Updated: Aug 17, 2021
by: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Urine marking is amongst several methods of scent-marking that dogs perform. After all, dogs rake their hind legs to release scent glands from their toe pads, rub their bodies against owners/furniture/objects, express anal glands, and poop in precise locations. These are all fascinating behaviors to the keen observer! However, I would say that urine-marking is the one that gets the most attention from owners. There are few things more noticeable to an owner than when their dog begins peeing inside the home. Walking a dog who lifts his leg every ten feet can also be frustrating, but it is a common occurrence. Urine marking is difficult for researchers to study because it is difficult to gather data on vast numbers of dogs, where they do or do not mark, whose urine they are marking (if any is present at all), and the proximity of the urine to other locations of concern to the dog. Even with such data, it leaves much for owners, trainers, and behavior experts to posit the purpose of it. There are numerous factors that come into play for this natural behavior to manifest. We will explore the research into canine urine marking and then discuss how we address this behavior effectively when it occurs inside our homes.
When is it normal behavior and when is it a behavior problem?
Owners may believe their dog is acting vindictively when they urine mark in the home, but I can assure you that this is not the case for many reasons. It is impossible to make sweeping proclamations as to its purpose and meaning when it comes to urine marking. It can be a fine line to delineate between normal urine marking behavior and a behavior problem. Owner tolerance and expectations on when/where it is appropriate to urinate come into play with determining whether it is a behavior problem. Sometimes as we will discuss further below, urine marking can be indicative of a medical issue and warrants a visit to the veterinarian. We need to understand the reasons for the behavior if we want to determine its appropriateness and/or potentially modify it. Note that I say “modify” and not “stop”. Dogs are going to urinate and they are going to mark, but we have to help them to do so where it is appropriate by both personal and cultural standards. What is appropriate both on a person and cultural level varies significantly. For example, some agility rings are outdoors on grass, dirt, or sand but marking inside the agility ring is not appropriate. We actively try to prevent dogs from performing that behavior and instead may allow dogs to do a sniff walk to mark prior to entering the agility ring. This is a healthy and culturally-appropriate outlet for the behavior. Similarly, some dogs only eliminate inside the home since they do so on training pads, while other dogs are taught to never eliminate inside the home.
What We Know About It
Anyone who has spent much time around dogs has probably already noticed that urine marking is largely a dimorphic behavior. Males are far more likely to mark than females (Cafazzo 2012). Both neutered and intact males mark, although a study of dogs at two animal shelters found that males marked significantly less following neutering, with the percentage of decrease ranging from 14% to 72% (McGuire 2019). Females mark most often when in estrus (in “heat”), likely to share information on their reproductive status. A study of free-ranging domestic dogs found that males were most likely to mark territorial boundaries and inside their territory, in areas where they are fed, and in aggressive encounters with other dogs, especially around females in estrus (Cafazzo 2012). Similarly, a study on a small sample size of working livestock guardian dogs found marking along the boundaries of the territory as well as inside their territory, although the rate at which individual dogs marked varied widely (Bidder 2020). Scent-marking of territorial boundaries – which is also observed in wolves and coyotes – is possibly a method of warding off potential threats without the risk of injury or death that may come with physical altercations (Bidder 2020, Cafazzo 2012). In a similar vein, an earlier study of coyotes led researchers to the theory that these wild canids may be more responsive to the urine of other males when engaged in acquiring or maintaining territory (Bekoff, Wells 1986).
Marking inside one’s own territory may be a means of social communication with others who reside within that territory. Dog behavior consultants observe that domestic dogs mark more frequently and in inappropriate locations when they are stressed. Researchers in a recent study of livestock guardian dogs posited that stress over access to important resources may be the reason for the differing rates of territorial marking they observed (Bidder 2020). observed raised leg urination primarily in males in marking territorial boundaries and aggressive scenarios, while a thrusting posture of urination was more frequently observed in females during estrus and with defense of food (Cafazzo 2012). Free-ranging dogs have also been observed to mark territorial boundaries more frequently during the rainier seasons, presumably due to increased dispersal of scent molecules (Bidder 2020).
Therefore, urine-marking is a natural and essential behavior for domestic dogs, free-ranging dogs, and their wild canine cousins to communicate with one another so the places and ways in which dogs mark are considerable in scope. Owners may observe dogs urinate in these circumstances: marking other dogs' urine on walk; marking in front of the home/property of a rival dog; urinating upon entrance to a dog park; urinating along their own property especially at boundaries and access points, urinating/marking inside the home, marking during heat cycles, marking people/dogs/other animals, urinating with excitement (e.g. young puppies seeing visitors to the home), and/or urinating spontaneously in fear or panic (e.g. loud noise, separation anxiety).
Why do our dogs do this?
Since dogs cannot speak to us much of what is left is speculation based on what we are able to observe. Urine-marking a particular location (e.g. dog bed, human’s bed, sofa, on a person/animal) may be an attempt to claim priority access to that location or the person/animal who frequently occupies it. Marking in locations where there seems to be less personal connection (e.g. on curtains, the back of a sofa, on walls) could signal intense stress and anxiety. Indoor marking is most likely to manifest in response to a new stressor that is introduced in a dog’s life. Examples include a new dog in the home, moving to a new home, a change in work schedules, a new baby or roommate, or an illness that affects how much attention or enrichment the dog receives.
The communication dogs are trying to convey with this behavior is not always clear. Some marking behaviors are simpler to reach an explanation. For instance, our two male Kooikerhondjes (one neutered, one intact) urine-mark and defecate at the entrances to our large property and also right outside the front entrance to our home where visitors would enter. This behavior increases in frequency when we have had more students visiting the agility arena on our property. Being a breed that was originally bred to perform watchful behaviors, they are a bit territorial and may experience some stress when they smell that there have been visitors (in their view, intruders!) on the property. We sometimes pass the home of a particular male Labrador Retriever who frequently barks aggressively at them during their walks. Both of my male dogs will urine-mark repeatedly on that dog’s fence line. My intact male will perform a handstand to mount his hind end into the air to defecate against the fence. Whatever message they are sending is loud and clear! I believe it is very likely a message about territory.
Several behavior cases I have worked involved dogs who purposely marked the owner’s leg or they marked another dog who lives in the home. I assume that the dog is attempting to claim priority access to that person or dog, but it is not entirely clear. What is clear is that in every one of these cases the dog doing the marking was showing other signs of anxiety that needed to be addressed. Once those were addressed the marking behaviors ceased. When COVID quarantines were coming to an end, owners were going back to work and I received multiple appointment requests for random marking in the home. Male dogs (both neutered and intact) were marking walls, sides of the furniture, and curtains. In each of these cases, there were signs of separation distress and intense stress about the changes going on in the home, which manifested as marking behavior. Once the stress and anxiety were addressed the marking behaviors went away in every case.
How do we address indoor marking behavior? Thoughtfully
We address these marking behaviors in many ways, but carefully with preparation and planning. A plan may include increased enrichment so dogs can better cope with the stress, desensitization protocols (in the case of separation issues), relaxation protocols, increased routine and structure that give the dog more control over his life and environment, and sometimes, working with veterinarians to find effective anxiety treatments to use alongside training. If there is a toxic or hostile situation with another dog, person, or other situation that is causing stress then we must address that, too. Stress and anxiety are most frequently the culprits behind this behavior manifesting in the home, and they can also increase marking behavior outdoors. A well-fitted washable belly band can help prevent dogs from receiving reinforcement for performing this behavior (getting their scent on household objects) while we continue to work on addressing the underlying causes. Baby gates to limit access to a smaller, safe location versus free-reign of the home can sometimes be helpful as well, although I do not like to limit their movements too much if it can be avoided. Dogs already lack autonomy so further restrictions on their very limited freedom can also be a source of stress. Severely restricting freedom in the home for long periods should only be done so if it is in the dog’s best interest and if there other solutions are not feasible. Make sure to clean urine-marked locations thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner.
It is important to note that there usually were other signs of stress and anxiety that were overlooked by owners, but urine marking is one sign that grabs people’s attention. Marking can also be a useful tool to relieve social stress. I have observed dogs enter a dog park or other groups of unfamiliar dogs and noticed that some dogs quickly find a spot to urinate. The group of dogs who were swarming the new dog would quickly direct their attention to the urine, likely in order to gather information on this newcomer, and the newcomer could escape from the stress of being surrounded by new dogs. Marking can also be hormonal. Male dogs may begin marking if a female dog in the home or nearby goes into heat. They may also encounter the scent of a female dog in heat while on walks and begin marking. Female dogs may begin marking while in heat to convey their reproductive status. Keeping male and female dogs separated in the home during heat cycles can be helpful, as well as putting a diaper on the female to reduce the dispersal of the scent and a belly band on the male to reduce marking.
No matter how frustrated you may be to find urine in the home, make sure not to yell or punish your dog. This will not stop the behavior but will only encourage your dog to do it in your absence. Additionally, if stress and anxiety are causes of your dog’s marking this will only add to the stress and possibly increase the frequency of the behavior.
Sometimes “Why?” is difficult to ascertain
We may not know outside of the home whether our dogs are marking or over-marking where someone else has already marked. We do not fully understand the meaning behind marking to begin with, but we know even less about overmarking. Does it have a different meaning when it is a familiar dog versus an unfamiliar one? Is there a different meaning when they over-mark an individual of the same sex, and if neutered versus intact? Additionally, there is the phenomena of adjacent marking where a dog (usually male) urinates next to another dog’s urine. My two boys frequently do this with my senior spayed female dog. They line up as soon as she eliminates to adjacent mark her urine, as if they are saying “I’m with her!”. We really do not know though. That is just my best guess. A years-long study by Dr. Bekoff catalogued the urine-marking patterns of his neutered male dog on neighborhood walks had several interesting observations. Dr. Bekoff found that Jethro quickly discriminated between his own urine from the urine of other dogs and that he sniffed other male and female dogs’ urine for the same amount of time. However, he marked over male dogs’ urine significantly more often than he marked female dogs’ urine. This study needs to be repeated with additional subjects to see if these observations are consistent (Bekoff 2001). We can speculate into the reasons why dogs mark over male dogs urine more frequently than females while on neighborhood walks – possibly to establish or maintain territory like their wild canid cousins -- but it is honestly just that: speculation.
In conclusion, no matter our feelings about it we should remember that marking is a normal and essential means of canine communication, but we can teach boundaries about which places are acceptable for eliminating. When they mark indoors long after having learned not to do so they are communicating something… including to us. We need to respond, but not in a reactionary manner. Instead, we need to address what is triggering the behavior in the first place to eliminate this behavior in the home and help our dogs live their best life.
Bekoff, Marc. “Observations of Scent-Marking and Discriminating Self from Others by a Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris): Tales of Displaced Yellow Snow”. WellBeing International: WBI Studies Repository. 2001. https://www.wellbeingintlstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1045&context=acwp_ena
Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes”. Adv. Study Behav. 1986.
Bidder, O.R., di Virgilio, A., Hunter, J.S. et al. "Monitoring canid scent marking in space and time using a biologging and machine learning approach". Scientific Reports. 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-57198-w#citeas
Cafazzo, Simona & Natoli, Eugenia & Valsecchi, Paola & Herberstein, M.. “Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs”. Ethology. 2012. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263689219_Scent-Marking_Behaviour_in_a_Pack_of_Free-Ranging_Domestic_Dogs
McGuire, Betty. "Effects of gonadectomy on scent-marking behavior of shelter dogs". Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2019. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787818300704
Youngerman, Claire. “Urine Marking in Dogs”. UC Davis Veterinary Medicine. 2019. https://healthtopics.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/health-topics/canine/urine-marking-dogs