Why Do Male Dogs Scent Mark So Much?

Answer: We don’t know, but some research discussed Friday at IFAAB by Dr. Anneke Lisberg might have shed some light on the topic. Those of you who have been following the blog for awhile know that Anneke is one of the few people studying chemical communication in domestic dogs. Although chemical communication is central to communication in many species, including our dogs, it is exceptionally difficult to study and very few people have made the attempt. It doesn’t help that we primates are primarily visual and most of our chemical communication is unconscious.

In previous studies (Lisberg and Snowdon 2009), Dr. Lisberg found that males and females both investigated the urine marks of either sex, although neutered males were less interested in urine from females than from males. Urine produced by intact dogs got more attention than urine from dogs who were spayed or neutered, and unfamiliar urine got more attention than urine from familiar dogs. In addition, dogs who approached the scents with “low- tail positions” spent longer investigating the samples than dogs who approached with high tails.

Lisberg also had found that dogs with high-tail positions were the dogs most likely to get priority access to food if it was tossed inside a circle of familiar dogs. That, by the way, is the standard biological definition of the often mis-used word, “dominance,” which simply indicates which individual animal is going to get  something that everyone wants, usually without fighting about it.

In a more recent study Lisberg collected urine from intact male dogs, some who had approached the urine of other dogs with high tails, some with their tail held parallel to the ground or lower. Thirty intact dogs (15 males, 15 females) were then led to two wooden stakes at ground level, each saturated with urine from a high or low-tailed dog. Order was controlled, so that some dogs encountered the high-tailed urine first and others the opposite.  That is standard methodology to ensure that order itself doesn’t confound the results: an important detail here as you’ll see in a minute.

At first there seemed to be no difference in the dog’s responses to the two samples of urine, but when the data were analyzed with presentation order as a factor, there was an interesting interaction between the kind of urine presented and when it was presented.  Urine from high-tailed dogs, if presented first, got a lot more attention than the other sample. Both male and female dogs spent a lot more time sniffing it than the second sample from the low-tailed dog. However, it did not get more (or less) attention if it was encountered after the first sample. This showed that dogs can smell the difference between urine from high-tailed and low-tailed males, but that they only seem to be taking that difference seriously if the high-tailed urine is encountered first.

Besides duration of sniffing, the study also recorded whether dogs overmarked or not, asking did they respond to the urine by urinating themselves, either directly on top of the urine (overmark) or right beside it (adjacent mark)? Of the 15 males, 7 males overmarked directly onto the urine but only one of those was when the high-tail urine was presented first. (No females overmarked,but several adjacent marked). There appears to be a tendency, both in this research and previous research, to overmark urine from dogs with low-tail positions.  Her previous work (2011) showed that high-tailed males overmarked more than low-tailed males, which suggested that overmarking may be a competitive signal.

In the new study, of the 7 males given the high-tailed urine first, only 1 overmarked, and he overmarked the urine from the low-tailed dog. In contrast, 5 of the 8 males encountering the low-tail urine first overmarked. The trend was only of marginal significance, but the sample is still small and the results suggest that males may be inhibited from overmarking by the extra-strength signal of high-tailed urine.

One of her conclusions is that the overmarking of male urine by other males  likely has a competitive function, and that there is a potential competitive advantage to having one’s urine be discovered first. This makes great sense if you look at dogs as we look at all other territorial species, who often compete both for mates and for territory.  It could enforce the “honesty’ of the signal itself, since it suggests that the mark has been successful at maintaining access to that space: no one else has successfully come through and chased them off or overmarked their marks. That fact that our domestic dogs don’t need to do that as often anymore doesn’t mean it has been eliminated from their repertoire completely.

The implications and applications here are many: For our domestic dogs, it is a reminder of how important chemical communication is between individual dogs. After hearing Lisberg’s first talks on her research I began letting reactive dogs first smell the urine of another dog long before they ever encountered them visually. For wild canids, such as wolves and African Wild Dogs, it might be that the thoughtful placement of urine could encourage individuals of a protected species back into protected areas. (The wolves of Yellowstone, for example, sometimes leave the park where they are protected into areas where they can be killed. Perhaps wildlife biologists could use urine to encourage them back into protected areas?)

In addition, if having one’s urine encountered first matters, perhaps we might have a bit more understanding of why male dogs lift their legs so often on walks, some of them almost obsessively. Most importantly, this research emphasizes how much we have to learn about chemical communication in our dogs, and how wonderful it is that good science is being done (finally!) on the animals that we share our lives with.

MEANWHILE, I’m not on the farm, but I have a question for you. . .

             Can you find 10 things that are different in these pictures?

 

snow 2-28

                       Thursday morning I was in Wisconsin

 

 

bahia

                                     A few hours later I was in San Diego

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Beth with the Corgis says

    One of the reasons I sometimes wish my dogs had tails. *sigh*

    Jack is a prolific marker, and I know he regularly marks where other dogs have been but of course it’s impossible to tell on most surfaces if he’s overmarking or adjacent marking. I know he has certain spots that he is always interested in (we call them “P-mail nodes”. ) He has other spots that he hits unexpectedly, presumably when a strange dog has been through, and he tends to spend more time sniffing those.

    Usually I can tell if someone has been walking a female in season through the area by his reaction (he is neutered, but it appears no one bothered to tell him that).

    Maddie often marks adjacent to where Jack does. She rarely will mark places where other dogs went on her own, but frequently (maybe 30% of the time?) will adjacent mark if Jack overmarks.

    Since mine are show-docked, I have no way of hazarding a guess as to what tail position might be, though Jack generally approaches marking areas with ears pitched which generally (but not always) corresponds with a high tail.

  2. Rose C says

    Right now I’m more inclined to find the 10 things different between the pics than pondering about dog pee :)

    So here goes:
    1. white sky vs blue sky
    2. cloudy gloom vs sunshine bright
    3. leafless branches vs bushy trees
    4. snow-covered trees vs green trees
    5. snow on ground vs green grass and sand
    6. snow-covered benches (somewhere) vs beach loungers
    7. frozen bodies of water vs (warm) blue sea
    8. gray/white motif vs color variety
    9. single file foot tracks vs random foot tracks
    10. where I am vs where I’m not!

  3. Barb Stanek says

    Laughing out loud! Still in Wisconsin!

    Thanks for the article. Very interesting.

  4. Beth with the Corgis says

    I should add that usually when we go to a new place Jack marks the first high blade of grass he comes upon.

  5. says

    I am SO happy to see this research being begun and discussed. Working in off leash groups for the last 12 years, it has become very apparent that chemical signaling is a primary communication mode that we could use to understand better.

    Interestingly, just today my female intact GSD encountered what looked like coyote feces, a few hundred yards from my sheep farm. She carefully overmarked every bit of surface area, sniffing carefully before aiming and remarking until it was covered.

  6. colleen shanahan says

    We live in a rural area with no other male dogs, but, my dog marks where coyotes mark. I have seen coyotes mark, male and female, and my dog marks over it, and specific areas in the woods.

  7. Marion says

    The top picture looks like where I’m at. The bottom one doesn’t.

    Really interesting stuff on marking. I’ve been wondering about that, particularly over the last week or so, since we have a male collie and we just got a foster collie who is also male (both altered). It has been interesting to see them interact, and on our walks around the pond in the park, to see who pees on what.

    Since the beginning of winter, I’ve been able to see what our dog(s) pee on, which makes it more interesting. Somethings both will overmark or adjacent mark, others only one or the other. And they just walk right by huge spots of yellow snow without turning their heads.

    Earlier this week I took them both by myself and wished it wasn’t dark already so I could take pictures of them practicing the art of synchronized peeing. Sometimes they’d lift the same leg, sometimes the opposite. But again, they don’t always pee on the same spots. My non-scientific estimate is that they do it about a third of the time. The foster is more interested in the pee than our dog.

    I would consider them both to be high-tailed dogs when they are out on walks (though the base of their tail is more paralel to the ground than up.)

    On the other hand, the female foster we had previously was obsessive about peeing on everything. She had the “walking pee” down pat. She was also leash-reactive on occasion, but I think that was more because she came to us with barely any frustration control.

    Spring will be a bit disappointing, because it will be harder to tell what the dogs find important.

  8. Martha Kennedy says

    My female dog almost always has a high tail and marks everything, overmarking if she can by standing on her front legs and .. marking. She does this most often when we are in our regular walking territory, but rarely when in new places. My male is consistent, marks a lot, but not as much as she does, tail sometimes up, sometimes down, but it seems more to do with what he scents in the air than what he’s smelling from marking. He does this where ever he goes. Who knows what any of this means. ?

  9. Sharon says

    Interesting blog post about scent marking. I’ve had 2 spayed female dogs and 6 male dogs in my life, and the males were all intact until at least age 3 1/2. However, only one of my dogs was ever a scent marker–and he was also a very pushy “status seeker.”

    I have a strong personal preference for dogs that don’t scent mark a lot. For instance, if I was looking to adopt an adult dog, I would not consider any dog who lifted his leg repeatedly on a test walk. In my experience, dogs that do a lot of leg-lifting also have a slew of personality traits that I won’t like, and are unlikely to be as biddable as I prefer.

    Leg lifting can also be diminished through training, though I believe the training has to occur at a relatively young age. I’m a volunteer instructor with a guide dog charity, and the puppies and dogs are never allowed to lift their legs, even when given permission to pee. The boys are expected to squat just like the girls for their entire lives. This rule is necessary because a blind handler can’t see what the dog is lifting a leg during potty breaks. The dog could be spraying an art exhibit at the park, somebody’s backpack, or a person’s leg. It’s safer to have the dog squat, because then it will only hit grass or pavement. So puppy raisers are instructed to potty males away from anything vertical, and to pull the dog briskly ahead if the dog does try to lift a leg at any time.

    When I walk my own dogs (including intact males), they get one “free pee” where they can sniff and take as long as they want. After that, I don’t slow down or stop for peeing, but walk briskly forward. At home in the fenced yard, they are welcome to lift legs as much as they want, but stop at “once.”

    I will also mention that my intact males do not lift legs indoors when we visit people’s homes, even if our hosts also own intact males. And my current intact male is from a toy breed, which many people don’t expect to be housebroken in the first place. Not only is he house-trained wherever we go, but he can successfully “hold it” on 18 hour airplane flights too.

    I just wanted to add this info, because I think many people buy females thinking that they’ll be less “messy” than males in the urine department.

  10. says

    Hmmm…so what about a female that scent marks everything under the sun with a high tail set while investigating? My girl Holly can’t walk past any previous dogs scent without over-marking or marking nearby. I makes me wonder what the tail-set is and what sex of dog it is that she is either over-marking or next-to marking. She not only over-marks, she also high-marks…lifting her leg like a male and hiking the scent as high as she can.

  11. Kat says

    This is a subject that fascinates me. Ranger is a very high status dog, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in any given group of dogs if he wanted the ‘resource’ he would get it. That said, there aren’t many ‘resources’ he values enough to assert himself to get them. He regularly lets the cat take his food away for example but the cat gets off the sofa is Ranger says to, however, mostly he just shares the sofa with the cat. What I notice walking Ranger through the neighborhood is that he marks with different amounts in different areas; one space might receive a couple short streams another a few drops. If pee is conversation some ‘remarks’ need bigger responses than others. It often seems to me as nose blind as I am that sometimes I can detect a difference in smell from one place he marks to another–as if he subtly changes the chemical composition so the mark he leaves one place smells different from the mark he leaves another place. I wonder if sometimes the mark is ‘addressed’ to a new dog in the neighborhood claiming the territory as his and other times addressed to dogs he knows simply saying ‘yep, I’m still here.’ I know most of the time (upwards of 90% of the time) if one of my dogs pees where I can’t see which one it was I can tell by how it smells whether it was Ranger or Finna (and for those of you who are having visions of me getting down to sniff pee like a dog damp ground wafts smells very high and in the rainy Pacific Northwest the ground is almost always damp. I merely smell the scent that wafts up to my height).

    One more pee story and I’ll stop. I watched Ranger and another high status dog at the park one day having what I had to characterize as a pissing contest. One would mark the other would smell and either overmark or adjacent mark, the original marker would smell and either move to a different area and mark or remark the area under investigation. This went on all around the park for several minutes including a break to hit the water bowl and refuel. Finally, the other dog marked a fence post, Ranger overmarked, the other dog sniffed it for a bit and then went to Ranger and licked his muzzle and they went off to play together. My sense was that they were using chemical communication to negotiate which one would have the higher status.

  12. Sara Watson says

    I must wonder why they would not go further to analyse the urine itself? Since tail position has an effect, does that correlate to testosterone or hormonal levels? I suspect that is very possible.

  13. Nic1 says

    @Kim

    My female also is a prolific scent marker. She squats, but in a high position. Like your dog, she carries her tail high whilst investigating. I’m wondering whether she’s a masculinised bitch. She was spayed at six months when taken in to a shelter as a stray. I think it seems to be a territorial behaviour as she is much more prolific at marking on our regular walks as opposed to new places.

  14. Carolyn says

    I imagine the studies were controlled for the natural tail set of the dogs? For example, a Husky has a naturally high tail set and the tail is naturally held above the 30 degrees above horizontal angle while in a retriever the tail comes straight off the back and should naturally carried horizontal or below.

  15. says

    This is really interesting, but I can’t figure out how it relates to my reactive dog. I never really noticed that he rarely marked or even sniffed urine (he’s my first male dog, ever). And then one day we had snow, and I noticed he walked right past all the yellow snow! When I told my dog trainer friend, she was surprised, saying that most reactive dogs she knew were markers. (He doesn’t urinate much when we walk at all, seeming to prefer to use his own toilet area in our garden.)

    He also pees like a girl…maybe he’s got some gender identity issues :)

  16. says

    @Nic1
    Interesting question…I have no idea when my female was spayed as I she was rehomed to me as an adult and I didn’t think to ask *when* she was spayed. I wish I did!

    She also has some other behavioral “things”…leash reactivity, barrier frustration, and extremely low tolerance (or a complete inability) to greet face to face with another dog…all of this even with dogs she already knows.

    I’d say she marks more often without a deep sniffing investigation in areas she’s really familiar with, but deeply investigates before marking (but will mark just as often) in new areas.

  17. Pam V says

    I have 2 dogs, a spayed 5 year old yorkie and a 5 1/2 year old neutered male cocker spaniel. I’ve had the yorkie for 4 years, but the cocker only a year. The cocker marks in the house occasionally, and occasionally when we’re walking the neighborhood. The yorkie marks everywhere on our neighborhood walks. She definitely is a “high-tail” marker, often lifts her leg like a boy, and sometimes she overmarks the cocker. What a “hot shot”! I need to document his marking in the house. I think it corresponds to having people or other dogs over for weekend visits. I am really interested in this topic and thrilled to see this study.

  18. Laceyh says

    Years ago I had a very undersocialized female, spayed in the shelter as an adult. She was highly pushy – competitive, and would strain her tiny body trying to reach the height larger dogs had marked. One day a group of us watched, laughing, as she and an old black lab had a peeing contest. She couldn’t possibly “win” but gave it her all. With this one it was many months of work and several years of living together before I could
    add a second dog to the household, and then it had to be a large, very tolerant male pup.

  19. Rose C says

    I have 2 spayed dogs but never really paid that close attention to the pattern where my dogs pee. Either there isn’t anything strikingly obvious (or consistent) in their pattern or that there is really nothing to note in their case. I know they sniff areas then choose where to pee. When there is snow like now I am able to see they never pee in an area where another dog obviously did. My dogs are always the ‘submissive’ types when we are outside and when meeting other dogs. But without snow, I cannot tell. Which leads me to want to clarify:

    > for those of you who mentioned that their female dogs overmark, how can you tell (if not on the snow)?
    I know male dogs do because they lift their leg onto a pole/hydrant/fence, etc (but of course I know that all poles/hydrants/fences practically anywhere had been marked by a dog at some point and sometimes they are even permanently stained). For females, I have seen some who mark over an area (ground) that another dog just finished marking, so in this case I can tell a female dog overmarking. Otherwise, how can you tell a female dog overmarking? I’m a little confused.

  20. Martina says

    Marking
    What an interesting topic.
    I have three dogs and at least the marking behaviour of the two adults seems to be contrary to their position. Gina, female, Labrador, turning 5, neutered when almost 2 years old, is a compulsive marker and when in unfamiliar places,, she marks even more. I’ve even seen her trying to raise a leg. In our garden she only marks when another dog is visiting.
    Robby, male, Golden, 3, neutered, marks frequently over (or next to, I can’t really tell) Gina’s pee – when inside our garden. He only started marking outside regularly last summer (when he started using his nose more often), but he’s had some peeing contests with visiting dogs or when at the ‘old’ dog school. On the first walk with our new dog trainer, she was extremely surprised to see that he pees like a girl – while gentle, he defintely is the dominant dog. My explanation is his broken elbow at 6 months, but am not really sure.
    Only recently he started to mark over Mailo’s (male, cavalier, 6 months, intact) pee. Probably at the same time when Mailo started marking, who’s already been observed to try to high mark – on three legs. He’s still perfecting it :-)
    One interesting thing: a foster dog we had a couple of years ago, started using a current bush as his personal peeing post. And every male dog that has since come to visit goes straight to this bush to leave his mark. (Robby just pees around it)
    I hardly ever pay attention to my dogs tail position when sniffing or making, though while their general position is horizontal or upwards, I’ve seen Robby’s tail go down or even tucked between his legs. Occasions when he knows only one direction, straight back home.

  21. Nic1 says

    @Kim

    Wow Kim, how interesting! You could be talking about my dog with regard to those behavioural traits. Lily has got a bit better at greeting other dogs face to face but she doesn’t really seem to like to meet an awful lot of dogs as she is very space sensitive and doesn’t tolerate space invaders very politely. Lily also likes to deeply investigate before marking, but not always. Sometimes, she gets so into sniffing the area before she marks it she’ll drop her ball (which she seems to like carrying like a dummy on walks). I’ll have to monitor in a new area out of interest. I think she probably sniffs more than marks in new areas though. I’ve also had to work really hard with her on self control around her toys, access through doors etc.

    The only reason I know of her history is that the shelter where I adopted her is part of a large organisation in the UK called the Dog’s Trust and they keep immaculate records. She’d been adopted several times prior to us taking her on.

  22. Frances says

    Thinking of the three I walk, the reactive terrier marks constantly – although I have the impression that she is marking less as the work I’ve been doing to reduce her reactivity has begun to take effect. Or it may just be that since we started doing longer walks in less familiar places she is putting a bit more effort into keeping up with the rest of us, instead of trailing behind to check every bush and clump of grass! Sophy, my very self-confident Papillon, marks the most important spots – she scents them from a distance, sniffs for some seconds, and marks very deliberately, usually raising her leg. Poppy, my poodle, who always prefers to have someone else make the decisions, is rarely the first to mark, but will do so if she notices one of the others marking first. When it comes to emptying the bladder, though, Poppy is usually first, with Sophy following on.

    I would find it quite difficult to define status amongst these three. Jill, the terrier, dislikes other dogs in her space, adores her human, and apart from that has two main interests in life – food and rabbits. Sophy is very confident, has learned how to charm other dogs and humans into giving her her own way, plays “big sister” in laying down the law, and can keep control of half the room just by “looking” at Poppy – yet if Poppy or one of the cats gets to the favoured spot at my feet first Sophy just asks me to do something about it. Poppy will always follow the leader – any leader, good or bad – but has had to be carefully taught to share the things she values, like my lap. I think this is why the scientific, rather than folk psychology, definition of dominance made such instant sense to me – in our household who gets what is so often down to who values it most highly, or who gets there first!

  23. Lisa W says

    One of our dogs (also a dog with a docked tail and a spayed female) will over- and adjacent-mark our other dog’s urine in our yard and on walks. If given the chance, she smells our other dog’s urine while our other dog is peeing (we try not to let that happen, it’s just plain rude). She is very thorough and will not leave any pee stone un-turned. She marks coyote scat, other dogs’ urine, old scent marks, you name it. She is about 30 pounds and I have seen her mark while doing a handstand–both back legs in the air. We have also put her compulsion to good use on occasion when we have to leave and she hasn’t peed yet, take her to the spot were our other dog has peed, and we’re good to go!

    Our other dog will go miles out of her way to avoid walking near dogs’ urine or feces. If you take her somewhere for a walk that has been marked heavily around the entrance to the path or trail, she will side step and sometimes drool a little. Clearly not comfortable. I have seen her curl her lip in disgust at some marks or scents. She needs a certain amount of space in the yard to be comfortable enough to go. Needless to say, rest areas on trips are not an option for us!

  24. em says

    Another high-tail, frequent marking, female dog owner here! Sandy marks much more often than Otis, sometimes doing a modified leg-lift, and typically carries her tail high when outside. I’d describe her as mildly status-seeking with dogs (usually does not hesitate to push in boldly if there is a resource she wants, but is at least a little judicious about it with unfamiliar/high status dogs), highly biddable with people. I usually can’t tell if she is overmarking or adjacent marking- she doesn’t follow dogs to pee over top immediately, but I see a ‘sniff-sniff-PEE! move quite a lot- she clearly pees in reaction to other dogs’ marks, I just can’t tell if her own is over it or to the side.

    Otis tends to be a careful sniffer of marks but not a frequent overmarker. He’ll most reliably mark at pee-mail hotspots (where it seems to be adjacent-ish…some of the bushes near the entrance to the park are so saturated it would be hard NOT to be overmarking, but he seldom hits the obviously fresh ones) and seemingly unmarked but visually prominent places (white snow, not a lot of sniffing prior to marking). I would consider him high status in his social interactions, (on the recieving end of lots of face licks and deferential behavior)but not highly competitive.

    The one instance in which he seems reliably driven to overmark is coyote feces or urine. This seems to be fairly universal among the dogs in the park, if they come upon coyote scat, they all (male and female) seem to mark in response. If Otis is alone, he often overmarks, then often marks again in ten feet or so. If he is with other dogs, he waits to mark last (I suspect that this is not deference to them but rather a wish to have the “trump”, top pee, but I can’t say for sure.) Curiously, however, most of the time, he will approach the now thoroughly overmarked coyote excrement, lift his leg a bit, sniff, lower his leg and walk a step or two and mark so that his own pee is clearly adjacent, but just as clearly separate from the rest.

    I have no real idea what this means. It could be deference, I suppose, not wanting to overmark the other dogs as he would the coyote urine/feces alone. My suspicion, however, is that it is not. I don’t have much more than a “gut feeling” to offer as support. I can say for certain that Otis is HIGHLY aggressive toward coyotes- he doesn’t even bother to bark or bluff-charge, when he spots them he launches after them like an arrow from a bow, all deadly seriousness. He’s never caught one (thank heaven!), but I’ve never seen clearer message from body posture- ‘if I catch you near me, you will die.’ Given his hostility, it therefore doesn’t surprise me that he would overmark and carefully scent mark the vicinity as a deterrent when he encounters coyote marks.

    When he chooses to adjacent mark rather than overmark when the rest of the group has already overmarked the coyotes, I don’t think it’s because he’s decided not to mark out of deference to the other dogs, but rather because he wants HIS mark to be clearly readable and undiluted.

    Sometimes when dogs overmark it seems to be competitve, but sometimes they seem to be bolstering each other’s claims. As if a mark means “I’m here” and an overmark means “Me too.” It can be a challenge, with one dog overstriking the first claim, but when dogs who are together pee over one another’s marks, it seems to me like it can also mean, ‘we’re together, so if you’re looking for trouble, look out.” When Otis chooses to pee separately but close to the others, I suspect that he is trying to communicate a more pointed personal claim, “ME, too. I’M here, and if I catch you here, coyote, look out. ”

    In one way, Dr. Lisberg’s study could possibly support my suspicion (in an extrapolated sort of way)- if low status dogs are deterred from over-marking by high status dog urine, but only when that urine is uncompromised by the presence of low-status dog urine, that could suggest that a stand-alone mark might be more effective in staking a claim than an overmark might be. Then again, maybe it is just the opposite, and generally neutral-tailed Otis doesn’t want to mark over the high-tails. What fun to ponder!

  25. Marjorie says

    I have a friend who has a female toy poodle that can out mark any male dog I have ever seen. This little dog (I have NEVER seen this before) even does a hand stand on her two front paws so that she can lift both hind legs up against a hydrant, tree etc. to mark.

  26. Kerry M. says

    One thing I’ve noticed about peeing is that my reactive-but-getting-better dog will almost always mark when he sees another dog he hasn’t met. Since I’ve seen him doing greetings off leash, I know this is part of his ritual and if both dogs were off leash, I can see this is very helpful to a less stressful introduction. I’ve seen him do the dance that Kat mentions (I pee – you smell; you pee – I smell) and it has always led to a better greeting when the other dog plays along.

    What I debate is how helpful is it with him being on leash? This is random neighborhood walks without greetings, so I know the other dog won’t be allowed to come sniff it, so he won’t actually “communicate” with it. I wonder if peeing is a tension disperser for him, regardless of whether the other dog can investigate? I will always walk him to where I think the other dog has peed if I can do it without walking into a dog’s path, so he always gets a chance to smell. I don’t mind the time in letting him mark, but the downside is that he obviously fixes in place and has time to watch / begin-to-stare-down another dog. This might not ben an issue, because I’ve been noticing he does that stare-down less and less. His marking really does feel intentional about the immediate presence of the other dog, and I hate to think I’ve been cutting him off from a ritual that would help him deal with his anxiety.

    I’m thinking I’ll do a little non-scientific experiment on my own. If he chooses to urinate when another dog is present, I’ll give him that time to see if it helps to lead to less reactivity or more reactivity. For me, the variable on whether to allow will be whether he is making or avoiding direct eye contact with the other dog. As I think it over, I believe he used to pee/stare and now he is peeing/looking away. Let’s see if it helps.

  27. Beth with the Corgis says

    @ Frances. Your comment “I think this is why the scientific, rather than folk psychology, definition of dominance made such instant sense to me – in our household who gets what is so often down to who values it most highly, or who gets there first!” is how I feel to.

    In my house, Jack (the more classically “dominant” dog) will ALWAYS move if Maddie crowds him. He’ll grump or yap but vacate the space and she’s learned she can physically push him out of the way if she wants a lap or a pat. And she ALWAYS wants a lap or a pat, especially if someone else has it first. She rarely has an original thought and plays follow the leader, so if she sees someone else doing something, she wants it to. I handle the situation so she doesn’t barge in so often, but given half a chance she’ll try.

    Yet, she is by no definition a dominant dog. And when it comes to food or toys, Jack always gets first dibs, to the point that I have to referee or Madison would have no toys and Jack would literally lay on top of the ones he’s not using to keep her from them. BUT Jack hates to be crowded. Hates it so much he moves. He also doesn’t like to be petted that much. So with those two combinations of traits, that means Maddie wins the petting contests. She also tends to go out doors first because it’s very important to her and Jack really could not care less.

    That’s why it can be hard to determine relative dominance, because there are few things that all the dogs want equally and a “leader” dog who is not a tyrant will let other dogs “win” when he or she doesn’t care that much.

    I use food as a guage because, well, I have Corgis. :-) Food is ALWAYS important to Corgis, and is equally important to both of them.

  28. says

    What kind of urine/ scent (from high-tailed, low-tailed males/ females, intact males, females in oestrus?) do you think a neutered male dog is smelling when it sniffs deeply in great detail, but in a leisurely fashion. After sniffing, a nose drip is consistently presented, as well as what I can describe as a ‘trance-like’ look in the facial expression? Our Golden, Kiyo, is a neutered male, and when he first came home from the shelter, he sniffed a lot on walks – I think at that time, walks were stressful for him. As his confidence and relationship with us developed, he sniffed less and less, even in new places. 98% of the time, he’d wait for us to cue him with ‘go sniff’ before walking him over to a grass patch to pee/ sniff. These ‘normal’ sniffing bouts last a matter of seconds, and he’d come away when we called, even in mid-sniff. The only exception are these ‘special’ smells, which if he gets a whiff, will trigger the ‘trance-like’ behaviour described. After he has thoroughly sniffed the patch, he usually over marks it, the trance will last a few seconds, then he switches back and we continue the walk as normal. This doesn’t happen on every walk and is a fairly rare occurrence – which leads us to suspect that it may be the urine of a female, though we don’t know. With dogs he knows and meets occasionally, he doesn’t over mark, and if he needs to pee, he may sometimes adjacent mark about 2-3ft away. Most of the time, he moves away from the interaction area to potty a distance away.

    In socialisation sessions that I set up for a dog in training to meet 1 or 2 neutral dogs, I will play ‘musical chairs’ coupled with classical counter-conditioning – having the dogs walk around at a distance that they’re comfortable with, then allowing them to sniff where the other dogs had walked or peed, and they then meet when they’re as calm as can be (if appropriate). This usually helps to ‘engineer’ appropriate meetings.

  29. says

    Ah, the pee game. since my most recent two dogs have been so nutral in their behavior towards other dogs, in marking as in play, I’ll concentrate on my first guide, who was very, hm, I don’t know what word to use. Perhaps you all can come up with one after you read the description of his marking behavior? Anyway, he was a definite over-marker. He’d pee right on top of where another dog peed, though he’d never lift his leg. Also, and I’ve always wondered about this, after he would be done peeing, he’d scrape his back feet n the dirt, kicking up earth and grass. His tail would be high and he’d blow out of his mouth, his cheeks puffing out. What is the deal with that? He’d even do the foot scrape on concrete. I’ve never understood that behavior and don’t know what it is. As for my next two, both Torpedo and Seamus don’t mark. They just empty out and that’s that. They may snif other dog’s pee, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them mark either next to it or on top of it. this isn’t saying a whole lot though, I am blind and might have missed when they did that, but neither has put on such a display as Marlin did.

  30. Nic1 says

    Has anyone ever noticed their dog sniffing a scent mark and then wagging their tail as if they recognise the dog? I have noticed this once but I wasn’t sure if it was coincidental. i.e. something else also caught her attention whilst sniffing.

  31. Liza says

    My aussie male neutered mix is terribly fearful of most dogs in our neighborhood. Before our walks, he generally relieves himself in the front yard & if snow is available, turns around & pushes snow to cover it up. What is that about?

  32. Heather says

    I’m usually silent on these boards, but I actually know a bit about this topic, so I’ll chime in :) The Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit has, for a couple years, worked on using wolf urine to keep different packs away from livestock enclosures. In the initial study, using urine worked- even on packs that were known to take livestock in previous years. It had to be re-applied every couple weeks to keep up the potency, but overall it seems like a great non-lethal method to keep wolves + ranchers happy.

    Full article: http://www.umt.edu/mcwru/personnel/ausband/docs/biofence_pilot_test_report_2010.pdf

  33. Kim F. says

    Lisa W Says:
    March 4th, 2013 at 5:57 am “I have seen her curl her lip in disgust at some marks or scents.”

    That’s likely the flehmen response. It is well documented in a number of different species of animals and appears to be triggered in response to and to aid in detecting sex hormones in urine. Horses do it all the time and cats do it and I’m pretty sure it is a common wolf/wild canid behavior as well.

    My male (mild leash reactivity, definitely poor greeting skills, uneasy middle-management type that is all bluster and no balls) was neutered at 2.5 years old and will overmark both my other dogs (a younger neutered male and a similar age spayed female). Many times he is so desperate to overmark he doesn’t even wait until the other dog is done before he starts to mark, urinating right on the rear end of the poor dog. He is also very aware of urine spots we happen across on walks–taking good long sniffs before hiking his leg up high to directly overmark. Curiously, many times after directly overmarking, he will opt to also mark an adjacent verticle surface if it allows him to spritz his urine higher than the original urine. He’s a tall Boxer so can manage to get it pretty high if he feels like it. It is as if he’s throwing in an extra one just for good measure. I would have to say he generally approaches urine spots with a high tail.

  34. liz says

    My male “excavates” pee sites in snow by digging down, almost with the care of an archaeologist. He alternates smelling and digging till he’s reached the collected lot at the bottom. (He appears almost obsessive about the analysis most of the time.) In early winter, he dug up what appeared to be a normally marked site to find that under the surface it was tinged with blood from our resident coyote. It was the only discovery of his I could recognize, but any time he does it, it’s like the snow has preserved some pocket of wonderful smelling goodness at the bottom. Leads me to wonder what aspects of scents fade first, and if frozen urine has a dampened smell. Maybe high-tailed urine become indistinguishable from low-tailed urine at some point…

  35. JJ says

    Heather: Thanks for that fascinating info!

    Laura: My dog will sometimes do the back-leg scratch after peeing. He either started doing this later in life or I didn’t notice early on. I think it’s weird too as I usually associate the back-leg scratch with poop, not pee. I haven’t noticed the breath thing you mentioned.

  36. JJ says

    What caught my attention about this post is the part on tails. When we first get to an off-leash place, my dog holds his tail up high whether other dogs are present or not. He also prances and his ears flop. He tends to do some marking early on arrival also – while the tail is still high. But this high tail is, according to my interpretation, far more about being excited than anything about his temperament.

    As Duke gets used to the place and the initial excitement wears off, his tail slowly goes down until it gets to the point that the tail is resting. It’s not that he is unhappy at this point. It’s just that he’s less aroused. There may be some marking in this later phase, but not as much as when we first arrive.

    The Point Being: Is Duke’s tail really an indicator of dominance status or just that he is excited and just got there? I tend to think the later.

    I will have to pay more attention to Duke’s marking after being at a place for a while. I don’t remember for sure if his tail stays down or goes back up to mark. I’m pretty sure he just always has his tail at half mast for any kind of peeing – whether marking or not. I feel fairly confident that Duke simply has “a position” for the task. In other words, I think that in Duke’s case, tail position in terms of a dominance indicator doesn’t work. It doesn’t seem to fit what I see and know about him. But to be fair, I can’t say that I’ve have thought and observed enough about it to be sure.

    Tail height is a GREAT indicator of Duke’s mood, no doubt. Given that Duke doesn’t wag as much as other dogs, being able to read the tail elevation thing was a HUGE deal when I learned it. And I think I learned it from you Trisha. THANKS!

    I’ll get a bit more off-topic by also mentioning that I have been paying a lot of attention to asymmetrical side tail movement since you posted a blog post on this topic some time ago. I have noticed things that I had not noticed before! I’m convinced that a quick little side swipe of the tail to the left means that Duke is pleased/happy about something. That something tickles his fancy for a second. So, so, interesting!

    As for the chemical communication. The *idea* of the topic interests me tremendously. But as Trisha pointed out, we are so much at the beginning of this area of knowledge, it is hard for me to get excited about what very little we have learned so far. Good for this researcher for starting down this road!

  37. Rose C says

    Thanks. Heather, for sharing that article. Quite an interesting and carefully planned and executed study.

    Laura, I used to dogsit for a 2-yr old female dog who always kicked dirt with her stretched hind legs over where she peed, her front legs also stretched forward as far as she could. It was really amusing to watch that I always had to say ‘vroom, vroom’ everytime she did that. I read something over the internet why dogs do that but I know better than to readily believe everything that I read in random websites. Hoping to come across something or someone who has valid information on this.

  38. Chris from Boise says

    Our dear, departed heeler Pica always peed in water when on walks in the hills. Didn’t matter if it was a stream or a puddle. We wondered if it was because she had grown up in coyote territory and did NOT want to advertise her presence.

    She loved group howls with my husband and me, but the one time I tried to get her to howl out in the pasture, she gave me an “are you CRAZY??!!” look and headed for the house. One smart pup – one obviously dumb and socially inappropriate human. I have never felt more put in my place.

  39. says

    At JJ and others,
    It’s nice to know there are others out there who have observed the foot scratching thing. Marlin scratched away from where he had just peed and as for the breath thing, I think he was close to vocalization. I could hear air moving through his throat and out his mouth. He wasn’t panting. I guess I’d call it snuffeling or something. His head was very high, as was his tail and I took it to mean, “Hey, i want everyone to know that I was here.” I too have read different theories as to why dogs do this, but I wanted to get an expert’s opinion instead of relying on a random internet article that could be wrong.

  40. JJ says

    Chris from Boise: I’m SO glad you talked about peeing in water and even shared a theory about it. I have often seen dogs at the dog park pee in the little kiddie swimming pools filled with water. I never understood it since a lot of dogs drink that water. I think of peeing in water as an unsanitary practice that is likely to lead to disease. (Don’t have any studies to back that up, but there’s a reason humans don’t mix sewer and drinking water…) I would think that evolutionarily, any mammal species who peed in their drinking water would have died out long ago. So, why do some dogs do it? My theory was that dogs are not natural creatures and some of them are *really* messed up.

    That was just the best theory that I could come up with. I didn’t necessarily believe it all that much. I like your theory much better.

  41. Lisa W says

    I’m curious as to why this study is aimed at only male dogs. A previous study included both sexes? Was there something that needed more investigation about male dogs and marking?

    It’s curious because more than half of the blog responses are about high marking female dogs.

    Maybe it’s the same phenomena that human medical research is done more on/for males than females.

  42. Laceyh says

    to Lisa W:

    I’m pretty sure the studies aim at male dogs because the obviously marking bitches are rarer.

  43. Rose C says

    And speaking specifically of aiming for a ‘higher’ overmarking, am I right to assume that this traces back to the dominance status in the wolf hierarchy? Like a higher marking could signify that it was a larger wolf (though dominance does not necessarily correlate to size, a larger animal could still be more threatening to a ‘competing’ pack) and that the higher a wolf can lift its leg, the bolder and more confident it is?

  44. Lisa W says

    Laceyh says:
    “I’m pretty sure the studies aim at male dogs because the obviously marking bitches are rarer.”

    Aside from the pun of “aiming for male dogs,” is it really the case that marking bitches are rarer? It would not seem so from the posts to this blog, which might not be a representative sample, but do seem significant in some way. Maybe a good research question?

  45. Beth with the Corgis says

    Lisa W, from my personal experience girls who mark are the exception rather than the rule. Maddie will sometimes appear to mark because she sometimes (not always) pees right where Jack does, but if I have her out on her own she never marks. Growing up we always had female dogs and they never marked.

    My parents’ current dog will mark on walks, but she is a very “alpha” type female.

    It seems that most males mark, but only some females, from my experience.

  46. Kat says

    Lisa W. are you familiar with the concept of a self-selected sample? I’m pretty confident that’s what you’re seeing here. People who have females that mark are talking about it while those of us whose female doesn’t mark don’t mention it. This leads to the appearance that there are a lot of females that mark. My bitch never marks. She potties when she needs to and that’s the end of it.

  47. Lisa W says

    Kat,
    Yes, that is what I was trying to say by “which might not be a representative sample” but didn’t do it as well as you.

    I am still not convinced that there are more male markers than females. Out of the last 4 dogs we have had, all female, 2 were/are dedicated markers and two were/are not. I know that is only my experience but it does lead me to question the premise that males are predominately markers and females are not. Plus, while it is true that if your female doesn’t mark you won’t mention it, there still seems to be enough people responding who have female markers, as well as male markers. It’s not necessarily the absence of a female marker, it is the number of people with female markers, no?

  48. em says

    Lisa W., I wonder if female dogs who mark are like people who are left-handed or whose middle toes are longer than their big toes- not the majority, but a variant so common as to not be considered abnormal? That’s the impression that I get, anyways- I certainly know many female dogs who mark, in addition to the one I currently own.

  49. Margaret McLaughlin says

    Of the 15 female dogs I have owned, raised for a guide-dog school, or fostered for a rescue I have had 1 high-marker, a GSD. They were Labs, Goldens, GSDs, Flat-Coats, & a Keeshond. The GSD only high-marked when she was in season. That’s not a big enough sample to have any statistical significance, especially since it’s skewed towards younger dogs, but I wonder how those of y9u who have had large numbers of dogs thru your homes would categorize them.
    My male Kees (neutered by Kees rescue at age 2) once tried to overmark a Leonberger & fell flat.

  50. Sarah says

    @Kathy F
    “This is really interesting, but I can’t figure out how it relates to my reactive dog. I never really noticed that he rarely marked or even sniffed urine (he’s my first male dog, ever). And then one day we had snow, and I noticed he walked right past all the yellow snow! When I told my dog trainer friend, she was surprised, saying that most reactive dogs she knew were markers. (He doesn’t urinate much when we walk at all, seeming to prefer to use his own toilet area in our garden.)
    He also pees like a girl…maybe he’s got some gender identity issues”
    My 6 YO male border collie Ben is exactly like this, we got him as a rescue at 18wks from our local dog sanctuary (I’m in UK so terminology may be different!)
    We were sadly mis-advised when he started nipping as a puppy to never use a crate and to get him neutered at once. He was barely 7mths old, and I firmly believe this is half his trouble today. Took another year before we noticed the total effect, when he became fearful. 7mth brain development trying to analyse world through 6 YO body and experiences? :-(
    He barely sniffs dog urine when out, but will track cats, foxes and rabbits. He is also reactive to dogs and people, but we now know he behaves like a puppy to people in the hope they won’t hurt him, and bluffs with dogs for the same reason. Off lead he plays grand, but goes in with dominant head and low tail (all mixed up) then dives to a playbow when he reaches the other dog. He also is well known for shouldering off bigger/rougher/dominant dogs from bullying smaller/younger/gentler dogs and playing with them himself. Like I said, all mixed up, but funny your reactive dog also doesn’t mark. Perhaps they would rather avoid being discovered by other dogs but are happy to greet in person?

    By contrast, our 5 year old GSD/Border Collie cross, Jerry, that we got at 8wks, brought up ‘my way’, crate trained and didn’t neuter till he was 18mths old; is well balanced and neither fearful not particularly dominant with dogs, if a little standoffish. Although we are seeing the signs of him taking over from the other dog the last few months. Interestingly, his first week out after vaccinations and we met a friend with an extremely well-endowned entire male parsons jack russell who cocked his leg all the way round on the walk. And our 12 wk pup watched him carefully the first time, then copied and overmarked all the way around! Curiously the older dog noticed but didn’t go back to re-mark – perhaps as he knew all following dogs would recognise the puppy urine and ignore it? Our younger dog still cocks his leg and scent marks any chance he gets.
    It is, however, amusing when we catch up with a large male dog in front that we don’t know but Jerry has been overmarking all up the road – Ben is eager to meet, if a bit reactive for the owner; but Jerry goes all quiet and hangs back, avoiding the situation. Wuss!

    Thankyou for this blog Trish, found you accidently today when trying to answer some outstanding fear aggression and visitor training issues with Ben. Ended up reading almost all day! Really helpful seeing a multi-dog household, with Border collies and truthful attitudes to so-called ‘dominance’ methods and up-to-date responses to research in one place. Given me a lot of ideas to look into. Thankyou – will be following.
    Sarah, Bristol, UK

  51. Mary K. says

    My little male mixed breed loves to scent mark as often as possible whenever we take a new walking route. On familar routes he is much less inclined or compelled to mark as often. One behavior that I have noticed and wondered about is that on occasion he will come across a smell (and I assume it to be urine from another dog although I can’t be positive about that) and very gingerly back away from it almost like he is fearful of or adverse to it. It is such an odd sight to see him do this as it is quite infrequent and almost has a comical effect. It is as if he is trying to say “not gonna mess with that smell” before very carefully backing away. I am then left wondering what he could possibly have smelled that would cause him to react so cautiously. Because it happens so infrequently it always gets my attention and captures my curiosity.

  52. Kat says

    My reactive bitch Finna, today tried to start a fence fight with the chocolate lab bitches next door. The labs live behind an invisible fence leaving about 3 feet of no man’s land between their fence and ours so there isn’t a lot of likelihood that Finna will succeed in her efforts to start a fence fight but today after herding Finna away from the fence Ranger went back and carefully marked as far across the no man’s land as he could. He just marked along that section and not on “our” side of the area but as close to the edge of ‘their’ area as possible. No other section of the fence was investigated or marked. No idea really what he was communicating but I did find it an interesting occurrence.

  53. liz says

    I just had a “what if” moment:
    What if, in the process of potty training, we influenced the number of dogs who mark?! We often take dogs to where others had peed, then treat them for going too! Dogs absolutely would mark whether we are in the picture or not, but wouldn’t it be wild if we had significant impact on the number?

  54. Rose C says

    @liz
    I understand what you are saying, liz, but I don’t know. I think more than the number, the more important question is who’s doing what? I believe that dogs communicate much more things with their marking behavior than what we think they do. I know we speak of marking as dogs identifying their territory, of who was there first, of whose mark was the highest, of who are the breeding pair (I think the breeding pair of a male and female wolf pee over each other’s to communicate to others who and what they are to the pack). I’d like to think that any aspect of dog behavior that we observe and that we think we understand is just the surface of the world that they live in. (Wait, I might have quoted Trisha with that in one of her DVDs but I happen to believe so as well.). In my opinion, our attempts to explain animal and dog behavior are limited to what us humans can observe, comprehend, reason, and explain. To use two of Trisha’s words, it is more ‘profound’ than what meets the human eye and mind, and that we should avoid ‘oversimplification’ of these things. Nevertheless, I love pondering about these things and love the thought that maybe we are actually peeking right into the inner lives of dogs. :)

  55. HFR says

    I have a quick question: Does the dog “involuntarily” mark? In other words, does he/she sniff then, without thinking about it, feel the urge to pee over the chosen odor? I liken the urge to a nursing mother who hears her baby crying and will automatically start to “leak”, it’s a biological response. OR does the dog sniff the urine, determine the odors, whether they need to be marked and then decide to “squirt” on it (obviously all in the blink of an eye)? Sometimes I think it is the first since so often you see them lift a leg and nothing comes out, but they have the urge to try to mark it whether their tank is empty or not. Just wondering is all…Thanks!

  56. liz says

    @Rose
    Here, here! Those moments… possibly seeing beyond our limitations and into their world… feel sort of magical :) Good points

  57. Rose C says

    @liz
    I would give up anything to be able to live inside the body and the mind of a dog for at least 3 days. Then I would come back and report everything I discovered and experienced. :)

  58. Shana R says

    I’m coming late to the discussion, and I scanned through the comments to see if my question already came up, I didn’t see it but forgive me if it was asked already :)

    My intact male Tibetan Mastiff will “poop-mark” (my scientific term!) by lifting one leg and depositing his feces on top of bushes, large rocks, anything he can get it on. He started doing this at 9-10 months old. He only does this away from our yard. In the yard he poops normally, but always along the perimeter, corners are his favorite locations.

    He also MUST mark every tree at the start of walks. He would prefer that I run from tree to tree with him, but he is happy to drag me too. I humor him, and after a few trees I remind him he does know self control and ask for a sit and wait before he pees on the next tree. He stops obsessing after about 15 min on a walk.

    As this breed carries their tail curled over their back, how might one determine tail status? He almost always has it up, my bitch carries it down when she’s sleepy or relaxed, but its also mostly up.

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