Understanding Dog Marking Behaviors

Updated on September 23, 2016
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Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Dog urine marking
Dog urine marking | Source

Urine marking in dogs isn't just a quick 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? Don't fall into the trap of thinking 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 by some owners upset perhaps because they were hoping that removing the testicles would have magically stopped the marking. The truth is, urine marking is much more than sexual and 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!

So what's urine marking all about? About a whole lot, and much more than what you may think. I am always fascinated by the elimination habits of different dogs who come to my place for board and training. I like to take notes on my observations on their elimination habits. I have seen dogs who mark with their leg up, squatting down or some dexterous ones may even do a sort of head stand. Some will scratch the dirt after the deed, others may be more secretive leaving their mark 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 much 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 in the elimination habits of dogs? It's so varied and interesting. Dogs assume different positions, choose different areas and surfaces, engage in different rituals. It's almost a way humans sign, 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!

Did you know? Dogs don't analyze 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.

Nine Good 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 triggering 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 where other dogs have eliminated. As you may have heard, sniffing other dog's urine is like "reading pee-mail", sending "Tweets" or reading important headlines of what is going on 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.

"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 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 Dogs.org "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.

"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 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 head stand 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!

" 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.

"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 to disguise other contender males throwing them off the scent.

"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.

"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 which 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.

"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 play time 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.

"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!"

"I am 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.

Tell me how your dog marks and I'll tell you something about your dog

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 conducting 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!

Must see: Amazing dog peeing while doing a handstand!

© 2014 Adrienne Janet Farricelli


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    • profile image

      Anne 3 months ago

      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!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 months ago from USA

      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.

    • profile image

      Thiswelshgirlcan 5 months ago

      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.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 11 months ago from USA

      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.

    • profile image

      Tony 11 months ago

      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?

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      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 W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      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!" ☺

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      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.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      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.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

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

    • shaymarie profile image

      Shay Marie 3 years ago from California

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

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      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!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      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.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      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!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      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

    • Alphadogg16 profile image

      Kevin W 3 years ago from Texas

      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.