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Some Dogs Tell Lies With Urine

Like some people posting on dating sites, dogs may lie about their description.

Paolo Cremonesi/Shutterstock
Source: Paolo Cremonesi/Shutterstock

I was walking down the street when I noticed a woman coming toward me with a West Highland White Terrier on leash beside her. The dog, whose height was about 12 inches at the shoulder, stopped next to a tree, sniffed at it, and then raised his leg to mark it with a splash of urine. The dog raised his leg so high, while leaning backward so far, that it caused him to almost lose his balance, and he had to take a couple of steps to keep from falling over. I had to smile, since, if the research report that I had just read coming out of Cornell University was correct, I was observing a little dog trying to tell a lie.

I think that everyone who knows the least bit about dogs is aware of the fact that much of the information that dogs process about the world comes into their brains from the odors they sniff in the environment. Very often, the messages that they interpret from what they smell are biologically important. We know that dogs can read the sex, age, emotional state, fertility, and even various aspects of the health status of other animals from the odors that seep from the pores, sweat glands, and the urinary and genital areas of mammals. The biologically significant chemicals which provide these scents are called "pheromones." Although dogs can read the pheromones of humans, they appear to be particularly interested in pheromones which give them information about other dogs in their environment.

If reading scents is, for dogs, the equivalent of reading a written message, is there some way that dogs can also write messages which can be read by other dogs? It turns out that the canine equivalent of ink is urine. Many pheromone chemicals are found dissolved in dog urine. That means that a dog's urine contains a great deal of information about that particular dog. Thus, sniffing a fire hydrant or a tree along a route that is popular with other dogs is a means of keeping abreast of current events. For the dog, a tree may really be a large canine tabloid containing the latest news items in the dog world. While it might not contain installments of classic canine literature, it will certainly have a gossip column and the personals section of the classified ads, along with the kind of casual commentary about life events and personal status that we find in Twitter and Facebook postings.

When I am out walking my dogs, and they sniff at a tree, I sometimes fantasize that I can hear them reading the news and the most recent social media postings out loud. Perhaps this morning's latest news goes: "Lucy, a young female Miniature Poodle, has just arrived in this neighborhood and is looking for companionship — neutered males need not apply," or "Max, a strong, middle-aged German Shepherd dog, is announcing that he is the top dog now, and is marking this whole section of the city as his territory. He says that anyone who wishes to challenge this claim had better make sure that their medical insurance is current and paid up."

One reason that fire hydrants and trees are popular targets for urinating on is that male dogs prefer to "mark" vertical surfaces. Having the scent above the ground allows the air to carry it much further. However vertical surfaces also permit the transmission of an important bit of information, since the height of the marking tells the neighborhood about the size of the dog that is leaving that wet message. Remember that among canines, size is an important factor in determining dominance or relative prowess among dogs. Other dogs can estimate the size of the dog who left the urine splatter by how high it is on the vertical surface. Since dominance seems to be more important to males, they have developed the habit of leg lifting, so that they can aim their urine higher. This is where that new research report comes into play.

This recent study was published in the Journal of Zoology. The lead researcher was Betty McGuire, of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The first thing that this team established was that the angle at which the dog held its leg while urinating affects the height of the stream of urine. It was important to do this, because the height that the dog holds his leg is under voluntary control, and the dog can choose to hold his leg higher or lower.

The second part of this report took a group of male dogs, of varying breeds and sizes, and videotaped them while they were urinating against a vertical surface. Researchers also measured the height of the urine streak in each case. What they found was an indication that small dogs appear to be aware of the fact that they are somewhat shorter than other dogs in their environment. Therefore, much in the way that some short men who post self descriptive information on dating sites tend to lie about their height, so do these smaller dogs. The way that the shorter dogs lie is by holding their leg up much higher and leaning back, so that their urine stream is higher. In this way, the dogs seem to be trying to create the impression that they are bigger and more substantial for the other dogs in their neighborhood who might be reading their urine-inscribed messages.

Of course, just as self descriptions on the Internet can involve lies about what a person looks like, or their age, there are big lies and small lies. A small lie might be when a person who is 5'2" describes themselves as being 5'4", while a large lie is when that same person describes themselves as being 6 feet tall. When I read this research report, I was reminded of a dog I observed who was trying to write a really big lie using urine. The culprit was a Basenji, the small, African sight hound, which is popularly known for the fact that it does not bark. These dogs are considered to be still very close to African wild dogs in many of their behaviors. This particular Basenji was a strong, unneutered male named Zeb. He had adopted a pattern of urination which is occasionally used by wild dogs. He would aim himself toward a tree and then run directly at it. Zeb would leap when he was near its base, so that his hind legs were essentially walking up the tree. His momentum typically carried him five or six feet up the trunk. Finally he would flip over at the top of his run so that he landed on his feet having performed a perfect loop. The real purpose of this trick was shown by the fact that he performed his acrobatic somersaults with a continuous stream of urine flowing from him. Of course, this left a stripe of urine which rose well above those put out by any other dogs in the vicinity. I often wondered what his canine neighbors thought as they read Zeb's most recent smelly social media posting on that tree. Perhaps they were thinking something like, "Hmmm, I think that we may have a King Kong-sized dog living nearby." In any event, it was a canine lie, deliberately written large in urine.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Facebook image: Paolo Cremonesi/Shuttterstock


B. McGuire, B. Olsen, K. E. Bemis & D. Orantes (2018). Urine marking in male domestic dogs: honest or dishonest? Journal of Zoology, doi:10.1111/jzo.12603

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