In the human world, we can get quite creative when we have a sudden itch in our back and use a pen, ruler or anything handy, but how do dogs scratch their backs? It's not like they can ask you to pass them the back scratcher or verbally let you know that "Hey, I have a terrible itch at the end of my back ,would you mind scratching it for me?" Fortunately, there are some things dogs can do to quench a sudden itch, but since dogs lack opposable thumbs it doesn't involve anything fancy, rather their way to calm down an itch is quite down to earth... and yes, that often means literally.
Hard to Reach Spots
Just like us, dogs have some areas in their bodies that are quite difficult to reach. In particular, the back and the rump may be difficult areas to reach and dogs seem to know it.
Did you ever see a dog panic when a bug is buzzing nearby their rump? If so, you may have noticed how the dog appears to be particularly worried about the bug landing on their back end or under the tail. The dog may turn his head repeatedly towards his rear while making sudden swooping movements of the back and tail in hopes that the annoying bug decides to go somewhere else.
Most likely, this sheer panic is due to the fact that the back is a hard to reach area, far away from the mouth and in an area that cannot be easily scratched.
Sure the tail is there, but it's not effective as the tails of horses and cows which are meant to deter flies with their swishing movements.
"The reason most dogs like their rears scratched is because that is a very hard area for them to reach themselves. Think about the hardest place you have to reach in the middle of your back, and how nice it is if someone will scratch that for you.” Dr. Bonnie Beaver
1) Rolling On Their Backs
Perhaps one of the most common ways dogs scratch their backs to relieve an itch is to simply roll on their backs. Before there were groomers and their associated grooming salons, dogs had to figure out a way to get rid of dead hairs from their coats when shedding season was in full swing.
By rolling, dogs could groom themselves by shedding some of their undercoat, explains Karen L. Overall, in her book " Clinical Behavior Medicine for Small Animals."
Once the dog is on his back, he'll be moving himself side to side so to create some added friction between his back and the floor.
The choice of surface is important here as some surfaces may not be very suitable for the purpose. A rough carpet, grass or hay may be appealing places to get a nice a back rub.
2) Rubbing Against Toys
If your dog leaves toys around the room, they might not be there just for gnawing and playing. Many dogs have found an extra creative use for them.
Instead of just rolling their back on the floor, these dogs have found that rolling their backs over their toys may prove to be an effective way to ease an annoying itch, and while they are it, get a little bonus massage accompanied by groans of approval.
Preferred "massage toys" are often tug toys and other types of toys with ridges. Some toys though can be painful to roll over, so owners must be careful that their dogs don't get injured by their vigorous rolling action over them.
3) Walking Against Walls
Some dogs can get quite creative and use various other items to get relief from their itchy backs. Some dogs will walk and rub the sides of their backs against sofas and couches. Others will rub the sides of their backs against walls as they walk against them.
You can readily recognize the homes where dogs tend to do this: the walls over time develop a distinct line made of dirt and debris, right where the dog walks.
And some dogs will borrow an idea from bears when they go camping: they'll walk up to a tree and then rub their backs against that sturdy tree trunk!
Tip: Some dogs will accumulate many hairs on their rumps when they shed and these hairs cause itchiness. Dog owners can help by brushing the rump area and removing those tufts of dead hairs which can be easily detected as they're sometimes of a different color from the rest of the coat.
4) Soliciting Other Dogs
Dogs, as some other animals, may engage in what is known as "social grooming. " A dog may start licking and gently nibbling another dog and the other dog may return the favor by licking and gently nibbling back.
These grooming sessions generally take place with dogs relaxing side-by-side and often involves licking and nibbling gently with teeth. The nibbling action with the incisor teeth acts like a comb, removing any dirt and debris from the coat.
"These behaviors are done by individuals closely associated to each other," explains Dr. Bonnie Beaver in the book "Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers."
However, when dogs groom each other, their focus is mostly concentrated on the ears, eyes and mouth area, so there's likely not much luck in getting that back nibbled on. Dogs may therefore try to rub their back against other dogs as they do with walls, furniture and people's legs.
5) Asking for Owner's Help
And then you'll stumble upon those dogs who will bluntly request a butt scratch by strategically backing up with their rears in the owner's face in hopes of getting the so badly wanted rump scratch.
The owner doesn't get the message? They'll turn around and look back wondering what they are waiting for! Some dogs take the back massage to a higher level: they'll start shifting the weight on their back feet as they are being scratched in a happy dance matter.
Most dogs seem to love having a nice rump scratch, there are however as always some exceptions to the rule. Some dog may not like having certain areas touched and the back may be one of them.
If on the other hand, your dog always enjoyed back rump scratches, and now he is moving away, there may be chances that he may be experiencing some discomfort or pain there. Watch for bald spots, unusual odors, excessive itchiness and other signs of discomfort and see your vet to let him know about your findings.
In many instances, excessive rubbing against walls, carpets and other surfaces may be signs of allergies and other skin conditions.
- Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals, by Karen Overall, Mosby (Feb. 1 1997)
- Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers, By Bonnie V. G. Beaver, Elsevier Health Sciences, Nov 11, 2008