Why do dogs cock their legs?

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Dog cocks a leg

We know that dogs cock their legs to urinate but why don’t they do it by squatting? In other words what is the significance of dogs urinating against an object by cocking their legs first?

Introduction

When dogs cock their legs to urinate they are depositing urine on objects that are above the ground i.e. a tree or a post. Their urine is effectively a calling card. It carries information about them and as its odour fades it tells other dogs when they were there. In this way dogs in an area are able to map the movements of other dogs and they keep tabs on their interactions. It’s a way of avoiding each other and it’s a way of marking territory to say that they own that territory. It is thought though that time-sharing takes place in that dogs share territory. By reading scent markings and in timing when it was deposited they can time their presence in an area while avoiding other dogs.

Dog cocks a leg

Dog cocks a leg. Photo: Instagram page of vegasrockdog

Three reasons for cocking leg rather than squatting

There are three reasons why dogs cock their legs to urinate for scent marking. The first is to ensure that the scent marking remains as fresh for as long as possible. So if the urine is deposited on a tree, for example, it stays fresher than if it is deposited on the ground where it can be walked on and disturbed.

Secondly, if urine is deposited at about nose level it is easier to smell. It is in the dog’s face and is more accessible.

Thirdly it helps dogs who are scent marking to more easily recognise from a distance where they deposited scent. This is because if they choose predominant objects like trees, posts and walls they are easier to locate. So from a visual point of view they can see where they scent marked.

Silhouette

A further issue which is associated with the above is that when a dog scent marks by cocking their leg the other dogs are able to identify that dog by their silhouette. This allows the observing dog to decide how to behave in terms of approaching or not.

Predominantely a male activity – castration and sex hormones

Cocking a leg is predominantly a male dog activity. Although it is not related to the amount of testosterone in the dog because castrated male dogs still start to cock their legs at the same age as those that have not been castrated which is at puberty at around the age of eight or nine months.

Although scent marking on cocking a leg is not motivated by the presence of sex hormones it does leave messages about the sexual condition of the dogs concerned. This is because sex hormones are excreted in the urine. Also, other dogs can identify a dog through the scent of the urine.

Females

Rarely, female dogs cock their legs. About 25 percent of all female dogs raise one back leg when urinating. However, they do it in a different way to the male’s action. One of the back legs is raised underneath her body rather than the leg being stretched out to one side. The urine falls on the ground rather than being projected horizontally onto vertical surfaces. Sometimes females perform a sort of handstand posture and walk backwards up to a post where the urine is deposited with both hind legs off the ground. Sometimes females cock their legs as males do.

Free-roaming dogs

Freeroaming dogs i.e. strays and ferals can spend several hours a day sniffing scent marks across a wide area which they will consider their territory. Urinate they have deposited may be masked by urine deposited by another dog. Stray dogs make daily expeditions of several miles with every scent-stained landmark along the way being carefully inspected and read for the most recent messages. They complete a dog map of the area which includes information about the dog population size their movements, their sexual condition and their identities.

Source: Desmond Morris, FLS hon. caus. an English zoologist and ethologist.

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