Scratching. It may be the most common thing we see our dogs do, an entirely innocuous, normal behavior, right? Absolutely. Scratching is an innate to our canine companions. But does it go deeper than just having an itch?
You bet it does. Scratching is done by dogs for all sorts of reasons. I'm going to discuss a few of these today, in hopes that by the end of this blog, you have a better understanding of what your dog is communicating by scratching in certain situations.
Scratching as Displacement.
Sometimes, when a dog is feeling nervous, they will try to 'displace' that anxiety through scratching. Perhaps they have a camera pointed at them (which can often make a dog feel nervous), or they're in a new environment. Whatever the reason, one of the ways dogs show their anxiety is through scratching. You know your dog is scratching as a displacement behavior when you see "funny ears" (ears pointing in different directions), and when the orientation of your dog's eyes and nose are not directed at the cause of the concern (for example, the camera).
Scratching as a Calming Signal.
Sometimes scratching can indicate a dog that is displaying what we call a "calming signal." Often seen in the presence of some sort of conflict, scratching used as a calming signal communicates to other dogs, animals, and people that the scratching dog is not a threat. In fact, it demonstrates a dog that is non-confrontational, uninterested in being involved in any conflict, and intending to stay that way. Here again we see some "funny" ears, and a body orientation that is turned away from whatever is causing the scratching dog concern.
Scratching as Negotiation
Sometimes scratching can be used by dogs that are in close proximity to one another. When an approaching dog invades the personal space of another dog, the dog being approached scratches. This is what we call a negotiation signal, and informs the approaching dog that they have entered a zone of personal space. Negotiation signals are all about safe communication of boundaries between canines. When we start to understand how to read these cues ourselves, we gain a better understanding of how our dogs communicate with one another, and with us. Dogs are often remarkably transparent about what they are feeling and thinking - if only we know how to look and listen to what they are telling us.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.