You might impulsively think of urination as a pure experience without pretense or poise. But if you believe that, then you’re unlikely to be of the same mindset as a little dog. Little dogs are little liars when it comes to peeing. To a little dog, urination is not an egalitarian act that binds us all in its transparent necessity. To a little dog, the opportunity to pee allows for freedom to rise up in the world. It all comes down to an astucious lifting of the leg.
According to a study published in the July issue of the Journal of Zoology, little dogs lift their legs at a higher angle than big dogs when they urinate. This allows the pooches to send BDE energy out into the world without the receipts to back it up. With the rise of a limb and a wide-angled stance, these dogs can leave a literal mark that says “look, I’m a tall big dog” when, in fact, they’re actually toy-sized.
Betty McGuire, Ph.D., an ecology and evolutionary biology scientist with Cornell University, explained to Inverse that she’s studied the topic of scent-marking in dogs for the past six years. Early on in her research, she and her students noticed behavioral differences between small and large dogs during leash walks. Small dogs, patterns showed, urinated more frequently than large dogs and were more likely target their pee at certain things. McGuire and her team also noticed that, while most adult male dogs raise their legs during urination, small male dogs often make an extra effort.
“Some males,” she explains, “would almost topple over.”
McGuire and her team decided to figure out if this pee pattern was the real deal and conducted two studies: In the first, they observed 15 dogs while the animals explored an environment, looking for a place to do their business. They videotaped urinations of the adult male dogs and later measured the height of the urine marks and the degree of the raised-leg angles. In the second study, they observed a sample of 45 dogs, specifically noting whether small dogs exhibited larger raised-leg angles than large dogs.
Overall, they found that little dogs lift their legs at higher angles than big dogs, allowing them to shoot their golden showers up at a higher angle than they normally would otherwise. This act, the scientists say, turns urine marking into a “dishonest signal.”
“I believe this is the first research measuring the degree of leg angle in urination,” Patricia Yang, Georgia Institute of Technology Ph.D. candidate and expert in animal urination, tells Inverse. Yang was not involved in the study.
“Dogs urinating with a higher angle against gravity have a slower urinary jet, and thus it takes longer to urination,” Yang says. “This could be beneficial or be putting the animal at risk. The scent of urine mars their territories but also exposes them to predators — the tradeoff is critical for survival.”
McGuire and her team reason that little dogs pee like resting flamingos because it might be uniquely beneficial for small dogs to exaggerate their body size through high-scent marks. A higher pee implies that a bigger body is what shot it out: By aiming high, little dogs might be masking their Napoleon frames and tricking neighborhood pups into thinking a larger dog has claimed that territory. Meanwhile, peeing above the mark left by a previous dog gives them a literal leg up in marking something as theirs. This research aligns with previous studies conducted on dwarf mongooses and panda bears, the latter of which literally moves into a handstand when it pees in order to get its scent higher up.
Scientists believe that the olfactory nature of urine conveys information about the animal’s gender, age, health, and fertility to other animals going in for a sniff. Dogs have about 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose, which makes them about 40 times better than we are at sniffing. In other words, they’re not going to miss much when they whiff. But what scientists don’t know is if urine conveys a sense of size, and something McGuire wants to study next is the reaction of dogs who do encounter these higher marks. Until then, we’ll let little dogs keep up the charade.