Karen B. London
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New Research on Canine Marking
Who is peeing and where?

Urine marking in dogs is a well-known behavior in the sense that everyone is aware that it happens, but it is poorly known in the scientific sense because so few studies have examined it with a rigorous approach.


Scientists Anneke Lisberg and Charles Snowdon applied such needed rigor to the subject and report the results in “Effects of sex, social status and gonadectomy on countermarking by domestic dogs, Canis familiaris,” which was recently published in the journal Animal Behavior.


Countermarking behavior in dogs consists of either marking on (overmarking) or near (adjacent marking) previous scent marks. Part of what’s so great about this study is that it shows that what we think we know about behavior from observing it casually, even over years and years, may not be as spot on (so to speak) as we think.


As is so often the case, a controlled study of the relevant variables revealed that what is going on is significantly more complex than previously believed. Lisberg and Snowdon’s study is one of a few to examine canine urine marking and as such makes a big contribution to our understanding of this behavior. Here’s what their study found:


In an experiment with urine from groupmates and from unfamiliar dogs presented to dogs in a controlled way on sticks, they found that:


Intact males (but not neutered males) were more likely to overmark urine from intact females.


Males who overmarked had a higher tail base position (which the authors used as a measure of social status) than males who did not overmark.


Familiarity with a dog did not affect overmarking of its urine, but dogs adjacent-marked only urine samples from unfamiliar dogs.


Neither sex nor tail base position affected adjacent marking.


Being spayed or neutered had no relationship with the likelihood of countermarking.


In observations of countermarking at a dog park, they found that:


Males and females both countermarked and investigated urine.


Males and females with higher tail base positions did more urinating, countermarking, and investigating of urine than members of their same sex with lower tail base positions.


Lisberg and Snowdon conclude that although intact males may be overmarking intact female urine as a form of mate guarding as has long been suspected, that is only a piece of the story. Both sexes, whether intact or not, appear to countermark in a competitive manner. Additionally, this study suggests that overmarking and adjacent marking may have different functions.


What have you observed about your dog’s marking behavior?



Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Chris | May 4 2011 |

One of my dogs does something I've always been curious about. Shadow is an intact male Golden Retriever. He's very calm and sweet and mellow. I call him the Nursemaid because he frets when one of our other dogs is ill or injured, and in fact his hovering is often the first indication that something is wrong! He gets very stressed (panting and whining) and will lick their ears and/or the site of a cut or wound. We actually have to stop him from engaging in this behavior as it causes his stress to escalate and annoys the dog he's worried about.

My other two dogs are a neutered male JRT mix and a spayed female APBT. When I let them out in the yard, Shadow follows them around, overmarking their urine. Given what I know about his behavior when one of our other dogs is ill/injured, I've wondered if this marking is a protective type of thing. He also marks any new object he may find in the yard during his inspections--coolers, chairs, grills, etc.


Submitted by Anonymous | May 7 2011 |

Please please please neuter your Shadow boy! There are enough dogs in the world without a home, let's control the population!

Submitted by Lisa | May 4 2011 |

My two dogs, both females, one a spayed six year old, the other an intact three year old, mark differently.

The spayed six year old marks about a third as much as the intact three year old. She will investigate other urine markings, but she will not usually countermark. However, and this is not mentioned in the article, she WILL deliberately urinate near a dead animal, or sometimes cat feces.

The intact three year is continuously marking, everywhere. She stops every thirty seconds or so to mark. Also, if she spies something unusual on the ground that wasn't there before, like a piece of cardboard or plastic or some other item, she will make a detour and walk over to mark the item.

Also, if another dog walks by, BOTH dogs will very excitedly drag me over to the spot where the other dog urinated.

Submitted by Fey | May 4 2011 |

I have two dogs, same breed, 5 months apart in age, not from same litter--the female is spayed, the male is neutered. The male will wait until the female marks and then he will countermark every time. We live in the woods and in the morning the dogs' ritual is to sniff the ground to find out what visited the night before. The male will mark whatever he finds of interest. The female will give attention but not usually mark. If she does mark, it will be nearby but it really has to be "important". When I walk the dogs in public, I cannot let the male dog stop & mark or he would do it constantly. He gets a break to mark/countermark along the way, but we'd get no exercise if he led the way with his marking and countermarking.

Submitted by Amy | May 5 2011 |

Not exactly on the topic of scent-marking, but still in the urine catagory. My neutured male takes no interest in my spayed female's urine, unless she's got a UTI starting. If I notice him sniffing where she has eliminated (gone pee), I know it's time to watch my girl very closely and give her some cranberry extract pills. Fortunately, she doesn't have frequent issues (was mainly a puppy thing), but I know something is up and to pay attention if he starts to investigate her urine spot.

Submitted by laurelin | May 10 2011 |

One of my first foster dogs, Nikki, had come from horrid beginnings in an enclosed, windowless garage. She spent 1.5 years crated there before ending up at our shelter, and it took months of rehabbing to get her to stand near people (she would lay down, close eyes and cower) and to relax, gain confidence and get ready to lead her own life as a loved pet (which she is still doing today!). Potty training was an issue with her, as you can imagine. It was further complicated in that it turns out she not only would not urinate near where another dog had - she was terrified of places multiple dogs urinated! She would not go into parts of our yard where the two other dogs in the house regularly relieved themselves, and walks would get interesting. She seemed to take solace in the areas that other dogs did not routinely mark. It took a while to figure out that this was the issue, and it got me thinking back then - very interesting to read about the new research now!

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