Dog Urine Marking: Important Behind-the-Scene Communication! 

Urine, often the source of woe for many homeowners training a new dog, is also getting recognition as a vital communication tool for canines.  The importance behind your dog lifting their leg has gone unstudied for quite a while, but recent research has begun to draw back the curtain on this golden language style.  If this is news to you, join the discussion about the behavioral background of urine marking and when we are most likely to see it.

What is Urine Marking?

Before we discuss urine marking at all, it is important to distinguish this deliberate behavior from other forms of urination, especially urination due to medical issues, lack of training, and forms of anxiety.

Urine marking is a habit found in both male and female dogs when they release a small amount of urine in conspicuous places as a message to other dogs.  These places are usually unfamiliar environments or areas with traffic from multiple dogs and is generally seen as a normal and healthy form of communication between dogs.

Urine marking may be more frequent in an unfamiliar environment or during tense social situations.  A dog who is insecure about their social standing or territory is more likely to be an obsessive marker.  While this behavior has only recently come under the microscope, it has become recognized as a highly social behavior and an important form of communication passed down through canine evolution.

Urine marking should not be confused with medical incontinence, the main difference being that the dog is generally unaware they are urinating when incontinent while they would deliberately urinate when marking3.  Urine marking is also very brief and in a short amount, not the typical volume of a normal urination, as usually seen in incontinence.  If your dog is leaving relatively large puddles of urine around the house, it is more likely to be a behavioral or medical issue, so a quick trip to the vet is necessary before diagnosing marking behaviors.

The Science Behind Urine Marking:

As with many, but not all, behaviors in the canine family, urine marking has a basis in social evolution and group interactions.  This connection was explored in depth in two studies led by the researcher Dr. Anneke E. Lisberg out of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the first in 2009 and a follow-up study two years later1,2.  Both studies examined the difference in behaviors of urine marking in four groups: neutered males, un-neutered males, spayed females, and un-spayed females.  What Dr. Lisberg’s studies found was surprising.

First, there was a noticeable difference between the behaviors of male and female dogs and between de-sexed dogs and intact dogs.  While all groups of dogs paid attention to urine marking, the amount of attention and how they responded was decidedly different depending on whether the urine was from an intact dog or de-sexed dog1.  Urine markings from intact males or females was given the most attention from any group, including neutered males.

Females also paid more attention to urine markings that were unfamiliar, while males paid the same amount of attention to both familiar and unfamiliar urine (while spending the least amount of time investigating their own marking)1.  While further research is necessary, this behavioral difference leads investigators towards a connection between urine marking and territorial and mating behaviors.  Without a doubt, urine marking is an important method of communication between all types of dogs and more subtle communications are probably going unnoticed.

Dr. Lisberg also examined what happened after dogs found urine markings2.  The 2011 study found that the behavior of dogs towards urine markings not only mattered on reproductive status, but also on social status within the group.  Social status was determined by recording the tail position of the dog marking (the higher the tail position, the high social status of the dog).  High status urine markings of either male or female were investigated longer than the markings of dogs with lower social status.

Also included in the 2011 study, Dr. Lisberg examined the reaction to urine markings based on social status.  Overmarking, or the habit of dogs to urinate overtop of another dog’s marking, was seen most often in dogs with high social status2.  A separate study by Indian researchers found that male dogs were also more likely to overmark urine samples found at the border of their territory while female dogs were more likely to overmark territory near their dens4.  This may indicate that urine marking is not only a facet of mating behavior, but a way for socially superior dogs to control access to intact females and a way to subtly compete for social status among lower status dogs.

What Might Cause More Frequent Urination

Thanks to an increase in ethology studies in the last decade, we are starting to understand more of the motivations behind dog behaviors.  We know that dogs are more likely to urine mark in certain circumstances: when in unfamiliar environments, when defining a new territory, when there are other urine markings, or when they are in a group environment.  Most dog trainers and pet parents also know that their dog is more likely to lift a leg when in a new or social environment, which shows a clear connection between urination and a style of communication.

When faced with a dog who is marking in undesirable places, it is important to keep these social motivations in mind when training them out of this behavior.  While positive punishment (such as yelling at a dog) has not been found to decrease urine marking3, other methods of training may be more effective.  As we grow in understanding this behavior we can begin to develop of training that discourage it by understanding why our dogs use urine marking at all.

Dr. Lisberg’s studies, which found that urine marking has social, mating and territorial components, shows that urine marking is a complex communication system which we are only just starting to understand.  Instead of dogs lifting a leg to christen our couches to annoy us, it is important to understand they are communicating.  For now, the jury is still out on the full conversation happening behind the urine marking maneuver.

By Lauren Pescarus

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