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Why do Dogs Scratch the Ground?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. November 21, 2017
Why do Dogs Scratch the Ground?

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We are forever trying to interpret our dog's behavior. We know that a dog scratching at doors is likely because they want to get out, often as a result of separation anxiety. But when dogs scratch at the ground, it seems to be more from habit than out of concern. There are also different times when we might see our pups scratching at the ground, often before lying down or after defecating. They don't seem to do it enough to dig any sort of hole, so it can be quite a confusing action. As canine language is complex, we have tried to ascertain what they are saying with these scratches. AnimalWised answers 'why do dogs scratch the ground?' by showing all the possible interpretations of these seemingly strange behaviors.

Understanding canine behavior

Before we can go into the specifics of why a dog might scratch the ground or floor, we should take a little look into the complex system of canine communication. By doing so, we can provide a little context over why dogs carry out this odd activity.

First of all, dogs communicate with the world around them. This means with humans, animals and other dogs. As dogs were once pack animals, even a dog which has never spent long periods of time with other dogs will feel the desire to communicate with them. This is for a complex set of reasons we can't always determine, such as marking territory, attempted mating or hunting.

Dog's smell each other's anal glands to say 'hello', howl to alert their presence or lick their owner's hands for various reasons. All these lines of communication have meaning, but sometimes the same action can have different meanings depending on the context. Scratching the ground is one of these.

Our lack of understanding in dog actions can have negative consequences. While we might see them perpetrate a specific behavior, we might interpret it as being something negative. If we do, we may admonish the dog or try to stop it. If we stop our pets from carrying out their normal activities, it can confuse them as to what behavior is appropriate. In terms of wondering why dogs scratch the ground, we need to be careful how they interpret us as much as we them.

Why do Dogs Scratch the Ground? - Understanding canine behavior

Dog scratching their bed or resting area

Most dogs will scratch their resting area before they lie down to go to sleep, although not every time. This could be the space on the floor they have marked out for resting, a sofa cushion they are about to curl up on or a special doggy bed specifically bought for sleeping. The main reason for this 'ritual' is to alert other dogs that this resting area is theirs. By scratching the ground or their bed, the animal spreads its scent and warns any nearby dogs not to attack while they sleep. If they try it, they'll regret it.

What can seem particularly odd about this interpretation is that dogs will warn other dogs even if there are none present. This is a case of the dog preferring to be safe than sorry. Even if they can't see another dog, it won't assume there isn't one nearby. Like their anal glands, dogs have glands on different parts of their body which secrete oils and smells. Their paws are one such part. When a dog scratches the ground before lying down, it is marking its area with a smell so that other dogs stay away while it is vulnerable. Presumably, this is a better way to do it than urinating on their own bed.

Another possible reason dogs scratch the ground before lying down is similar to why we might fluff a pillow before going to sleep. The dog will want a comfortable rest, so scratching can help even out the surface and prevent any hindrances to sleep.

Why do Dogs Scratch the Ground? - Dog scratching their bed or resting area

Scratching to release energy

You may have seen your dog scratching for no apparent reason. These can be quite dramatic, with an energetic burst of energy being released while they do it. If your dog has not been out for a while, it is likely they have some pent up energy they want to release. Scratching the ground might be a sign you should take them for a walk or even generally increase their exercise routine.

However, animals also have signs known as stereotypy. These are actions an animal carries out repetitiously, seemingly without a purpose. They are similar to physical ticks humans have and, like a tick, they can be an exhibition of stress. Exhibiting stress is one possible explanation for scratching in dogs.

Dogs can get stressed for many reasons and display this anxiety in different ways. Similar to the feeling we get of 'cabin fever' when we spend too much time locked indoors, dogs will get antsy if they do not get the exercise and socialization they need. This will depend on many factors, their breed being an important one.

Scratching with long nails

Some owners spend incredible amounts of money getting their dogs pedicures, even giving them some doggy nail polish after a buffing. However, in the wild, our pooch's ancestors would need to find other way for their claws to be less unwieldy. If a dog's nails are too long it can twist their digital pads (dog equivalent of a finger) by getting caught on the ground or objects as they run. It can also damaged the nail bed and lead to infections which are potentially life threatening, especially in the wild.

Dogs may try to prevent damaging their paws by biting their claws, but scratching is a very common way also. It doesn't even have to be on a particularly hard surface. Dogs can scratch at any type of ground to give their claws a little filing. However, if you see them scratch at rocks, concrete or similarly hard surfaces, it is possible this is the reason.

Why do Dogs Scratch the Ground? - Scratching with long nails

Scratching after doing their business

It is very common to see a dog scratching after urinating or defecating. Often, it can look almost comical as they flay their legs out in a weird little scratchy strut. They often move a step ahead of whatever they have deposited and scratch so that a little bit of earth or grass moves towards it. It almost looks like a half-hearted attempt to cover their excretions, but this is not the case.

Dogs scratch after they have defecated or urinated to leave both an olfactory and/or visual marker of their presence. It is a territorial act designed to show other dogs that this is their land and they can do what they want on it. It is unlikely to be out of any sense of pride for their actions. Scratching in this way can also be an offensive move when in another dog's territory. Scratching shows not only did they relieve themselves there, but they are going to be king or queen of this particular ring.

On the other hand, some more submissive dogs might try to scratch to eliminate the evidence of their actions. They may have needed to go, but they don't want to anger the alpha-dog in the area. Scratching might be used to disperse the smell or cover up the physical product. If your dog is scratching out of fear of other dogs, they will probably exhibit other symptoms such as trembling, low posture or putting their tail between their legs.

Scratching at the earth

Understanding why a dog scratches the ground can be helped by considering the type of ground. As we said before scratching hard surfaces can be for filing claws or scratching beds for comfort. So why do dogs sometimes scratch the earth? If it is loose earth it might be for the same reason many humans dig up the earth - there is something buried under there.

As with much of dog behavior, scratching and digging earth can be a leftover from ancestral practices. When food sources were scarce, dogs would bury excess food to come back to later and ensure they had sustenance. Your dog might scratch at the ground to either bury something or dig something out. It may not even be their buried item, but a canny dog will find a rival's food and try to dig it up for themselves.

Dogs will also scratch at the earth to regulate temperature. If it is a particularly hot day, a dog will dig into the ground to the cooler soil underneath. If a dog scratches at the ground and then lays down on top of the area, it is most likely they are trying to chill out. It might also be a way to get a little more comfortable.

Lastly, dogs will sometimes scratch at the ground simply for their own entertainment. As they don't have the opposable thumbs to play Xbox, they need something to do. Many dogs will scratch just because they enjoy it. This is particularly the case with hyperactive dogs.

Why do Dogs Scratch the Ground? - Scratching at the earth

Should we discourage this behavior?

As we have seen throughout this article, dogs will scratch at the ground, floor or earth for a variety of reasons. Mostly, it is a healthy display or action which entails a complicated system of communication completely unrelated to us. Much of it is a leftover inherited from their wild ancestors. If we try to interrupt or discourage this behavior, then we will likely confuse or even upset the dogs. If their instincts tell them one thing, but you contradict your dog unnecessarily (some instincts do need to be counteracted for a happy domestic dog), you may end up doing some damage.

However, there are some instances when scratching needs to be stopped. If your dog is exhibiting sterotypy whereby their scratching is a display of stress, then you not only need to stop the scratching, but you need to deal with the underlying reasons for its stress. Dogs can also scratch under fences or gates to try to get underneath. If they succeed they can get lost. Scratching needlessly on either your property or others can also cause expensive and/or time consuming damage. This is another reason some dogs will need to stop scratching.

If you want to read similar articles to Why do Dogs Scratch the Ground?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

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Kyle Andrew Hooper
I thank you for the article and the time and thoughtfulness you put into it. Thank you for actually enduring the struggle of trying to understand the language your pup(s) are trying to use. I write this letter as a general cry of frustration and desire to see others better understand their dog.

With that said, it would seem to me that no one among the myriad of similar articles I have read, has covered the true reason why a dog paws the ground after urinating or defecating and why this behavior all together must be stopped if a unified and healthy household and dog is to exist. Not to mention, if you desire a happy pup to mingle and play in an appropriate manner with others at the park, including other dogs.

Yes, everything you and so many others have stated regarding the observed "why and tie" to wolves is true - it is a form of marking their territory. (period) Let me ask you this, if a lower submissive were to be caught by their alpha doing this to their alpha's territory, what message would that send and what message would their alpha send back? It is a form of challenge from a submissive of their bosses' authority to see how they will respond.

I will state the following as a professional dog trainer: 90 percent of people who have a dog(s) should not be the owner of that specific breed or worse, even all dogs together. When it comes to scratching the ground after urinating or defecating - this is an Alpha Dominant trait which belongs to the Alpha of the pack. This is so to declare, mark, and take ownership of a territory for their pack to thrive in.

Let me explain why this behavior in all domesticated must stop. First, the long term owner must exert their alpha dominance over the dog in a language the dog understands and in the most appropriate manner for that specific dog - for every breed's language is different if not most importantly also this must be coupled with the individual dog's means of communication and ability to learn. But let me ask you this, do you think the alpha of a pack of wolves takes time to learn this in order to teach "that" submissive?

It is my healthy and well developed opinion that it is not the dog that needs to change but in fact in 9/10 cases, it is the owner. For when I have a couple bring their dog to me who think it is an adorable and funny trait and laugh at how their dog is dominating and urinating over everything (including my dogs - yes urinating and dominating on them) outside and inside of mine or a friend of theirs' house - how funny is that then? And how is it you and all these other authors of these similar articles feel I/we should let this "natural" behavior continue. Here is the bottom line - if I tell my dog no - they will and must stop whatever it is they are doing because they are not able to see either the danger they are in or because their behavior is inappropriate. For dogs do not have a moral sense of what is right or wrong - this is something their owner teaches them. When their owner exerts and changes to accepting the alpha position, then the dog will naturally in a natural manner stop the destructive and alpha dominant trait of alpha scratching the ground. This behavior is absolutely unacceptable for a new dog coming into an established pack and is therefore (in the world of domesticated dogs) absolutely and always an unacceptable and inappropriate behavior - if the dog is to ever socialize with other dogs in this same world in a healthy, balanced, and appropriate manner. And finally, I admonish you and all others who would think this is a natural and ok behavior for domesticated dogs. For it is the tip of the iceberg of a deeply disturbed (domesticated) dog with hidden and growing aggressive traits brought about by poor training and handling by their owners. And absolutely regardless of all consequences of confusing the dog - this behavior must stop and the means through which it was allowed

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