Evolutionary Strategy or Gut Feeling?
Two Opposing Theories
A recent article from The Dodo attempts to explain why some dogs scratch at the dirt or grass after they poop. One theory, explained by Dr. Brittany Jaeger, a veterinarian from Tampa, Florida, is that they’re covering their eliminations so that other imagined, hypothetical animals, who may or may not come along later, won’t be able to find them.
“It’s an evolutionary response designed to help dogs hide from potential predators. They do it to cover their tracks so that other animals won't know they've been there.”
In the same article, an opposing theory is put forth by Dr. Robert Proietto, a veterinarian working in New York City. Proietto says this behavior is not dogs about covering up their eliminations, but enhancing them.
Dr. Proietto says dogs also do this to send a signal to other hypothetical animals who may, or may not, come along later and sniff them. He says that when dogs kick their feet against the ground, they emit a scent from glands in their paws which helps them mark their territory and tell other animals that they've been there.
So which is it? Are dogs hiding information from other animals or disseminating it?
While both explanations may tell us something about the hypothetical effects the behavior may or may not have on other animals, or even the effect the behavior may have on the evolutionary fitness of the dog, they don’t really tell us anything about what motivates the dog to behave in this way in the first place. I’m a dog trainer and, some might say, a dog psychotherapist. So I want to know what’s motivating a behavior in the here and now. In the dog’s mind it can’t be to hide his presence from other animals or to send a message to hypothetical animals that might or might not come along later.
Evolutionary Effects vs. A Dog’s True Motives
First of all, dogs don’t know anything about evolution or how it works. These behaviors may or may not serve an evolutionary purpose, but it’s not something an individual dog could have an awareness of. So the dog’s actual purpose in producing these behaviors has to come from something more integral to the dog’s actual experience.
Second, dogs have no awareness of linear time. While they may carry feelings and memories of past experiences, they don’t dwell on the past. And while they can anticipate certain predictable events, like when it’s time for a walk or time for dinner, they have no concept of what the future is. Dogs live totally in the now moment.
Third, dogs don’t have a sense-of-self and other. Without such a faculty it would be impossible for to dogs to create imaginary scenarios about how other animals might react to finding or not finding their scent.
Fourth, for these behaviors to be exhibited for the reasons given, the dog would have to be capable of understanding the simplest form of logic: the if/then proposition. “If I do this now, another animal may come along later and receive my message.”
A fifth problem is that not all dogs exhibit this behavior. Some do, but only some of the time. Others never exhibit it, or do so rarely.
So why do some dogs do this more than others? And why do some dogs do it rarely if it all?
What’s Really Going On?
In the Natural Dog Training view of animal behavior, as proposed by Kevin Behan, there are certain very predictable dualities. For instance, dogs can have feelings of attraction for certain things in their environment—like their toys, their dinner bowls, their owners—while having feelings of resistance to others—like tall men in hats, hissing cats, or trips to the vet’s office.
The first category—attraction—includes things that are, for the most part, pleasurable, the second—resistance—includes things that tend to instill nervousness, anxiety or fear.
With me so far?
Another of Kevin’s propositions is that some things in the environment carry what he calls a “preyful essence,” creating feelings of emotional conductivity, which means the dog’s feelings and emotions are flowing freely and aren’t being blocked or repressed in any way. Things that generate these feelings tend to be soft, smooth, and round, easy to digest, and are capable of absorbing energy. Even when dogs play, they tend to soften their bodies so as to enable a continuous flow of emotion. On the flip side, things that exhibit a “predatory essence,” generate feelings of resistance. Instead of being round and soft, they’re hard, sharp and mostly indigestible and they tend to reflect energy back to the dog.
Besides prey and predator, there are two more polarities to consider, and they relate directly back to the differences between pleasure (which includes things like fluid movement, emotional flow, hunger, and digestion) and fear (which includes things that block energy, restrict movement and create emotional “stuckness,” i.e., feelings that are unable to move freely through the body).
Fear is first and foremost about balance, or a lack of it. It operates on a purely instinctual level, primarily through the brain and the nervous system. Pleasure, meanwhile,is generated by the wavelike, digestive aspects of the second brain, i.e., the bundle of nerves in the solar plexus, as well as the sex organs. (Some types of fear, such as dread , operate through both the brain and the solar plexus.)
I know. That’s a lot to digest. But I hope it makes some sense to you because it helps us understand why some dogs cover up their poop, others don’t, and why most dogs—once they’re past the puppy stage—rarely eat their own feces. 
Some Dogs Do, Some Dogs Don’t
Dogs, and especially puppies, seem fascinated with their eliminations as well as the eliminations of other dogs and animals. Dogs who live with cats will often do anything they can to get at the poop in the litter box. Puppies will often eat their own poop! Mmmm, yummy! Despite a dog’s fascination with poop, not all dogs cover up their feces. In my experience it’s a fairly rare occurrence. In fact, I would say that dogs sniff and—as puppies—eat their own droppings more than they cover them up. True, I live in New York City, where it’s not easy for a dog to “hide” his excrement when he’s walking around on the city sidewalks. But even dogs who eliminate in the park or at the local dog run, don’t always cover up their feces. In fact, in my experience, they rarely do (though it’s more common at the dog run than in the park). 
So why do they do it?
Frankly, I’m not sure why wolves (and some dogs) scratch, and cover their leavings with dirt and grass, etc. But since the stinky stuff is round and soft, etc., it has to exert an emotional pull on them. So if the dog or wolf has mixed feelings of desire (a form of attraction or pull toward the item) and revulsion (a form of resistance or wanting to pull away from it) for that little mound he just left in the grass, he may cover it up in an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” kind of manner, the way someone on a diet might hide the cookie jar or an alcoholic might hide a bottle of scotch. (This isn’t a perfect analogy because the dieter and alcoholic would would be thinking this through rather than feeling things out.) I think the mixed feelings of desire and revulsion would come from the gut, i.e., the solar plexus, rather than from the cerebral cortex.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) In some cases, if a dog is feeling deep emotional stress he’ll do anything he can to get rid of that feeling of stress, eating poop being one of them. Also, since the most popular forms of dog food—particularly kibble—contain ingredients that aren’t easily digested, the dog may feel the need to eat his own stool because of this lack of proper nutrients. Other causes of coprophagia might be a) enzyme deficiencies causing a malabsorption of key nutrients, b) internal parasites and c) deep inner stress.
2) Why the difference between the park and the dog run? Dogs experience more stress at a dog run. It’s an enclosed area containing a mixture of known and unknown dogs, as well as strange dog owners, some of whom may carry a lot of negative energy with them. Dogs may have fun at the dog run, but they always feel more relaxed in open spaces like a park or other more natural setting. This suggests that the ideas that a) dogs cover their poop to prevent other animals from locating them, or b) to send the opposite message, may not be designed to serve an evolutionary purpose at all but is simply a by-product of stress.