Canine Scent Marking: What, Why, and Next Steps

Behavior & Training

Dogs marking their territory is jokingly referred to as pee mail, but canine urine marking is serious business for dogs. It’s a protocol that pre-dates electronic gadgetry by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Dogs don't need wifi, but "pee mail" is a highly complex and frequently misunderstood method of canine communication.

Why do dogs mark their territory?

Dogs use urine to mark territory—to leave a message, so to speak. Then other dogs come along and check the message and may leave a message of their own by marking over or adjacent to the original spot. There's a lot of interesting information in these messages, and by checking "pee mail," a dog can determine the gender of the dogs who came before him and whether they are spayed or neutered. He can also tell if there's a female in heat or coming into heat, as well as determine the health, stress level, and social status of the dogs who have previously marked the spot.

Until recently little research has been done on scent marking, and much of what we thought we knew was based on empirical or anecdotal information and general observations. For example, many owners thought only male dogs marked and marking was all about status-related behavior. However, according to a 2011 study by scientists Anneke Lisberg and Charles Snowdon, both male and female dogs mark—but they do it in slightly different ways, and possibly for slightly different reasons. Dr. Lisberg observed and recorded dogs sniffing and urinating at the entrance to a popular park—documenting who urinated when and where, and which dogs participated in bum sniffing (scientifically known as anogenital investigation). In brief, here's what she found:

  • Males and females were equally likely to urinate immediately upon entering the park, but males often urinated more frequently than females.

  • Intact males with high social order are most likely to over-mark (pee over another dog's scent).

  • Females spend a lot of time investigating the urine of unfamiliar male and female dogs; while males are primarily interested in what other male dogs peed on.

Surprisingly, she notes that females never over-marked, but rather "adjacent marked" or urinated nearby, as opposed to on top of the urine mark left by another dog.

Scent marking can happen anywhere a dog deems fit - it's not uncommon for dogs to mark indoors, outdoors, or both. Though, many owners aren’t very happy when their dogs pee in the house. Rest assured there are many reasons, and solutions, to why your house may be on the list.

Causes of Scent Marking

While we have discussed why dogs mark their territory and how it correlates to communication – there are plenty of other reasons you may have seen your dog partake in the behavior.

Dogs don't "mark" out of spite. They don't think, "My mom left me home today, so I think I'll pee on the furniture AN D her new purse!" Dogs urine mark both indoors and outdoors for two primary reasons: to define and redefine territory or secondary to anxiety issues, according to Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D., certified applied animal behaviorist at Animal Behavior Consultations. Territorial marking and anxiety, however, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Anxiety related issues can include:

  • Separation anxiety

  • A new pet in the household

  • Conflicts with other pets or people in the household

  • A new baby, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, relative, etc., living in the house

  • The departure of a baby, friend, relative, etc., from the house

  • An unfamiliar dog urinating in your dog's yard

  • New objects, such as luggage or furniture, in the house that have unfamiliar smells or another animal's scent

Dogs who urine mark may do so in a variety of situations, such as while on walks in the neighborhood or at dog parks. Some dogs, although not all, mark both in their own home and outdoors. It can also vary by the dog’s gender. For instance, some male dogs mark only when in the presence of female dogs—especially if they're in heat—as a way of impressing a female. Some females mark as a form of competition. Some male dogs mark only when interacting with other male dogs—usually rival males. Many dogs never mark in their own home but will mark while at unfamiliar places, such as the veterinary clinic or while visiting a friend or family member's home.

Urine Marking is Not House-Soiling

House soiling or submissive/excitement urination and urine marking are completely different behaviors. If your dog is having potty accidents in the house, there are a few reasons why this might be happening:

  • He's not house trained (despite your best intentions).

  • He has a medical issue, such as incontinence (some medications can cause frequent urination).

If you're not sure what's going on, consider these pointers:

  • House-soiling generally includes a good deal of urine.

  • House-soiling may occur in corners or areas you're less likely to notice.

  • Submissive or excitement urination generally occurs during greetings, physical contact, scolding or punishment.

  • Urine marking generally involves small amounts of urine.

  • Urine marking usually involves dogs hiking their leg on vertical surfaces, such as walls or furniture.

  • Marking normally occurs in prominent locations.

What can you do?

Urine marking is a normal form of communication among dogs, and they can gather a lot of information by sniffing another dog's pee. Therefore, it's important you not correct or scold your dog. He's not a hooligan or first-class criminal. Research indicates it develops after sexual maturity, with 70 percent of urine marking dogs starting by 1 1/2 years of age, and 90 percent before 2 years old. While outdoor marking is usually not a problem for owners—indoor marking can be a deal breaker for the human-canine relationship. To discourage additional heinous crimes against your personal property, experts recommend a proactive approach with the following strategies:

  • Spay or neuter

  • Clean up all signs of marking so your dog is not further stimulated to leave pee mail. Use products designed to eliminate urine odor. Do not use ammonia, as this can attract him back to the same spot to mark again!

  • Supervise your dog like a hawk when he's indoors. While typically tedious for most owners, supervision is critical—otherwise the problem is likely to continue.

  • Address the underlying anxiety or territorial insecurity that requires repeated marking from the dog's perspective. The reasons "why" can be complicated; consider the services of a certified animal behaviorist.

  • Consider using a synthetic hormone diffuser (DAP™ Dog Appeasement Pheromone), which can have a calming effect on dogs.

  • Consider medications, such as anti-depressants and selective reuptake inhibitors. Medication alone will not be effective, especially if the underlying causes have not been addressed.

Equally important, a veterinary check up may be necessary, as some medical conditions, such as cystitis, kidney dysfunction, endocrine abnormalities, incontinence, house-soiling, and geriatric onset can inadvertently be mistaken for marking.

Consider also keeping a log of your dog's marking behavior. Yes, it sounds eccentric but observing dogs in their natural habitat—also known as ethological studies—is the ole-fashioned way that many experts still study animals. It may provide valuable insight should you decide to seek professional help. If nothing else, you may learn a thing or two about your dog's behaviors. Equally important, it will assure that you and your four-legged friend have the best chance at a happy and mutually respectful human-canine relationship.