Science & Technology

Your Dog Might Be Lying About Its Size

If you know enough small dogs, you may have noticed a certain pattern of aggression. Isn't it strange how the canines that seem like they should be the most concerned about the big dogs in the yard are often the most likely to try to pick a fight? Well, it turns out that big dog mentality isn't just in their heads. It runs throughout all of their inner plumbing, as well.

Don't Lie, or Urine Trouble

According to a new study led by Betty McGuire of Cornell University, your lap dog might be trying to puff itself up to impress the neighborhood pups every time it goes to do number-one. When dogs raise their leg to pee on something like a tree, fire hydrant, or telephone pole, the angle they aim for tends to be higher the smaller they are. As a result, smaller dogs tend to spray higher relative to their body size — perhaps even high enough to be mistaken for a much larger pooch. It raises the question: Are these dogs intentionally trying to misrepresent their size to their friends and peers?

If so, they wouldn't be the only ones to do it. In a 2012 paper, Lynda Sharpe from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa noted an unusual habit among dwarf mongeese. Sometimes, the little critters would flip themselves upside down and perform a handstand while scent-marking their territory. What's more, the smaller the mongoose, the more likely it was to perform this strange behavior. Asked about this new study, Sharpe told Science magazine, "It would be surprising if numerous species weren't exploiting the height of scent marks."

To do their very important work, McGuire and her team followed 45 adult male dogs (which are more likely to raise their legs) during their bathroom breaks over the course of two years. It wasn't easy. The pee stains had to be measured before they dried, but without interrupting the dog's business. Also, many times, the dog would get himself lined up to hit a target, but end up completely missing without even realizing it. "We spent an inordinate amount of time out there," said McGuire to Science. As a group, the dogs raised their legs anywhere between 85 degrees and 147 degrees — and the smaller the dog, the more extreme the angle.

An Honest Explanation

There's one thing that we should probably make clear. We have not yet invented a canine lie detector or a dog-to-English translator (come on, science, get on it), so it might be premature to ascribe a trait like "dishonesty" to something the dog naturally does. And in fact, there might be some other perfectly innocent explanations that don't paint Fido as a floppy-eared conman.

According to James Serpell, professor of Ethics and Animal Welfare (also quoted in Science), those smaller dogs might just be trying to overmark. Overmarking is when a dog comes upon another dog's scent, and leaves its own scent behind to cover it up. If most other dogs are bigger than yours, yours will have to aim pretty high if they're going to paint over the other dogs' gra-pee-ti. Or, he points out, they might just be more flexible than their bigger neighbors. In other words, unless it's that dog with the shifty eyes, you can probably trust your dog. At least you can say for sure how big it is.

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In Alexandria Horowitz's "Inside of a Dog" (free if you're using Audible for the first time), you get an even closer peek at the canine psychology. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas August 27, 2018

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