Canid Scent Marking (or, Why Dogs Pee on Things)

I took a lot of pictures of dogs peeing on things for this article.

Exhibit A, Razzle.

Exhibit A, Razzle.

If you own a dog, have walked a dog, or just have seen a dog on TV, you have probably seen a dog peeing. Particularly that stereotyped male raised-leg posture that Razzle is demonstrating above. (In this case, stereotyped refers to a fixed and repetitive set of movements, not a form of doggie-profiling.)

Dogs have a better sense of smell than we do. Heck, most mammals do; we just happen to be in a group- the simians- that ended up using vision a lot more than scent. At some point we more or less lost a means of communication that is absolutely fundamental to the lives of our hairy, warm-blooded cousins.

I’ve talked a bit before about how basic biological behaviors- such as sex or grooming or eating- can be co-opted by evolution to have a social meaning. For canids, urination has become a huge part of how they exchange information with one another.

We have a hard time studying this behavior because of our own limited sense of smell, and I think we are only beginning to grasp just how complex this scent-based communication can be.

I am about to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about dog pee.

 

I’ve heard a lot of interesting theories about dog pee during my time as a dog walker. Some of them are just baffling.

Case in point: the idea that only male dogs raise their legs. I have seen owners actually get embarrassed when they see their female dogs raise their legs, as if the dog is violating some sort of rule of dog ladylikeness. Usually something about dominance gets muttered (and usually I am filled with mounting irritation).

People have all kinds of ideas about what dogs peeing on things means. Marking territory. Claiming a space. Being rebellious. Etc., etc., etc., almost always in an assertive or slightly negative sense.

None of these ideas are strictly wrong. The thing is, as I mentioned before, urination is not a simple act for a dog. Depending on context, the same squat might mean ten different things. There’s simply no way to throw a blanket meaning over everything.

And some of the problem in deciphering what urination means is also in the research. While there has been a decent amount of research on dog scent marking (and from now on I’m going to use the word “dog” to refer to all canids), very little of it overlaps. That means that when I discuss something in this article, I’m often only going off evidence I’ve found in one paper. Keep that in mind as we progress.

I’m now going to go over three broad topics: the different functions urination can have, the different postures dogs might adopt, and other forms of canine scent-marking.

The dogs I use in photos for this article are the following:

  • Razzle, a male middle-aged Australian shepherd/border collie mix
  • Macy, a female middle-aged border collie
  • Luke, a male older mutt
  • Chloe, a female five-year-old mutt
  • Lindsay, a female ten-year-old pomeranian/poodle mix
  • Emma, a female ten-year-old Saint Bernard mix

Each of these dogs had their unique marking habits. Even the literature comments on the high variability of urine-marking behaviors in domestic dogs.

Functions of Urination

1. Elimination. The most basic function of urination is, of course, the elimination of bodily waste. It is difficult to determine if any urination posture is exclusively about elimination due to the fact that dogs often combine elimination with scent-marking. Squatting is the posture most commonly associated with elimination, but in both wild and domestic canids it can also be used for scent-marking.

2. Token Marking. Urination events where very little urine is released are likely meant for scent-marking, not elimination. Dogs conserve urine this way in order to mark multiple sites.

The most frequent token marking in wild canids occurs near the edges of territorial boundaries, while both free-ranging and leashed domestic dogs token mark more frequently in areas they are not familiar with.

Male dogs begin token-marking earlier than female dogs and usually mark at stable rates after fourteen months. Female dogs tend to increase their amount of token-marking as they get older.

3. Object-directed marking

Razzle and Lindsay mark a pole and a tree stump.

Razzle and Lindsay direct their urine towards two vertical objects: a metal pole and a tree stump.

In scientific literature, object-directed marking is defined as urination (or defecation) within at least 20cm of a conspicuous object, such as a bush, grass tussock, pole, branch, etc., etc.

Even though Luke's urine is not touching the trash can, the close proximity means it still "counts" as object-directed.

Even though Luke’s urine is not touching the trash can, the close proximity means it still “counts” as object-directed.

The most frequent posture used with object-directed marking is the raised leg posture (for both males and females), and even handstands. This allows the dog to mark at a greater, more conspicuous height.

Splash of dog urine on a mailbox pole. The height of this mark puts it about at nose level for other dogs.

Splash of dog urine on a mailbox pole. The height of this mark puts it about at nose level for other dogs.

Like token marking, males and females use object-directed marking at different points in their lives. Female domestic dogs show an abrupt increase in object-directed marking after the age of four.

4. Overmarking

Video Clip of Luke (neutered male) urinating on top of a spot where Chloe (spayed female) previously urinated.

This type of marking occurs when multiple dogs urinate in the same spot. It is also referred to as countermarking or top-marking. There are two basic types.

– Tandem Marking

In wild canids, tandem marking is when a mated pair overmark each other in rapid succession. Newly-formed pairs tandem mark more frequently than older pairs, probably as a means of familiarizing with each other. Both male and female members of the pair will overmark each other, but the male usually ends up with the topmost mark. This may serve as a means to advertise to other dogs that neither member of the pair is sexually available.

An exception to this was found in a study of African wild dog packs: in a pack were the breeding pair were siblings, the tandem bouts were longer and the female often ended up being on top. The authors suggest that this is because the female was advertising for a mate that was not closely related to herself.

In domestic dogs, overmarking has a sexual function as well and bonded pairs of feral dogs will tandem mark. However, males will often overmark female urine even if the female is not present (and especially if both dogs are still intact).

– Sequential Marking

Overmarking also has a territorial function. Groups of social canids in the wolf-like clade often travel together along territorial borders and mark in sequence, one immediately following the other. Breeding females are most likely to begin these bouts, followed by breeding males. Such sequences may be a way of advertising the size of a pack to others.

When one pack comes across recent scent marks from another pack, they will often overmark them. In a study on Ethiopian wolves, researchers observed one pack chase another pack away and overmark their scent marks; when the second pack left, the first snuck back and overmarked the overmarking.

In domestic dogs, both males and females overmark scent marks when walked outside their home ranges (i.e., backyards).

Sometimes canids of different species will overmark one another, for example, wolves and coyotes. This may serve as a form of non-confrontational communication with potential competitors.

– Adjacent Marking

Sometimes, rather than marking directly on top of another dog’s urine, a dog will mark directly adjacent to it. This has only been mentioned in a few papers and is not clearly separated from other forms of overmarking in most studies.

It isn’t known if adjacent marking is just a missed form of top-marking or has another meaning entirely, but one study did find that domestic dogs were more likely to adjacent-mark over the urine of an individual they weren’t familiar with. It’s possible that direct overmarking communicates an already-established relationship to other dogs.

5. Cache Marking

An interesting behavior observed in a few canids (red foxes, coyotes, and Ethiopian wolves, for example) is cache-marking urination, usually directed towards the remains of a carcass or other food source. This urination is not a signpost for others to find the food, but rather an indication that a cache has run out. In other words, “There’s no food left here.”

This is particularly helpful for group-living scavengers such as foxes and coyotes, as well as clumped-resource users like Ethiopian wolves, which feed on small rodents.

6. Social Urination

Urination may serve as an introductory signal between two unfamiliar canids, particularly a male and female that may become mates. In some cases, one dog will urinate during or after another sniffs its ano-genital region; in others, dogs will urinate when fearful or highly submissive; and in others, dogs will urinate in tandem during aggressive encounters.

Social urination has a dual function of providing more information to the other party (particularly about a female in estrous) and also allowing the urinating dog to move away while the other investigates its urine. This creates a safe buffer during less-than-friendly interactions.

Social urination may also function as a submissive signal by making the urinator appear more juvenile. Young puppies urinate reflexively when adults lick their genital region, so adult dogs may imitate this by rolling over and urinating while another dog sniffs them.

Types of Urination Postures

1. The squat

Left: Luke demonstrates the male squat position. Right: Emma demonstrates the female squat position.

Left: Luke demonstrates the male squat position. Right: Emma demonstrates the female squat position.

This is the most basic urination posture, and the one that both male and female puppies first use. In males, it is associated mainly with elimination, but females sometimes use it during object-oriented scent marking.

2. Raised Leg

Commonly thought to be a male-only posture, raised leg urination occurs in both male in female canids. In fact, female canids have more categories of raised-leg urination than males do; however, whereas most male domestic dogs develop the stereotyped raised-leg posture by sixteen weeks, females use it infrequently until they are past about four years old.

Raised-leg urination allows a dog to place its urine at a higher, more conspicuous level during object-directed scent marking.

Squat-raise

Lindsay demonstrates the basic squat-raise.

Lindsay demonstrates the basic squat-raise. It’s difficult to see through her fur, but her left rear leg is raised.

A female-only posture, the squat-raise occurs when a female squats to urinate with one leg raised. This posture is more commonly seen in older females than younger ones.

Arch-raise

Arch-raise, again by Lindsay.

Arch-raise, again by Lindsay.

A female-only posture, the arch-raise occurs when a female arches her back and raises a leg during urination (almost looking as though she’s planning to poop). This posture may allow her to place more vaginal secretions in the spot where she urinates, or may simple be a means of aiming the urine at a specific spot.

– Raised Leg Display

Raised-leg urination can function as a visual display as well as a scented one. Breeding pairs are more likely to use raised-leg urination in wild canids than nonbreeding individuals, perhaps as an easy way for others to identify their status from a distance. Male dogs sometimes use raised-leg displays without any urination at all when communicating.

3. Handstand

The handstand occurs when a dog raises both of its back legs to urinate, usually against a tree or other vertical object. This behavior is more associated with females than males, particularly in the bush dog. In this species, it is found exclusively in breeding females.

(Male bush dogs have another unusual scent-marking tactic- they tend to spray urine rather than stream it.)

Summary: Information Exchanged From Urine-Marking

We may never fully know exactly what information a dog releases each time it urinates; we don’t even know if it can consciously change what it gives out. Research has found that the information can be split into a few broad categories, but much of this is speculation:

  • Reproductive status. Male dogs are more reactive to the urine of female dogs, and even more reactive to the urine of female dogs in estrous. Likewise, female dogs tend to investigate the urine of male dogs longer than the urine of other females. In wild canid families, the breeding pair marks more than the nonbreeding family members, and often marks together, signaling their non-availability.
  • Age and health. In male domestic dogs, scent-marking behaviors show up at four months and peak at fourteen months. In females, they show up more gradually, with a big increase after four years old. Many studies of wild canid fecundity have shown that female dogs are most successful at raising pups between the ages of four and eight, and that female dogs stay with their natal packs longer than males. The higher reproductive cost that they bear may cause females to begin advertising themselves later in life than males.
  • Familiarity and social bonds. Dogs investigate the urine of dogs they don’t know for longer than the urine of dogs they do know. Dogs overmark the urine of dogs they are familiar with or live with, signaling that they are part of the same social group.
  • Territory. Dogs are more likely to mark near the edges of their home ranges (where they are more likely to encounter other dogs) than near the centers. Dogs also tend to mark more in unfamiliar places, signaling where they have traveled to other residents. This can be a means of non-confrontational communication.
  • Caches. Dogs use marking as a means to signal other dogs that an area is free of food.
  • Aggression, friendliness, submission, anxiety, and sexual interest. Urine-marking is a highly variable social tool- it can be used to communicate all of these different emotional states.

Other Behaviors Related To Scent

1. Scent Gland Expression

Canids have scent glands on their paws, tails, cheeks, behind their ears, on their shoulders, on either side of their anus, on the male’s prepuce, and within their anal tissue. During canid greeting ceremonies, areas of the body with scent glands are sniffed (i.e., face, ano-genital region). Canids also rub their faces and ears against each other (and their owners) during social interactions to deposit scent. Very little research has been done on what information these scent glands are capable of communicating.

Some of these glands, such as the precaudal gland on the tail, are visible but vestigial in domestic dogs. (In wolves, the precaudal gland is sometimes called the violet gland because of the oily blue fluid it produces.)

When dogs defecate, their anal glands express fluid onto their feces. Certain South American canids, such as short-eared dogs and maned wolves, are known to “musk” using their anal glands.

Ano-genital Investigation

Butt-sniffing between dogs is a pretty commonly documented phenomenon in human media, but the dogs are not necessarily aiming for the anuses of their friends. Instead, they are smelling the anal glands on either side of the anus as well as the genitals and circumanal glands within the anal tissue. Between males and females, ano-genital investigation has a fairly obvious benefit: it allows a male to tell if a female is receptive to mating from her vaginal secretions. Females in estrous will raise their tails to males to facilitate this.

Ano-genital investigation has a large social component to it as well. It is commonly documented that anxious or submissive dogs will tuck their tails and move away to stop others from sniffing them, while confident or resident dogs are more likely to allow themselves to be sniffed. Anxious dogs may be trying to prevent other dogs’ access to their vulnerable areas, and possibly to prevent them from gaining information as well.

2. Ground Scratching

Video of Luke ground scratching following a urination.

Ground scratching is considered both a visual and a scent signal, and almost always occurs immediately following urination or defecation. Ground scratching releases scent from the glands on the dog’s paw pads onto the area. Dogs are more likely to ground scratch when other dogs are observing them, and many authors believe that the motion is a visual way of indicating where a scent mark has been deposited. Disturbed grass or dirt may be another visual indicator.

Disturbed grass after a ground-scratching session.

Disturbed grass after a ground-scratching session.

3. Rolling

Rolling is another canid behavior that has not been well-studied. During rolling, the dog pushes its cheek and shoulder down onto the ground or target object and then rolls on its back and rubs itself. This results in both a release of scent from scent glands onto the target as well as the accumulation of scent from the target onto the dog’s fur.

Dogs tend to roll on top of strong-smelling objects such as carcasses, feces, et cetera, but they sometimes roll in areas with no obvious target. It’s possible that confident dogs accrue strong smells on their fur to generate more attention from others. It’s also possible that the aim of rolling is to scent-mark near carcasses or items worth investigating. In one study of Ethiopian wolves, the researchers found that they rolled most frequently on or near carcasses and human feces/clothing.

4. Defecating

There has been a lot of debate within the scientific community about whether or not canids use defecation as another way to scent mark. Unlike with urination, canids do not leave poop more frequently near the edges of their territory than the central areas, suggesting that it does not serve a territorial function. Also, due to the fact that canids only poop once or twice each day, poop is much less available as a scent marking tool than urine is.

However, there is some evidence that canids still derive information from poop. Domestic dogs spend a large amount of time sniffing to feces of other dogs, and studies on wolves and coyotes have found that they tend to deposit their scat in exposed places where the wind will be able to blow the scent.

Also, many canid species utilize communal “latrines” where the social group all deposits their feces in the same small area. Studies on raccoon dogs showed that raccoon dogs could tell when the feces of an unfamiliar animal had been placed into their latrine. Like top-marking, latrine usage may be another way to emphasize and maintain social bonds through the mixing of group members’ scents.

Interestingly, sometimes different canid species will utilize the same latrines, such as coyotes and kit foxes. Like corss-species urine marking, this may serve as a passive information exchange between potential competitors.

When a dog defecates, the anal glands on either side of its anus also express fluid over the feces, likely communicating extra information (though the jury is out on what this information is).

Final Conclusions: Your Dog is Telling Secrets

There is so much we have yet to understand about how canids and other mammals communicate through scent. If you own a dog, you know how much time they spend investigating things with their nose rather than their eyes or ears. What are they learning that we don’t know about?

I have a challenge for you, folks! Next time you’re out walking a dog, try counting how frequently he or she urinates, and in what positions, and where. Try seeing if the amount of urinations varies when you take your dog down a route they’re unfamiliar with versus the normal one. How does the presence of other dogs affect their habits? You can even tally up other behaviors like rolling, defecating, and ground-scratching.

This is an exciting thing to look at- at least for me- because the research hasn’t yet been done to reliably predict the answers to these questions. We could all do our own pilot studies!

Read on: I’ve written a few other articles about canids, including ones on dominance behavior, raccoon dogs, and canid evolution and diversity. I’ve also written on why small dogs live longer than large dogs, and on dog mental illnesses in a larger article on animal mental disorders.

To view a list of all my animal articles, head to the Nonfiction section.

References and further reading:

Asa, C. S., Mech, L. D., Seal, U. S., & Plotka, E. D. (1990). The influence of social and endocrine factors on urine-marking by captive wolves (Canis lupus). Hormones and Behavior24(4), 497-509.

Biben, M. (1982). Urine‐marking during agonistic encounters in the bush dog (Speothos venaticus). Zoo Biology1(4), 359-362.

Brown, D. S., & Johnston, R. E. (1983). Individual discrimination on the basis of urine in dogs and wolves. In Chemical Signals in Vertebrates 3 (pp. 343-346). Springer US.

Dunbar, I. F. (1977). Olfactory preferences in dogs: the response of male and female beagles to conspecific odors. Behavioral biology20(4), 471-481.

Dunbar, I., & Carmichael, M. (1981). The response of male dogs to urine from other males. Behavioral and Neural Biology31(4), 465-470.

Harrington, F. H. (1982). Urine marking at food and caches in captive coyotes. Canadian Journal of Zoology60(5), 776-782.

Harrington, F. H. (1981). Urine-marking and caching behavior in the wolfBehaviour, 280-288.

Hart, B. L. (1974). Environmental and hormonal influences on urine marking behavior in the adult male dog. Behavioral biology11(2), 167-176.

Henry, J. D. (1977). The use of urine marking in the scavenging behavior of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Behaviour, 82-106.

Ikeda, H. (1984). Raccoon dog scent marking by scats and its significance in social behaviour. Journal of Ethology2(2), 77-84.

Jordan, N. R., Apps, P. J., Golabek, K. A., & McNutt, J. W. (2014). Top marks from top dogs: tandem marking and pair bond advertisement in African wild dogs.  Animal Behaviour88, 211-217.

Lisberg, A. E. (2008). Urine marking and anogenital investigation in the social introductions of domestic dogs. Urine Marking and Investigation Among Unfamiliar Dogs: Assessing Competition and Avoiding Risk. ProQuest.

Macdonald, D. W. (1979). Some observations and field experiments on the urine marking behaviour of the red fox, Vulpes vulpes LZeitschrift für Tierpsychologie51(1), 1-22.

Pal, S. K. (2003). Urine marking by free-ranging dogs (Canis familiaris) in relation to sex, season, place and posture. Applied Animal Behaviour Science80(1), 45-59.

Porton, I. (1983). Bush dog urine-marking: its role in pair formation and maintenance. Animal behaviour31(4), 1061-1069.

Ralls, K., & Smith, D. A. (2004). Latrine use by San Joaquin kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis mutica) and coyotes (Canis latrans). Western North American Naturalist64(4), 544-547.

Rothman, R. J., & Mech, L. D. (1979). Scent-marking in lone wolves and newly formed pairs. Animal behaviour27, 750-760.

Sillero‐Zubiri, C., & Macdonald, D. W. (1998). Scent‐marking and territorial behaviour of Ethiopian wolves Canis simensis. Journal of Zoology245(3), 351-361.

Vila, C., Urios, V., & Castroviejo, J. (1994). Use of faeces for scent marking in Iberian wolves (Canis lupus). Canadian Journal of Zoology72(2), 374-377.

Wirant, S. C., & McGuire, B. (2004). Urinary behavior of female domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): influence of reproductive status, location, and age. Applied Animal Behaviour Science85(3), 335-348.

Yamamoto, I., & Hidaka, T. (1984). Utilization of “latrines” in the raccoon dog, Nyctereutes procyonoides. Acta Zool. Fennica171, 241-242.

About Koryos

Writer, ethology enthusiast, axolotl herder. Might possibly just be a Lasiurus cinereus that types with its thumbs.
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8 Comments

  1. Thanks! Much interesting information. I wish I’d had this article handy a couple of weeks ago, when I was trying to explain to a client that the age at which we neuter her puppy will not make a difference in whether or not he lifts his leg later in life…

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  5. Has anyone really discovered why some dogs “mark” in the house. None of the behaviors mentions above seem to apply. We have one who marks in random places in the house. It’s not on any other dog’s pee, not the perimeter of any particular room or space (sometimes in the middle) and only some are on verticle items, some are directed to the other dogs’ things (beds, crates), etc. He’s hard to catch doing it so it’s been impossible to correct him and I’ve tried all of the special sprays, crate training and belly bands.

    • I’m not an applied behaviorist, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but this doesn’t sound like marking behavior to me so much as general incontinence. I would definitely get him checked out at the vet to be sure he doesn’t have a UTI or other health issue. If it happens while you’re away it could also be related to separation anxiety, and your vet can advise you on how best to treat that. Above all, make sure you’re letting him outside enough times during the day. Very young and very old dogs need more outside time; they physically can’t hold it for as long. Good luck!

  6. Really interesting article – this is one of the most comprehensive and readable discussions of canine scenting behavior that I’ve seen. Thank you very much for putting in the time to research and write it.

  7. My girl Matilda lifts her leg to pee, and sometimes she’ll lift her leg and start pooping. She totally poops to mark. Great post, that’s a lot of interesting resources!

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