Hey, Doc, Why Does My Dog Do THAT…?

Posted on Dec 3rd, 2014, 05:09 PM America/Los_Angeles

Dr. Mitchener’s most recent article was published in the December issue of the Capitola Soquel Times.  Read this great article on the peculiar behaviors of man’s best friend!

By Dr. Tiffany Mitchener

            Anyone who has ever spent significant time with a dog will often notice that the canine has very different behaviors from his human counterpart.  Some of these habits can be downright offensive to the person in the relationship.  What owner hasn’t wondered on occasion… where do these actions come from?

The Walk

            It can be the bane of every dog owner, this overwhelming need on the part of one’s canine to stop and sniff every bush, tree, light pole, fence post, and fire hydrant.  What is supposed to be a brisk walk for moderate exercise often turns into an exercise of patience as the dog stops every ten feet or so for a long sniff.  If one is walking a male dog, this will often be followed by a quick leg lift and urination of a few drops before happily trotting on to the next spot a mere ten feet away for an instant replay.

What is happening here?  It is important to note that the canine nose is vastly superior to the human one.  It has often been said that dogs “smell in color.”  However, that seems to be understating their true ability.  If we compare the human vs. canine senses of smell in terms of a vision analogy, according to NOVA, what a human can see 1/3 of a mile away, a dog can distinguish 3000 miles away.  Or put another way, a dog can detect a single rotten apple in two million barrels of apples.  It is no wonder that they want to pause for that scent; it must be like reading the billboards in New York City’s Times Square.

But why the urination?  Male dogs scent mark.  Their urine offers a chemical communication for other domestic dogs; it marks this territory as theirs.  Interestingly, the next male dog to come along will “overmark” the spot to compete with the first.  There seems to be a competitive advantage to having one’s urine detected first.  It may go back to the age old competition for mates and territory.  It is interesting that female dogs will sniff just as often as males on a given walk, but normally only male dogs scent mark.  Also, neutered males urine mark less than intact male dogs.  This is particularly true if the male was neutered at a younger age before the behavior was learned and ingrained in his daily walks.

The Dance

            Every dog owner knows “the dance.”  Dog meets dog on a walk; it starts with a brief nose touch and ends with an extended sniff of the other’s rear end.  Often the dogs will circle to get a particularly long scent from each other at the same time.  What are they doing?  Call it the “doggy dance” or simply “doggy meet and greet.”  Dogs are using those incredible noses of theirs to get a good sense of identity from the other dog.  But why the rear end smell?

Dogs have internal scent glands near their anus, which empty a strong smelling fluid into their rectum upon defecation.  This scent marks stool, and the deposition of stool marks their territory.  The glands are called anal sacs.  They can empty through normal defecation, exercise, fear, or agitation.  But unfortunately, the glands can also become impacted.  With impactions, the fluid inside the gland hardens, and anal sac emptying becomes painful.  This uncomfortable state will lead the dog to “scoot” with his anus on the ground.  In fact, anal sac impaction is the number one cause of scooting in dogs, followed by tapeworms, fleas, and allergies.  Small breed dogs and overweight dogs are particularly susceptible to anal sac impactions.  In these cases, anal sacs must be manually expressed.  This is best performed by a veterinarian.  Anal sacs that remain impacted can become infected and even abscess and rupture.  Any dog that exhibits scooting behavior and/or a foul odor, redness, or pus-like discharge around the anus, should be examined by a veterinarian.  High fiber diets and laser therapy can help to prevent anal sac impaction.  It is important to talk with your veterinarian about a plan to routinely treat and prevent this disease.

The Meal

            Dogs are opportunistic scavengers by nature.  Wild dogs are just as likely to eat a dead and decaying meal as they are to hunt and kill a fresh meal.  Even the most well fed and well trained dog will lunge and “wolf” down that “tasty” morsel on a walk outside.  Those savory bits can include moldy food, dead animal carcasses, wildlife scat, and more.  In the wild, discarded food could mean the difference between life and death for the canine.  The dung from herbivorous animals (ducks, geese, deer, etc.) can still contain digestible nutrients for the canine omnivore.  Shocking, really, when you consider that these nutrients come in a bacteria-laden and often parasite-laden package!  This sneaky behavior can be applied to the kitchen as well.  Many dogs have learned to routinely patrol the kitchen counters for food.  Their rummaging in the kitchen waste bucket is often rewarded with the pleasurable discovery of something edible.  Because of this inborn scavenging trait in their canines, owners must be extra vigilant to prevent their dogs from acting on it.  Scavenging can lead to parasites, toxin exposure, gastroenteritis, and obstruction.  Any dog with clinical signs of vomiting and diarrhea should be evaluated by a veterinarian.  It is important that all owners scan the sidewalks for scavenging items before their dogs reach them, keep the kitchen counters free of food, and have dog-proof waste buckets in their households.


It is clear that dog behaviors can differ vastly from human ones.  Whether it is our mutual understanding of the purpose of walks, our greetings of strangers, or our feeding behaviors, humans and canines definitely do not meet eye to eye, nor nose to nose.  The more we understand the reasons behind our canine companions’ special traits, the more we can appreciate what truly amazing creatures they are!

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