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Understanding Dog Marking Behaviors

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dog urine marking

Dog urine marking

Dog Marking

Urine marking isn't just a trickle of urine meant to upset you; rather, it's a form of communication. What is Rover trying to communicate? Dogs may be trying to convey different messages. Are you listening?

Many people assume that only unaltered, intact dogs urine mark. "My dog is neutered and he still urine marks" is something I commonly heard at the vet hospital where I worked. Many owners had hoped that by removing the dog's testicles, they would magically stop the marking. The truth is, urine marking is much more than sexual, and it isn't only triggered by hormones. Both my spayed female and neutered male will urine mark given the chance, and they're definitively not searching for a mate!

Why Do Dogs Urine Mark?

So what's urine marking all about? A whole lot, much more than you may think. I meet many dogs who come to my place for boarding and training, and I like to take note of their elimination habits. I have seen dogs who mark with their leg up or squatting down—some dexterous dogs even do a sort of head stand. Some will scratch the dirt after the deed, while others are more secretive, leaving their mark only in areas of tall grass. Some dogs can be very picky about where they eliminate, while for others, any place will do. Several dogs will carefully gauge the contents of their bladder, making sure they have enough to mark as widely as they can. Then when they eventually run out, they look a bit disappointed as they lift their leg and nothing comes out (dry marking). Then you have those who engage in perimeter marking. I have seen this mostly in livestock guardians. To each their own!

Why am I so fascinated by the elimination habits of dogs? It's so varied and interesting. Dogs assume particular positions, choose different areas and surfaces, and engage in various rituals. Each dog leaves its own signature, in a different manner. Curious to learn more about urine marking in dogs? On your "mark," get set, and go!

9 Reasons Dogs Urine Mark

Urine in dogs has a dual purpose: for emptying the bladder but can also be used for communicative means, basically, the purpose is to trigger a social response in other dogs or other animals. Urine contains pheromones which are chemicals meant to deliver different messages purposely left for a recipient to interpret. This is why dogs are so attuned to sniffing areas that other dogs have eliminated. As you may have heard, sniffing other dogs' urine is like "reading pee-mail", sending "Tweets" or reading important headlines about what is going on in the doggy world. Dogs are constantly scanning the environment for these messages and are also eager to leave their own. Interestingly, dogs don't analyze these pheromones with their noses, but they have an organ purposely built for this task: the vomero-nasal organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ, found within their nasal cavity. Following are some messages dogs use to convey through urine marking.

1. "This is my territory."

As mentioned, I have seen several livestock guardian dogs engaging in what is called "perimeter marking." These dogs are constantly scanning their territory for the presence of threats. Who can blame them? These breeds were selectively bred to protect their livestock and they have a deep need to guard anything, your family, your children, your ducks and even the bird feeder-- if need be. According to Livestock Guardian "When protecting its livestock, the first line of protection is the scent marks left around the perimeter of its yard or field. The next line of defense is barking – an announcement that someone big is on duty and trespassing might be hazardous." These territorial pheromones left upon marking are meant to mark the perimeter of a perceived territory.

Similarly, free-ranging mother dogs are seen scent marking near their dens which may suggest an effort to discourage intruders from entering that area.

2. "Rover was here!"

Does your dog coincidentally urinate right by the driveway where other dogs live? If so, he may be leaving a little bit of pee-mail for his doggy neighbors to sniff when they go on their next walk. You'll also see this form of "tweeting' when your dog is at the dog park and marks around or when your dog marks on vertical items. The choice of vertical items such as lamp posts, fire hydrants or trees is quite common in canines for the simple fact that they are at the nose level of other dogs. It's sort of like putting a big sign at eye level in stores to attract people. You may occasionally stumble upon tenacious small dogs who will almost do a headstand just to be able to mark on a vertical item to add their own little message. What do these messages convey? A whole lot! By sniffing marked areas, the recipients learn more about things such as the sex, identity and reproductive status of the marker.

Some dogs may also scratch the dirt after the deed. This is almost an attempt to add a visual marker to the olfactory one. It's almost as if dogs were putting an arrow as to say "follow this line of scratched dirt and at the end of it, yes, urine" explains Ian Dunbar. On top of that,consider that there are secreting pheromones found in the glands of the dog's feet, so dogs who scratch are also leaving another olfactory element on top of the urine left. Interestingly, Alexandra Horowitz in her book " Inside of a Dog" reports this behavior being more likely on windy days when the message could be more readily waft away. How interesting!

3. "Female in heat, here!"

And then you have the special urine left behind from the famous French poodle in estrus. When used to mark, this special urine draws male dogs as honey draws bees even from considerable distances. What's in it? According to VCA Animal Hospital "The urine contains pheromones and hormones, both of which signal any interested males..."For this reason, many encourage owners of intact females not to take them on walks while in estrus as this would certainly attack many contestants.

4. "She is mine!"

This is a bit similar to territorial marking, but more than territory this form of marking conveys possession of something other than territory. I have seen male dogs mark over the scent of a female as if to declare they possess the girl almost as a husband would give a ring to tell others that their wife is already "taken." Pal (2003) conducted some research on urine marking and found that male dogs used to engage in what he classifies as "Raised Leg Displays" that is, "dry marking" in courtship ad perhaps it has a competitive, agonistic function. Bekoff seems to agree, since this behavior was mostly seen when another dog was present. It's as if the marking in this case assumes an "ownership function." Dunbar and Buehler though also hypothesize that the marking behavior may also be a way to cover the female's scent so as to disguise other contender males from throwing them off the scent.

5. "Coping with a stressful situation here."

And then you have urine marking when a dog is stressed by novelty and changes in his environment. Don't blame Rover for urinating on your guest's luggage or on the bed where he just slept; he's marking from stress in an effort to "make things smell familiar again." Typically, these dogs will not urine mark on vertical objects as seen in the "I was here" social media style marking, but will mark on the new items in question. Kleiman (1966) in Behavioral Effects of Domestication volume 1, discusses how urine marking may be used to secure an unfamiliar place or object by rendering it familiar with the scent.

6. "SOS: Distress Call!"

The saying "I almost peed my pants" applies to dogs as well, I have indeed seen my fair share of dogs who urinated when they were frightened by something perceived as scary. I have seen this form of urination in a Yorkie that the owner told me a previous trainer claimed him to be "dominant aggressive" towards people entering his home. I evaluated this dog, and sooner than later, figured out the dog was really acting out of fear as he left a dribble of urine when he faced a stranger coming into his home and tried attacking this person with barking, lunging and nipping at the heels.

7. "Life is so exciting!"

More commonly known as "excitement urination", you'll see this occur mostly in puppies and young dogs when they greet people at the door, during playtime or when they receive attention. Excitement is a strong emotion that causes quite powerful physical responses, and urination is one of them, especially seen in dogs who haven't attained good bladder control. Luckily, as the pups grow and their ability to hold it better increases, the problem fades away and becomes a memory of the past.

8. "Just didn't know what to do"

At times, urine marking can occur when the dog feels overly aroused or overstimulated in some social situations. The marking in this case, takes place as a displacement behavior. In this case, the dog may mark anything found nearby and this may include people, other dogs, or anything else. The marking takes often place as if the dog wasn't even aware of it—almost as if his neurons weren't connecting. You can almost see the dog at times react as "ooops!" This urine just came out!"

9. "I'm just a lowly worm."

Most commonly known as submissive urination, you'll see this behavior occur when the puppy or young dog is a tad bit intimidated and is showing appeasement signals of submission such as ears back, whining and lip licking. Most likely, the puppy will roll over his back and urinate as he exposes the inguinal area. This is quite a vulnerable position to assume and it clearly shows that the pup doesn't come in harm. Indeed, Ian Dunbar suggests, the pup is saying "I am lowly worm, I respect your higher rank, and I would like to be friends." This behavior can be seen when the pup is approached by other dogs or people. It can be triggered by looming over or engaging in other body postures the pup finds a bit intimidating or when the pup is scolded. The urine emitted by the puppy is also a clear signal of their intent not to harm, indeed, other dogs will smell the urine and understand it's just a puppy and perhaps may grant them a puppy license.

Closing Thoughts

Can you learn something about your dog's personality by the way he marks, just as some people can predict personality traits by just looking at a person's handwriting? Who knows, there may be chances we may be able to see patterns based on marking behaviors among dogs who share some traits. I wished more studies were conducted on this and I ponder about this subject quite often. It would be wonderful to conduct more research on canine elimination habits just to see if there are common factors. So far, I have noticed that several introvert dogs tend to eliminate almost secretly and will take a while to find an appropriate spot to eliminate; whereas, extrovert dogs eliminate freely and in plain view when the need comes. Is it just a coincidence or is there more to it? I would love to hear your thoughts on your dog's elimination habits and personality!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Our 18-month-old dog marks on our sofa and only when he is at home alone with my eldest son. Can there be a reason for this?

Answer: There may be several reasons. Perhaps he suffers from separation anxiety and is peeing from the anxiety of detaching from a person he is particularly attached to. Perhaps, he knows your son may not correct him as others in the household do. Perhaps despite your son being home, he feels vulnerable and pees from stress.

Question: My housebroken dog recently will go urinate outside then come in and lift his leg in my house in different areas. I'm beyond frustrated with this and don't know what to do. Do you have any advice? He is a 10-year-old male dog.

Answer: In a dog of this age who was housebroken, it would be important ruling out a medical condition. A veterinary evaluation therefore would be a good starting point. The vet may run some blood and urine tests to rule out or confirm medical reasons such as diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, Cushing's disease, Addison's disease and hypercalcemia.

Once medical causes have been ruled out, the next step would be treating it as a behavioral problem. Stress can cause marking behaviors in dogs and any changes in the household may do this. In an older dog, canine cognitive dysfunction (just like senility in elderly people), can cause changes in behavior and inappropriate urination or defecation.

.Clean all areas with an enzyme based cleaner such as Nature's Miracle. When outside make sure that he empties his bladder even though this means having him go multiple times to mark in various places. Manage any new stress if there are any new changes in the household. Prevent access to the areas he is marking in the home. You will have to go back to square one as if potty training all over and keep an eagle eye on him to stop him before he goes and escort him outside and praise and reward him for going.

Question: I think my two, male 9-month-old wirehaired pointing griffons have what look like tantrums.

Do you think dogs could urinate as a way to "back talk" if they don't get their way?

Answer: Dogs do not typically act out of spite as humans do. Most likely, they may engage in "submissive urination" if this happens the moment you scold or reprimand them. This is an appeasement signal meant to calm other dogs or people down and convey that they are not a threat.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 05, 2020:

Hi Sabrina.

This is so sweet that you were able to re-unite them. My Rottweilers were litter mates and they were very attached. I can say that as my female got older, my male too started to over mark her pee. So who knows, maybe they sense them getting weaker or something and they are trying to cover up something? We can only guess. My male was very in tune with my female and her health. He would even know when she had to vomit, some minutes before the fact. He even knew when she was about to die. They get very attached. I really hope it's not cancer.

SabrinaMatthews on September 05, 2020:

My 9 year old boxers are brother and sister from the same litter. My male was born first and my female was born second actually. They recently were reunited and both are fixed and it was an instant connection. Now they do everything together, she won't even go outside unless he does. I have noticed in the last few months though that he has been marking everywhere she urinates or defecates. Recently as in a couple days ago we had a mass taken off her foot and the vet said it may be cancer. Could this be connected to his marking since they are so close?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 09, 2019:

Hi Jessie, so sorry you are dealing with this, it does sound very frustrating! If you have reprimanded him in the past, this may trigger him to go hide and get sneaky. Read about this here:

On top of that, reprimanding some sensitive dogs may also trigger what is known as submissive urination. Read about this here:

So your dog needs to learn to potty outside using a reward--based system. You also want to reward when your gives out signals he has to potty, which is likely the opposite of what you have likely been doing. You may therefore have to go back to basics, crate training or creating a den-like area with an exercise pen and keeping him there when you cannot supervise. When you can supervise, praise and reward when he goes towards the door, open the door and when he goes out to potty, praise and reward as well. Temporarily, you can also use belly bands, until he learns how rewarding it is to potty outside. Make sure to clean marked areas with enzyme-based cleaners. Also, make sure to always have a clear view of him (remove furniture that blocks view.)

Jessie on December 06, 2019:

Please help me!

I have 3 dogs:

17 year old hospice female who we rescued to live out her last years, pit bull over bred for puppy mills.

5 year old family dog, well behaved Rhodesian Ridgeback/Mastiff cross fixed male.

And the problem dog:

7 year old small dog that’s a rescue dog, very small and mixed. “Teddybear”.

We got Teddybear over 5 years ago when it was just my daughter (then 5) and myself. 4 years ago the problems began. I moved into my parents house 2 months before moving into our permanent home with my boyfriend of several years. My parents had a older pit mix fixed female. Teddybear began peeing and pooping on everything related to my father. My father was very loving toward him until this started.

Then we moved into our home with the hospice female. He began peeing and pooping EVERYWHERE in the house. I could never catch him he’s very slick. Then when we got our big family dog he got worse. I’ve done EVERYTHING for 4 years now to retrain him. He KNOWS and is very sneaky. If we even pet him his markings multiply! He’s pooped on Christmas gifts, repeatedly in my daughters bedroom, and won’t come to us because he knows. He’s become “feral” almost! I’ve reprimanded him, I’ve locked him up, confined him when we’re not home (which is a struggle to catch him) and nothing works. He’s making our lives and home MISERABLE!! I’ve about had it after 4 years!! I’m in near tears. You can’t eveb give him attention because it becomes more severe!! And personal; he’ll mark your things specifically if you pet him!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 25, 2019:

Hi Emily,

Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why dogs do certain things. Until they can talk, we can only make some assumptions. Perhaps in your area there is some breeder who has female dogs in heat? Perhaps he feels particular about something in this house.

Emily on November 08, 2019:

Not sure if this will be seen, but wondering if there’s an answer to this: When my mom visits with her intact male, he marks all over my house. He’s not allowed to come anymore obviously. He visits other homes and doesn’t do it there so I’m very confused why he would be at my house. I have a neutered male but the other homes he visits have dogs as well. So why my house?!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 05, 2018:

Tonya, it "may be" your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. This would require a behavior modification protocol that would require some effort and time. It may help to enlist the help of a dog trainer experienced in this field. There are several great books about it too.

Tonya on March 31, 2018:

Our Schnauzer urinates/marks only when we leave him alone. What can we do to control this? I’m assuming it is stress marking, because he don’t like being left alone.

Sharon on March 18, 2018:

I am helping with an Assistance Dog who is 5 years old and is required not to cock his leg when urinating. Whilst i know how to shape this behaviour when he is a puppy i am unsure the best way to shape not cocking his leg when urinating at this age. Perhaps capturing, mark and reinforce just before his leg goes up or when he squats to defecate. I only wish to teach through positive reinforcement. I would love to hear from anyone who has practiced the above. Thank you Sharon

Anna on March 06, 2018:

My dog is intact and licks all pee while on walk. Should I be allowing this behaviour?

Anne on October 27, 2017:

My 10 month old Eskie has started peeing in the house since our cocker spaniel died. Sometimes 3 or more times a day and usually in my vicinity. He is neutered and marked all the way around the kitchen island while I was seated at it, peed on the bed near me after he came in from a potty break before bed, pees near me while watching tv, you name it, he does it. I'm so frustrated!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 25, 2017:

Thiswelshgirlcan, that's an interesting observation. Hopefully one day more studies on dog marking behavior will come out and help us better understand these behaviors.

Thiswelshgirlcan on September 09, 2017:

I have an interesting observation re marking.

I have 3 big dogs. 2 of which mark freely and are real sniffers. My third dog is more selective and while he is interested in sniffing only ever passes water to urinate. He doesn't spot mark and sometimes will only urinate once on a walk whereas my other two mark a lot.

Interestingly, this third dog is also the most problematic of our pack and can be antisocial around other dogs. He is very timid on occasion with humans and also hates loud noise. Personally speaking, it seems to me that he thinks he is pack leader or at least tries to be.

Could this be why his marking behaviour is unusual?

The dog I am referring to is a standard poodle and he has has been castrated.He is 6 yrs old.

My other 2 dogs are a Golden Retriever aged 7 and another Standard Poodle aged 3 but their marking behaviours are very similiar and they will often urinate over each others spot on a loop.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 15, 2017:

Hmm. wondering why it's the carpet in the bathroom, perhaps somebody stepped on some dog poop and it left the scent there?

Anyhow, it's important to clean that rug using a cleaner with enzymes such as Nature's Miracle that eats up the odor. The more he pees on it, the more it smells like a "bathroom" to him and becomes more habit forming.

You can limit exposure to the rug when you cannot supervise, by simply closing the bathroom door or removing the rug. But when you are around and notice he's going in the bathroom, you can try to redirect him with a positive interruptor. You can find a video by kikopup on how to teach this by googling ""How to stop unwanted behavior-the positive interrupter." Once you interrupt, take him outside, and wait for him to urinate finally rewarding him for going outside.

Tony on March 15, 2017:

Over the last couple months my dog has started urinating in our bathroom on our rug in front of the toilet. He has had marking problems in the past but it was mostly at homes where they had a dog too. Never has he peed in our home. I take him everywhere with me. Recently I have changed jobs and work from home more so we aren't traveling around as much as we used to. But I still take him in the car with throughout my week.

Can you give me a few ideas of what I can do to break him of this bad habit?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 30, 2014:

My dogs do too. They'll carefully screen an area and then mark. My female dog significantly increased her marking behavior after a while she recovered from an orthopedic injury. It's almost as if she has some "catching up" to do!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 29, 2014:

Our dogs have always sniffed as we walk and cover interesting smells with a dribble of their own urine as if to say "I was here!" ☺

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 26, 2014:

Now I understand why my dog pees on top of the other dogs' pee. Very informative, didn't know that dog pee can convey so many different messages.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 25, 2014:

Shaymarie, that may fall under the "didn't know what else to do" category. An out of context, dislacement behavior, when a dog is in a social situation and aroused. But in some cases, I have seen that also occur when people smell like another dog and the dog wants to cover the scent. Usually in that case, the dog might carefully sniff first, before lifting the leg.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 25, 2014:

'Logging on" is quite an interesting way to put that, some others say tweeting or leaving 'pee mail".

Shay Marie from California on April 24, 2014:

A weimaraner attempted to urinate on my leg at the dog park yesterday. What do you suppose that's about?

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on April 24, 2014:

How interesting! Once I was at the dog park and one interested observer likened the dog's quick pees as "logging on". Now that I have read this, that analogy totally makes sense!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 24, 2014:

Thanks for the votes up and shares heidithorne. The other day I saw an interesting behavior I haven't seen before. A hound mix dug a whole and strategically peed right in it.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 24, 2014:

Just got back from walking my dogs (who I walk separately). It's interesting that my girl always stops where my boy has been. Love the list of possible "messages." Voted up, useful and shared!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 23, 2014:

Elimination habits of dogs always fascinate me, because there are so many variables and each dog seems to come up with their own. I am collecting data on different habits so to see if there are any patterns, and the results so far are quite interesting!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 23, 2014:

Dogs have such interesting and strange behaviors you have accomplished an informative and useful hub concerning urine marks pointed out the meaning in detail thank you

Kevin W from Texas on April 23, 2014:

This was an interesting & informative read alexadry. I was always under the impression that the urination was more of the law of the jungle type thing, do not enter, territorial marking. Didn't know there was different meanings. Thumbs up on your hub.