Everybody knows at least one small scrappy dog that doesn’t seem to know it’s a small dog. Well, a new study suggests small dogs are perfectly aware of their diminutive stature and actually have a very sneaky way of cheating to make themselves appear much larger – to other dogs at least.
Like many things dog related, it comes down to peeing – when, where, and in this case, how high.
That dogs are a lot sneakier than we give them credit for is not new, but this latest study published in the Journal of Zoology has revealed a high level of what the researchers call “dishonesty” in scent marking.
Scent marking among animals is common, for dogs it is essentially the most common form of communication; it denotes territory, conveys information about health, sex, and age, and allows males and females to flirt.
Researchers at Cornell University, led by Betty McGuire, wondered how body size in dogs affects scent marking. It may be assumed that the higher up a tree, streetlamp, or fence the mark is, the taller the animal, but it turns out that may not always be the case, with little dogs observed aiming higher – at a more precarious raised leg angle – than their larger brethren to “exaggerate” their size. This overcompensation has been likened to “small dog syndrome”.
“Small males seemed to make an extra effort to raise their leg high – some small males would almost topple over,” McGuire told New Scientist. “So, we wondered whether small males try to exaggerate their body size by leaving high urine marks.”
To test this out, McGuire and her colleagues filmed male dogs from a shelter being taken for walks (for science, people) and observed that small dogs peed more frequently and lifted their legs at a proportionately higher angle than larger dogs. This meant that predicting an animal's size by the height of their markings wasn't accurate at all, as these doggy deceivers demonstrated.
The researchers suggest this behavior is to make small dogs appear larger to others, perhaps to avoid confrontation or to intimidate competing males, although they do point out that it could also be anatomical, as it is easier for smaller animals with lighter limbs to lift them higher than larger ones with heavier limbs.
However, it’s not just dogs that appear to have small dog syndrome. Some animals like dwarf mongooses and – rather unexpectedly considering their usual lack of energetic demonstrations – pandas take part in handstand scent marking, which is exactly what it sounds like.