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Why do dogs lift a leg?

Original Publication Date: June 22, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Not all dogs lift a leg to urinate, but many do.

The practice is generally associated with male dogs, but some girls also hike a leg. What does a dog accomplish by lifting a leg to baptize trees, shrubs or other things along the path?

It is communicating. The scent of the urine carries messages to all other dogs that cross his trail.

We humans send email, but dogs have a system known as pee-mail. The urine of each dog carries a distinct aroma that identifies it and leaves a detailed message.

The scent lets others know it has been there before them, and the territory is his or hers.

A passing dog that takes a whiff can determine how long ago the message was left, who left it, the marker's availability for the opposite sex and no doubt other information we cannot decipher.

Experts debate why a dog lifts its leg rather than using the conventional squat to leave messages.

The consensus is that urine sprayed higher is more likely to be noticed since it is at nose level of passing dogs. The message is also more likely to be picked up and carried on breezes and reach a wider audience.

Dogs have other subtle ways to communicate that are associated with relieving themselves. It is not unusual to see a dog scratch the ground after urinating. Guess what. It is another mode of canine communication.

The disturbed grass leaves a visual sign, and the paws leave a scent that announces it was there.

There are dogs that alternate between squatting and lifting a leg. This is normal and may depend on the need to eliminate versus the desire to communicate. There is a good chance that a very full bladder encourages squatting while a leisurely walk prompts leaving a trail of lifted-leg messages along the way.

Some dogs go through the motions of hiking a leg even after they have run out of urine to write a note.

Many females prefer to squat, except when in season. Then, cocking a leg sends a signal to potential partners she is available, and marking her territory lets the boys know where to find her.

An older dog who develops squatting as a new behavior may be telling you that age is catching up with it.

The dog should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if it has developed arthritis or some other condition that urges him or her to squat for comfort instead of lifting its leg to advertise presence.

Your veterinarian can diagnose disorders that may be causing your pet distress and perhaps dispense medications to ease any aches and pains.

Communicating by pee-mail looks simple, but lifting a leg speaks volumes to others. A dog's scent sends specific and detailed messages to passing dogs who have a nose to read them.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at