Dog Behavior Problems: Marking Behavior

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

Why does my dog urinate on objects?

Dogs can communicate using pheromones—chemical messengers that are recognized by members of the same species. Dogs learn about each other through pheromones, especially those in the urine. This is the reason dogs spend so much time investigating the urine of other dogs. You may have heard the term “pee-mail”.

After performing a thorough sniff investigation, whether of urine or any interesting scent, dogs often deposit a urine mark of their own. Urine marking is most common in intact males, but many neutered males and spayed females also mark their territory. Male dogs and some female dogs often lift a leg when they urine mark. Most urine marks contain only a small volume of urine.

In contrast, routine urination is done to empty the bladder—we all need bathroom breaks. In addition, dogs whose bladders are nearly empty may deposit urine solely for the purpose of sending a message. Scent marking with urine is considered a normal dog behavior. Unfortunately, normal is not always socially acceptable and dogs may attempt to communicate through urine marks even when they are indoors.

"...dogs may attempt to communicate through urine marks even when they are indoors."

How can I control urine marking in my home?

If your dog is urinating indoors, first have your veterinarian examine him for any possible illness. Your veterinarian may want to do some blood work and evaluate a urine sample. This is particularly important if your dog has been well housetrained and suddenly begins urinating indoors. If your dog is straining to urinate, it could be an emergency, so do not delay the examination.

If there is no medical explanation, try to learn what might have triggered the behavior. Marking can be triggered by hormonal changes as dogs reach puberty and dogs begin to communicate their availability for breeding.

Social changes, such as a new dog in the neighborhood, a new person in the home, or a change in the relationship with another dog or person within the home, can trigger marking. Dogs mark to label their territory. Dogs may also mark to communicate anxiety or frustration. Triggers can include major changes in the household routine or environment, such as a new work schedule or a remodeling project.

Some dogs, particularly males, repeatedly mark vertical surfaces when outside. Indoor vertical objects such as plants, corners of furniture, or other upright objects may trigger this somewhat automatic but not necessarily emotional response.

Once a trigger can be identified, a treatment plan can be designed. In all cases, some management and increased supervision will be needed. Management may include using a belly band to protect valuables and confining your dog to an area where marking could be tolerated for the short term. If you know the specific stimuli for marking then until training is complete, you may use a gate to keep your dog away from certain areas—many dogs mark near windows and doors, or near specific objects or furniture.

Note: Belly bands must be used carefully. They do not teach dogs to refrain from marking but are only used for short periods of time to prevent damage to property until training has been completed. Dogs can still urinate, and the soiled band must be removed, just as you would remove a soiled diaper, or serious skin infection can occur.

While supervising, if you notice your dog begin to investigate a high-risk object or area, simply distract him. You can call your dog for some play or give him a toy or invite your dog to lie down on a settle mat (see handout “Dog Behavior and Training – Teaching Calm and Settle). When introducing new tree-like items, closely watch your dog for signs of excessive interest and redirect before any urination does occur.

Unless you are concerned that your dog actually needs to eliminate, do not take your dog outside after you interrupt the marking attempt. The long-term goal should be to reduce your dog’s urge to mark by addressing the underlying motivation rather than providing another opportunity to mark in a different location.

"The long-term goal should be to reduce your dog’s urge to mark by addressing the underlying motivation rather than providing another opportunity to mark in a different location."

If your dog’s marking is triggered by his relationship with a person or other pet, that relationship needs to be addressed and, since relationships are complicated, consulting with a behavior specialist is advised.

If the marking is related to anxiety about a change in routine, ensure that your dog has a regular and stimulating routine of exercise and play. When you are not playing, training, exercising, or supervising, your dog should learn to settle (preferably in its bed or confinement area) either to take a nap or play with its own toys.

Dogs that are urine marking due to being left alone or to external triggers or noises may also benefit from professional counseling.

How do I control outdoor marking?

Since marking is a normal behavior for dogs, it is impractical to expect to eliminate all marking behavior when your dog is outdoors. Dogs are particularly likely to leave their urine messages in places where other dogs have urinated, and when entering a new environment.

When you and your dog are outside in an area where marking would not be acceptable, such as on a patio or in your neighbor’s yard, supervise closely and be prepared to call your dog to you quickly if you notice signs such as prolonged sniffing in a specific location. It may help to hold your dog on a leash except when you are interacting directly with him. You can learn to predict and pre-empt urine marking in locations such as your neighbor’s favorite flower bed. When you reach these areas, encourage your dog to move along with you by using a happy voice and even a food lure until you reach a safe location.

How do I reduce marking when I bring my pet to visit other people’s homes or other indoor locations?

Dogs that mark when visiting (e.g., homes of friends/relatives, dog shows, veterinary clinics, obedience classes, stores) should be kept on a leash, at least until they are comfortable, settled, and have had the opportunity for supervised exploration of the new environment. Direct supervision and prevention are the keys! You can use a belly band to protect the environment, but remember that even with a belly band, it is important to supervise and distract your dog at the first sign of interest in a potential trigger for marking. Excessive sniffing in a specific location for example may be a signal that your dog is about to mark something—redirect using a happy voice and if appropriate, treat your dog for quickly returning to you.

What about neutering?

Neutering may reduce the tendency to mark in some dogs but is not a guaranteed cure. Marking occurs whether in dogs that are sexually intact, neutered, or spayed. Studies have reported that neutering can reduce marking behavior by up to 80% in male dogs. It is important to remember that neutering can cause both physical and behavioral changes. Your veterinarian can help you determine whether surgery is appropriate for your dog.

Could drugs be helpful?

Medication may be a useful adjunct in some dogs depending on their motivation to mark in the first place. Dogs that are diagnosed with anxiety, frustration, or hyperarousal may benefit from medications. Synthetic pheromones, such as Adaptil®, can encourage dogs to relax in specific locations, potentially reducing territorial behavior and the drive to mark. Medications should always be used in conjunction with a comprehensive behavioral treatment plan. Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can advise you whether medication would be appropriate.

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