A Walk Isn't Just a Walk to Your Dog

Dogs learn a lot about other dogs based on what scents they leave behind, including details about a dog's overall health and gender. Shuttergirl2013/Shutterstock

Every neighborhood has one – that favored tree or bush around the corner where all the dogs like to stop on a walk and do their business.

To you and the other pet owners, it's a tree or bush where they like to "go." To the dogs, it's so much more than that. They see it as the canine version of social media, a place where they can post and receive messages about what's going on in their lives.

"This is how dogs have a conversation between dogs," said Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. "This is how dogs tell each other that I was here and that I am a part of this area." Not only do the dogs know who else has come by, they can tell from the scents whether the other dogs that have stopped there are old or young, male or female, healthy or not feeling so well, what they've eaten, whether something has frightened them, or whether there's a new dog in the 'hood they will "like."

Crowell-Davis, who was one of the founding diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and has published more than 400 papers and book chapters on various aspects of animal behavioral medicine, calls dogs' sense of smell "a world of odor information that humans are totally blind to. We can't imagine what their world is like. It's virtually impossible for us to perceive."

If we could, perhaps we wouldn’t feel so embarrassed as we stand at the other end of the leash as our dogs do their thing and someone drives by. If we understood more, we might even get a chuckle from the canine conversation.

"Hey Peanut and TeeVee, Louie was here today, too."

"I’m liking that new diet, Peanut!"

"Hope you feel better, TeeVee. Sorry about the bladder issues. That’s no fun."

"Looks like we all missed smokin’ hot Ellie Mae and Lady yesterday."

"OMG! Who’s this new guy in the 'hood?"

The art and science of butt sniffing

Dogs can have these deep canine conversations because they learn to recognize each other in another way that’s may seem odd to humans: they sniff each other's butts. "They do that because this is where a dog's scent is the strongest," said Crowell-Davis. Essentially, a dog's biography is in its derrière in scent molecules and pheromones. Think of a dog's ability to remember another dog by the scents coming from the backside as akin to a politician's ability to remember faces.

How long can dogs remember that scent? "We don't know for sure," Crowell-Davis said, adding that researchers do know that dogs' recall is fairly long. "At least weeks, probably longer," she said.

Where your dog takes care of her business can also offer valuable information.

If you've noticed that your dog prefers particular substrates such as ivy or liriope for his ritual, this may be a learned experience from when he was a puppy, Crowell-Davis said. A dog that tries to drag you under a bush in the name of privacy could be exhibiting another learned behavior, she said. It's physically uncomfortable for dogs to be disturbed "in the act," so it's possible that dogs that have had this experience may be more prone to wanting privacy.

Poop matters

Your dog's favorite spots can also be a clue about health issues.

Especially when it comes to pooping, you should watch where you dog wants to stop and what happens when he gets there, Crowell-Davis advised.

Crowell-Davis stresses that owners should inspect their dog's poo. "If you're going to have a dog, you need to monitor its health.” And a good way to get the scoop on your pet’s health is to look at its poop. One of the really important things you can learn is developing medical problems. If you see anything out of the ordinary in terms of color or firmness, it’s time to go to the vet, Crowell-Davis advised.

And placement matters too — not just for the dog, but for your neighborly relations. If you have a neighbor who's proud of his manicured lawn or who has had to replace a bush one too many times and constantly watches from windows to shoo off pet walkers, don’t even let your dog stop in their yard, Crowell-Davis said. The worst thing you can do if you suddenly realize your dog has stopped on forbidden real estate is to try and drag him away in the middle of the act.

"Once dogs start, they want to finish up and not be disturbed," said Crowell-Davis, emphasizing that there's more "need" than "want" in the effort. Anyone should appreciate how hard it is on a dog to stop the process once his gut has set things in motion, she said.

So the next time you're on a walk with your dog, consider the conversation that he's a part of — even if you can't understand everything that's being said. He'll thank you for it, in his own canine way.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.