Your Dog's Potty Habits: What’s Normal and What's Not

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dogs bathroom habits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many dog behaviors are puzzling to humans — especially when it comes to their potty habits
  • You may have noticed your dog performing certain rituals as he’s preparing to relieve himself, such as trampling the spot of ground he’s selected, or stopping to sniff a dozen times before he finally urinates
  • Some canine elimination behaviors are entirely instinctual and normal; however, others can signify a potential underlying health problem that requires attention

Rare is the dog who doesn’t take his sweet time deciding where to relieve himself, and this goes double if you’re in a hurry and the weather is lousy. And rare is the dog parent who hasn’t pondered their pup’s peculiar potty time proclivities, so in the latest installment of “Why Does My Dog …”, I’m tackling the topic of the sometimes odd elimination habits of our canine companions.

Why Does My Dog …

Why does my dog seem to “prepare” a spot on the ground before she goes? — According to veterinarian Dr. Gary Richter, author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide, “Dogs often trample down the grass to make a spot ‘cleaner’ for them to go in.”1 Since they have to squat close very close to the ground to do their business, they’re making sure there aren’t any sticks, weeds, tall grass or other surprises awaiting them.

Why does my dog face the same direction every time he poops? — According to a 2013 study, when our canine companions relieve themselves outdoors, they tend to follow a north-south magnetic axis if the Earth’s magnetic field is stable at the time nature calls.2 The researchers found that dogs align themselves north-to-south somewhat more often when they defecate than urinate.

The study authors noted no difference in magnetic sensitivity among different breeds of dogs, which during the course of their study included pooches as small as a Yorkshire Terrier and as large as a Saint Bernard.

Why does my dog sniff (and sniff, and sniff) before deciding where to pee? — Dogs spend huge chunks of time receiving and sending “pee-mail” when they’re out for walks. These urination rituals allow your dog to use his keen sense of smell to gather information. As he stops and sniffs (and sniffs, and sniffs), he's picking up facts about all the other creatures, in particular other canines, who’ve relieved themselves in the area.

The behavior around urinating is called scent marking, and it’s used by a wide range of animals as a means of communication. There are a variety of ways to scent-mark, but for dogs, peeing is the hands-down favorite.

Despite how much time our canine companions spend in pee-related pursuits, very little is actually known about urinary communication among dogs. However, a pioneering 2011 study3 suggests dogs of both sexes use a variety of different urination activities to assert social status or position, find potential mates, size up unfamiliar dogs and limit potentially threatening close contact during social introductions.

The study authors believe dogs may use urine investigation and scent marking to establish safe social connections with other dogs.

Anneke Lisberg, study co-author and an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, told Discovery News it’s possible dogs "might be able to assess many personal aspects of health, stress, virility, diet" and more just by sniffing another dog's urine.4

Lisberg believes marking and countermarking could be "a sort of Facebook of their personal life, easily accessible from a safe distance."

Why does my dog raise his leg to pee? — One reason male dogs raise a leg to urinate is because urine marks territory, and dogs appear taller and more dominant (to one another) when they make a vertical line with their pee.

In addition, as I mentioned above, dogs of both genders use pee as a communication tool to assert social status, find potential mates, size up unfamiliar dogs and limit potentially threatening close contact during social introductions.

Why does my dog kick up grass after relieving himself? — Some dogs kick the grass after relieving themselves (more often after pooping) to cover their deposit. Others are releasing pheromones from their paws to mark their territory.

That’s why dogs spend so much time sniffing the ground, bushes, tree trunks, and anywhere another animal may have eliminated. They are constantly monitoring their territory and sniffing out information about other dogs who have come and gone.

Why does my dog scoot her bottom along the ground? — Most dog parents are at least mildly horrified when their furry family member does the boot scootin’ boogie across the carpet, an expensive area rug or some other fabric-covered surface. If she’s outside, she might do it on grass. And, of course, she only does it when you’re entertaining guests in your home, or while you’re chatting with a new neighbor in your front yard!

“Scooting,” as it is lovingly called, signals an itchy or irritated backside. Rarely, the behavior is caused by tapeworms, in which case there are usually other symptoms such as weight loss, poor coat or skin condition, a distended or painful abdomen or diarrhea. You might also see worm segments near your dog’s anus.

Scooting can signal another problem like a perianal tumor or irritation caused by diarrhea or a perineal yeast infection, but most often the reason is an anal gland problem. Your dog is dragging or scooting her bottom across the ground to try to relieve the itching and irritation caused by an inflamed, infected or impacted anal gland.

If your pet is having anal gland issues, your veterinarian should work to determine the cause of the problem rather than just treating it symptomatically by manually expressing the glands.

Why does my dog sometimes strain to relieve himself? — As with humans, there can be many reasons for elimination problems in dogs. When your dog seems to be working abnormally hard to poop, causes can include constipation, diarrhea or even something called a perianal fistula.

A perianal fistula is a severe lesion that develops around a dog’s anus. A fistula is an abnormal pathway from something inside the body to the surface of the body. “Perianal” simply means the area around the anus. In perianal fistula disease, there is often more than one lesion. The result is chronic, persistent draining ulcers that are very painful for the dog.

Signs include straining to defecate, perianal pain and bleeding, constipation or diarrhea, lack of appetite, feeling the need to poop but the bowel is empty, biting and licking the anal area, a bad smelling discharge, lethargy and changes in temperament.

Straining to urinate is also a red flag and often a sign of urinary stones that in severe cases can cause complete blockage of the urethra. If your dog isn’t able to urinate, it’s a medical emergency requiring immediate veterinary treatment.

Other symptoms include frequent urination, an abnormal urine stream (e.g., your dog lifts his leg and only a few drops come out, and then a few drops more), urinating in inappropriate places and cloudy or bloody urine.

If your dog is dealing with regular episodes of difficult defecation or urination, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible, within 24 hours. As I mentioned, the inability to urinate is a life-threatening emergency, so if your pet can’t pee at all, go to the ER.

If straining is visible while urinating or defecating, your pet could be in a significant amount of pain, or at a minimum, miserably uncomfortable, and it’s important to find out why and resolve the problem.

The take-home message here is that some of the seemingly strange behaviors around your dog’s elimination habits are actually entirely normal and natural for canines, while others can signal a problem or even an emergency requiring immediate veterinary intervention. An excellent way to stay on top of your dog’s health is to monitor what comes out of him, otherwise known as feces/stool/poop and urine/pee. It’s important to know your dog’s “normal” so that you can take appropriate action if you notice a change.