Small white dog scratching at ground and kicking up dirt

Why Do Dogs Scratch the Ground? It’s Not What You Think!

Last updated on November 26th, 2023 at 04:27 pm

I take my dogs to our local park pretty much every day. And, I cannot tell you the number of times I have bent down to pat them on the head only to get dirt and grass kicked in my face! Agh! as Lucy Brown would say. What was that for?

While there are a number of reasons a dog may scratch the ground or floor, there are some misconceptions about this age-old canine habit. And it is not because they are trying to aerate the turf to keep it healthy. Some people believe that a dog tries to cover up his poop or pee to hide it from other dogs.

But it is more likely that your dog is scratching the ground to leave a message, Kilroy was here, and emphasizing it with the scent from the glands in his paws. Yes, dogs have scent glands on their feet that deposit their own distinct and unique smell. This is one of the primary reasons that dogs scratch the ground, but there are also a few other things the ground scratching can accomplish.

Communicating and Leaving Messages

Dogs have sweat glands on their paws, which is why they smell like Fritos or popcorn. These sweat glands are unique to each dog. So, when they scratch the ground they are spreading their scent around to let other dogs and critters know they were there. Please see my amusing post on A Dog’s Newspaper for more about how dogs take in the world.

For years I just assumed that my dogs were trying to cover up their bio waste to clean up after themselves. Silly, me. That’s what dog Moms are for! And, every time I leaned over to pick it up in a baggy, I was hit in the face with pieces of flung dirt and grass!

Three Key Times Dogs Scratch the Ground

Scientists who have observed wolves and coyotes noted that the ground scratching and grass kicking usually happened at three key times:

  • Following urination and defecation
  • When approached by another wolf or coyote
  • When finding another animal’s poops or dried urine

Composite Signals

According to PetMD.com, “Ground-scratching has been referred to as a composite signal that involves chemical and visual components.” Dogs send a message with their scents, visual kicking, and the kicked-up dirt and debris.

Additionally, dogs have glands between their toes that emit pheromones. Researchers are uncertain about the complexity of what this means to other dogs, but it probably communicates gender and sexual status — i.e. a dog in heat versus a spayed or neutered dog.

Marking Their Territory

“I’m leaving a message just to let you know I’m around,” Siracusa said. “So, if you know me, and we’re on good terms, it’s OK for you to be around here. But if we don’t get on so well, you may want to stay away.”

Carlo Siracusa, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Some will argue that a dog who may feel intimated by possible prey will try to cover up his waste with his scent along with grass and dirt. But most researchers believe it is more of a matter of communication and marking their territory. Dogs are simply letting other dogs know this is a space they have been in and may re-visit in the future.

However, it may not be an aggressive instinct as much as a behavior to simply provide information for strange dogs and pack members alike. A leader may be marking an outer boundary for his pack to stay within, as well as warning outsiders that his pack resides here.

According to LiveScience.com, Carlo Siracusa, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. believes that, instead of aggressively warning other dogs to stay away, ground scratching may simply be a dog’s way of notifying others of their own presence — possibly to reduce the likelihood that they’ll encounter one another in a confined area. As in, “I’m leaving a message just to let you know I’m around,” Siracusa said. “So, if you know me, and we’re on good terms, it’s OK for you to be around here. But if we don’t get on so well, you may want to stay away.”

In his clinical work with dogs, Siracusa has also noticed that some dogs who were more insecure and anxious were more apt to do ground scratching. This may be their attempt to better control their space and warn potential intruders. However, the behavior is totally normal and very instinctive, so do not assume that your dog is anxious just because he does ground scratching.

Scratching Out a Nest or Den Area for Sleeping

Another reason for ground scratching or pawing at the floor is to create a place to sleep or hide out. Dogs in the wild and wolves, tend to dig into the ground in a sheltered area to create a small den. They will often rearrange the brush, leaves, and loose dirt to make it more comfortable.

Dogs will often turn around several times before collapsing into their nested area for the night. This is probably due to finding a comfortable spot, but also to check all angles for potential enemies.

Sometimes It is Just Fun to Scratch the Ground and Kick Up Grass

two dogs dancing together in a park
Having fun kicking up the grass at the park!

I have a dog who is part Pug, and Pugs truly are the ultimate clown dogs. She sometimes exhibits the most hilarious behavior. Every evening she gets the zoomies around 8pm. She will bark at her sister and try to engage her in a game of chase. Then she will dive into her day bed under the stairwell and push it around with her head. Next, she will scratch furiously at the bed with her front paws and whirl around several times, bark, and suddenly fall into a heap. If she is tired enough, she will fall asleep and stay there for a while.

I have also seen my dogs scratch at the ground in the park for no apparent reason other than being very excited about something. They seem to enjoy digging up the grass and creating a ruckus just for the sheer joy of it. As a good, responsible dog owner I always try to tamp the sod back down and repair as much damage as possible. But they are clearly having fun! And, who knows, they may be leaving some frivolous message for the next dog who walks by!

Probably the main concern with dogs who love to scratch the ground is that they might also start digging. There are a lot of ways to prevent digging which you can read more about here.

Final Thoughts

Scratching the ground is a totally normal canine behavior. So, allow your dog to complete his process before you move on. It is part of his instinctive behavior and probably provides him with a sense of purpose and maybe some fun. Just stand back and guard yourself against flying debris!

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