Why Do Dogs Lift Their Leg to Pee?

Dogs lift their leg to pee for a simple reason: to grab the attention of other dogs. Let's face it, dogs are highly olfactory beings, and as such, they are very attracted to smells. When dogs smell each other's urine, they are gaining loads of information. In order to better understand this behavior, it helps to take a closer insight into how a dog's nose works and how pee delivers all of this information.

Pee From a Dog's Perspective

Dog pee is much more than liquid waste that is disposed of to empty the bladder. Rather, dog pee is rich of information, so much so, that dogs love spending several minutes a day leisurely deciphering pee with their noses.

What kind of information can be deduced though from a simple trickle of pee? Interestingly, it's amazing the amount of information dogs can gather from just pee.

 Pee contains pheromones, basically chemical scents that reveal a lot of personal information about the dog who left it behind. Pee can provide details such as the dog's sex, reproductive status, age, health and even what the dog recently ate.

To detect all this info, dogs are equipped with a special organ known as the Jacobson organ, also known as the vomeronasal organ. This organ simply consists of a patch of sensory cells found within the nasal cavity just above the roof of the dog's mouth.

 A small duct that appears as a bump on the roof of the dog's mouth and known as the "incisive papilla" connects the dog's nose to the roof of the mouth, where the vomeronasal organ is located. Once reached the vomeronasal organ, the brain takes over so the dog can be focused on deciphering information. 

Every dog's pee smells different, so all these scent markings act as personal signatures. Some dogs can't wait to smell another dog's pee and investigate as the other dog is peeing. This intrusive behaviors can case the dog to get splashed and goes on to show how some dogs want access to doggy news as soon as it's out!

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With noses blessed with almost 300 million olfactory receptors, it's not surprising why dogs love to smell

 Doggy Bulletin Board 

So why do dogs lift their leg to pee? As mentioned, main purpose is to grab the attention of other dogs. 

"Hi all, Scruffy was here!" "Female poodle in heat looking for a soul mate." "Hi, I am a new dog in the neighborhood." "This is Max, don't mess with me, I am a small dog, but mean business!" 

 So let's put ourselves for a second in a dog's mind. If you want to leave pee mail for other dogs to smell, you better rely on some tactics to ensure your message come out loud and clear, so what do dogs do? They hike their leg and deposit their urine on vertical surfaces so that they are at easy reach, right at another dog's nose level!

For sake of comparison, raising the leg is similar to what humans do when the place their business cards on a community bulletin board. The bulletin board is right at perfect eye level, ready for others to see. Each dog may therefore decide to mark on areas that are less or more easy to sniff based on their specific personalities.

On top of this, there's another big perk for lifting the leg and peeing on vertical surfaces: According to Bruce Fogle, veterinarian and author of the book "Know Your Dog," the scent of urine on a vertical surface, generally tends to last longer compared to an horizontal one.

 This explains why dogs love to pee on tires and why fire hydrants rank high as dog's favorite places to urine mark. 

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Why Do Male Dogs Lift Their Leg?

Have you noticed how male dogs are prone to lifting their leg, while female dogs prefer to squat? There are some exceptions to the rule to this though (we will get to this later), but there's another good reason as to why male dogs lift their leg. 

The reason is quite close to why men prefer to stand up to urinate in urinals and females prefer to sit down. In simple words, it's just more practical. 

Female dogs have their outlet in the back just a bit lower than their tails, so when they squat, they are less likely to make a mess. Male dogs instead have their outlet tucked right by their bellies, in the middle of their rear legs, so when they urinate, they are likely to be splashed or pee may end up on their feet.

Did you know? Male dogs in general tend to start leg lifting anywhere between five and 10 months.

To Each Their Own 

 Bonnie V. Beaver, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, explains in her book "Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers"that in female dogs, 68 percent tend to assume the squat position; whereas, in males, 97 percent assume the classical elevated leg posture. 

However, as mentioned, there are exceptions to the rule. Female dogs can be interested in urine marking too. According to a study that evaluated six intact female Jack Russell terriers (not in heat), these female dogs were found to be more likely to urine mark when away from their homes, and when they urinated, their urine was often targeted to objects in the environment. 

On the other hand, at the opposite side of the spectrum, you may stumble on male dogs who squat. What's up with these dogs? Often, these are youngsters who haven't had yet much opportunity to see other male dogs lift their legs, but there may be more to it.

  Another factor may be that young puppies may not be able to balance themselves well on three legs, but According to Scott & Fuller 1965, the strongest trigger for leg lifting in male dogs appears to be sensing the odor from a dog that belonged to a different social group. And then of course, hormones may surely also play a role.

Interestingly, sometimes small dogs like to hike their leg really high above their hips and some even manage to do a handstand when urinating! This astute strategy allows them to mark very high causing other dogs to think that they are bigger than they actually are. How smart is that?

Did you know? Certain females who raise their legs may have been subjected to a phenomenon called “androgenization”. What happens with these female dogs is that when they are in the womb, they are flushed with androgen which causes them to display characteristics of males dogs and that includes leg lifting. 

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have valid reasons for lifting their legs when they pee. As interesting as this behavior is, many dog owners find it annoying, especially when their dogs mark repeatedly on walks or even manage to urine mark inside the home. How do you tackle a dog who lifts his leg repeatedly? Here are a few tips.

  • Take advantage of momentum. Since leg lifting requires dogs to first sniff a spot and then balance themselves on three legs, it helps to go on brisk walks. Don't be too strict on this tough: dogs need some time to sniff and explore their surroundings. 
  • Put the sniffing/marking behavior on cue. On your walk, dedicate some time to allowing your dog to sniff and mark. Give him the cue "go sniff!" and loosen your leash when you reach an area where he can sniff and relax and urine mark as he pleases.
  • Consider that urine marking is often seen in insecure dogs. These dogs simply feel more secure if everything smells like them. Punishment only makes these dogs more insecure, and will prompt them to pee when you are not looking. 
  • Retrain your dog as if he was a puppy. Take him out to potty and praise and reward him for going outside. Teaching your dog to go potty on command can be extra helpful.
  • Clean up indoor messes with enzyme-based cleaners such as Nature's Miracle. 
  • Invest in a UV light. This light can help you ensure that you cleaned all the areas he has marked.  
  • For desperate cases, use belly bands. 
  • Consider having your dog evaluated by a vet. What may seem like a dog urine marking, may be a dog suffering from a urinary tract infection or other medical problem.
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