Dog body language – scratching

Why does my dog always scratch his collar?

Dogs will purposely scratch themselves around the collar area in order to avoid doing something else. At first I thought this was something annoying my dog did, but lately I’ve noticed the behavior when observing other people and their dogs.

This scratching behavior happens a lot during dog obedience classes. If a dog does not feel like doing a command, he will instead scratch himself for a few seconds while the owner stands there patiently waiting for the dog to stop scratching.

This puts the dog in control.

The owner is unintentionally communicating to the dog – go ahead, take your time. You don’t have to do what I say until you feel like it. The dog is usually dominant or high-energy and the owner is not assertive enough.

But submissive dogs will also scratch themselves in order to avoid doing something else.

My mutt Ace is a submissive dog, and he will scratch himself around the collar in order to avoid doing something he’s uncomfortable with. My cats like to mess with him by cornering him in a certain area. If I call Ace to me, he might whine for a second but then he scratches himself in order to avoid walking by the cats. My dog definitely does not have an itch every time my cats corner him 🙂

Ace’s scratching is often followed by him shaking off his entire body as though he just jumped out of a lake. That shaking behavior is like letting out a huge sigh of relief (glad I made it by those mean cats!).

Dogs “shake off” all the time after greeting one another, ending a play session or even after being scolded. The shaking behavior is kind of like a re-set button. It’s a signal that the dog is moving on to something else.

I’ve noticed that if I leave Ace in a stay position long enough, eventually he will scratch himself, shake his entire body and then walk off as though I’d never given him the stay command. I don’t know if he is aware he’s doing this or if he truly has forgotten about the stay command by this point. I’m pretty sure he’s purposely doing it because if something “exciting” is happening and I put him in a sit-stay, he will start scratching almost immediately and then try to get up.

Some dogs will scratch themselves when they are interacting with other dogs to show that they are not a threat. It’s like the dog is saying “I’m busy minding my own business.” This is also followed by the dog shaking his whole body and then walking up to or away from the other dog in a relaxed or playful manner.

You may have noticed your dog pretending to smell the grass when really he is keeping an eye on the other dog. This is another way of communicating that he is not threatening. It’s a good way to trick the other dog into coming over to investigate and then get him to play a game of chase!

Cats and humans

This scratching behavior is not so odd when you think about how humans pretend to groom themselves or act interested in something else during uncomfortable situations. I know I play with my hair or look at my nails or pretend to read a text message when I’m trying to avoid eye contact or avoid answering a question.

Cats do a similar action by pretending to be heavily involved in licking themselves after you call them or tell them to do something. My cat Scout does this every time I call his name. I’ll say, “Come here, Scout!” and he immediately licks himself for a few seconds then slowly takes a few steps towards me, stops and licks himself again and then a minute or two later casually walks up to me as though he intended to come to me on his own.

If Scout tries to jump up onto a shelf but falls, he will immediately start licking himself or scratching himself as though nobody saw him wipe out. Hmm, pretty sure that’s what I do too when I trip or slip. I immediately focus my attention on something else as though nothing happened 🙂

Do you notice your dog scratching himself in order to avoid something else?

I realize that sometimes the dog actually does have an itch or he may have fleas, other bug bites or a skin condition.


23 thoughts on “Dog body language – scratching”

  1. OMG! This makes so much sense now. I wondered why my shepherd seemed to do a lot of scratching. Thank you.

  2. Yup, this is so true. Our new adoptee is doing a bit of collar scratching. If he’s overwhelmed, confused, or uncomfortable dealing with our resident dog when stuff is going on, he plops down and scratches his collar. I researched it, because I was sure it was an avoidance technique.

    In his case, I consider it a healthy self-regulating behavior. It’s very different from “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you, because I don’t want to do that.” He’s saying, “This is too much, I need a time out,” and he’s doing it in safe way. It communicates to me that I need to give him a moment to adjust or that something was coming on too strong.

    Context is everything in figuring out if the avoidance behavior is a sign of the dog choosing something else over obeying you or a dog who was put in a conflicted situation that overwhelms him or her.

  3. Amanda Steiner

    Awesome post! I first noticed this in my dog when I would take him out to the bathroom, and as we are walking along he’ll just plop himself down and scratch around his collar. At first I thought his collar was itchy, but I realized that he doesn’t do it on walks or that frequently at other times. Now I take it as a “I don’t need to use the bathroom” sign. I’ve also noticed it during stays, as you pointed out with Ace. Eli does this especially when we are eating and I put him in a down stay. He will lick or scratch himself, get up, shake off and wonder away like there was no stay command. And now that you mention it, I often see dogs shake off or scratch after a good play session. It all makes so much sense now that you’ve posted this! 🙂

    Shay, I liked what you said about how it can be a sign that the dog is getting overwhelmed, that’s a good point! It’s just a matter of getting to know your dog and their body language and behaviors.

    Also Lindsay, the points about humans and cats doing basically the same behavior is interesting! I often fidget with my hands when I’m uncomfortable about a situation. The description of Scout is pretty funny though, typical cat 🙂

  4. I hate it when my mutt, Keira, does this when we’re training! I know she’s trying to get out of obeying me. I want her to instantly follow my commands, but she doesn’t always. When she tries the scratching thing as a delaying tactic, I always tell her “ah-ah” and give the command again. If she still doesn’t do it, I usually go over and make her! It’s annoying as hell, but I don’t want her to think she can get away with that kind of thing.

  5. Lindsay Stordahl

    Good point, Shay. The scratching is often communicating that the dog is feeling overwhelmed.

    Amanda, that’s interesting about Eli scratching when he doesn’t need to go to the bathroom.

    Lisa, I get annoyed with Ace sometimes too. It happens the most at the front door when someone is visiting. If I put him in a sit-stay he almost immediately starts scratching and then gets up. Very frustrating. But, he’s doing it because he’s been getting away with it – my fault.

  6. Wow, I never really put it together that scratching is something that a do will do when they’re overwhelmed, avoiding something, uncomfortable, etc. Now that I think about it, Gustav does this sometimes. I’ll have to pay more attention to it now. He’s also quite laid-back so it’s probably his way of avoiding something. Then again, he also just plants his 130lbs and doesn’t move when he really wants to mess with me.

  7. Lindsay Stordahl

    Haha! You’ll have to let me know if you notice him purposely scratching as a way of avoiding something.

  8. Christie Lindemann

    I’ve been watching Buddy since the scratching post and I haven’t noticed anything unusual…however this afternoon while we were on our usual walk, I did notice something that he he has been doing for months. When we are about 2 blocks from home, he searches for a stick and when he finds one, he promptly finds a suitable place and lays down to chew. He avoids my commands as he is chewing away, and I know that he can hear me because his eyes are looking at me! In fact, when I do talk to him, he chews faster! It is actually kind of funny because usually I’m not in a hurry to get home either and I am totally letting him take control. I have actually had people stop and ask if he was ok. Shame on me.

  9. Pingback: Is Your Dog Blowing You Off? | The Dedicated Dog Owner

  10. Duke totally does that too! In fact he did it today at Rally class! I never really thought about it before but whenever we set up to run through the course he always scratches himself before we start when I am asking him for his attention. The instructor said to me tonight “don’t let him do that, he’s trying to avoid you or it could be a sign of stress.” I never thought about it but it makes sense and then the very same night I read your post, too funny!

  11. Lindsay Stordahl

    Ha! Yeah that is funny! Now you will be more aware of it. I have a feeling there are a lot of signals we don’t pick up on 🙂

  12. Great post! I had never encountered this behavior until Emmett and I were doing the therapy dog training. The instructor required us to repeat the same exercises over and over and over again… after several repetitions, Emmett would stop between turns to scratch and scratch. I would say to the trainer, “One sec, he has an itch.” Finally, she said to me, “He doesn’t have an itch. He just doesn’t want to do this anymore, so he’s stalling!” I was so surprised, but now I notice whenever he gets frustrated or bored during training, he scratches his collar… my cue to make it more interesting/exciting for him!

  13. I think my dog does it to get my attention because he knows it makes lots of noise. When he is in his space, I never hear the scratching. If I go into the kitchen or if I am working on my laptop, he will sometimes sit about 5 feet away and start going to town. Because it DOES get my attention, he continues to do it.

    When I take the collar off he doesn’t do it nearly as much. It’s a thin chain collar so the collar itself isn’t the cause of the “itch”.

  14. Lindsay Stordahl

    That’s interesting! Thanks for your comment. My dog seems to scratch for attention, too. He also shakes his whole body. I have to take his collar off him at night or I don’t get any sleep, and he doesn’t even sleep in my bedroom. With his collar on, I can hear him scratching from pretty much anywhere in the house!

  15. Lindsay – thanks for the reply. I do the same. When I take Billy’s collar off, it’s really interesting that he seems to scratch less. I would be able to feel him and hear him on the bed, yet it does seem like with collar off – lots of less noise and scratching! One thing I still have a problem with is his gnawing on the base of his tail. I think this is anxiety or boredom, not so much an actual itch. When I catch him he stops and won’t go back to it. If I don’t stop him he makes that area so wet that I can’t have him on furniture. I had him on Calmiclome (however it’s spelled) for awhile but he did it back then, too. Not sure what to do about it. Vet says his skin and coat are fine.

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