and even aggressive. They get nervous that their dogs will step in “it” and then track it everywhere. But dogs are skilled marksmen and know just how to spread their paws enough so they don’t. Some owners feel violated because they think their pups are deliberately aiming at them when they kick. And, some owners go so far as trying to stop or modify the ritualistic behavior. Dressing dogs up is one thing but trying to override their survival instincts is another. 

Warning Signs

If a dog that usually scrapes stops doing it, the dog may have health problems, such as arthritis. New or different behaviors should always be checked out. 

Social Power

A related behavior called over marking is when a dog feels more “alpha” than another so he covers up the other dog’s urine with its own. Doing this he markets himself to other dogs as having a higher social status and more power.  While the technique is different, the end game is very much like a power play in the boardroom. 

So, the next time you watch your dog choreograph its poop ritual, instead of thinking crazy be proud that he can execute this survival ritual with such vigor and precision. He’s showing power and control. And until dogs can tweet or twitter their personal messages, dogs should be allowed the freedom to communicate how they know best.