Why does my dog DO that? Marking Behavior in Dogs | Blogs

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Why does my dog DO that? Marking Behavior in Dogs
Blogs, Pets
Why does my dog DO that?  Marking Behavior in Dogs

 This is the first in a series of blogs regarding curious and often misunderstood behavior in family dogs. 

This morning in the play yard, I witnessed one of my female dog students, a two-year-old Mini-Aussie, scuff both her paws on the ground upon entering the yard.  Afterward, she sniffed around the fire hydrant (every dog play yard needs one, right?) and then lifted her leg and peed on it!  She spotted another dog pooping and went over and sprayed some urine there as well.  Just like that, another topic for my weekly dog blog was born!

Because so many dogs spend time in the play yard, it triggers marking behavior in many of my students.  It’s not uncommon for a dog, male OR female, to spend a few moments sniffing and squirting this and that on arrival.  Dogs have a very keen sense of smell.  They identify the scent of every animal that’s been in “their” territory since they were last here.  Every chipmunk, every squirrel, every neutered male and spayed female dog and every intact pup can be scented.  Dogs pick up scent not only via urine or feces, but also from paws contacting the ground and from items that have been in the mouths of other animals (a twig or leaf or acorn, for example) and then discarded.  It’s a veritable smorgasbord of scent out there!

On your walks around the neighborhood or your visits to the dog park or beach, you may have witnessed your own dog sniffing and marking as well.  Like me, you may have misinterpreted the scuffing of paws against the ground after defecating as your dog’s way of covering their droppings.  Not so.  The truth is that after scenting the ground with their pee and poop, some dogs take it a step further (lterally) and use the scent on their paws to mark the ground some more.  Pretty dominant gesture, huh?  We’ve all laughed when a dog seems to lift its leg as high as Canada when attempting to mark a tree or shrub.  Silly as it may look, there’s a reason for this behavior as well.  If the dog can spray his urine higher than those who marked before him, his urine will run down the tree and cover the other scents.  Back in the day, this was important business, as the dominant male marked his territory, letting other males know that the females belonged to HIM for mating purposes.  Though this isn’t relevant in present times, the behavior is genetically-coded.  I guess males haven’t gotten the memo on this yet...

You may also have had experience with a dog marking indoors.  This can occur at the dog’s own home when a new pet or even a new human baby is brought into the fold.  More commonly, a dog visiting a home where other animals live is the “marker.”  Dogs do this to establish ownership or to “get a leg up” in the pack order.  Wherever they can smell the other animal(s), they attempt to overmark those scents.  This behavior is most prevalent in intact male dogs, but also occurs in males who were neutered on the late side (after 6 months of age).  Once a dog begins to practice a behavior, it may become a habit, even post-neuter.

So...how are us humans to respond when our dogs want to practice marking behavior?  Here are some tips:

On a walk with your dog, it’s not necessary to stop and allow your dog to sniff and mark as s/he desires.  Teach your dog that a walk is just that....forward movement without stopping.  After your dog relieves his bladder at the beginning of the walk, continue the outing uninterrupted.  Marking is not a desirable behavior, so don’t reward it by giving the dog opportunity to practice it.  

Consider ditching the retractable leash.  I personally find that the drawbacks of walking a dog on a flexi-leash or retractable leash outweigh the benefits.  You have much more control over your dog on a regular leash than on one that allows your dog to get so far away from you.  

When off-leash, keep your dog busy fetching a ball or stick or playing a game of tug.  Left to his own devices, your dog will be more likely to mark the area, especially an area where other dogs congregate frequently.  Have your dog drag a leash or longer line so that you have more control over his/her movements and can intervene if/when necessary.

If your dog has a  history of marking indoors, do your very best to get your dog to empty his bladder before taking him inside someone’s home or into a store or other establishment that allows dogs inside.  Once inside, do not let your attention veer from your dog for even a second for the first five or ten minutes.  Your dog is most likely to mark during this time.  If you are distracted, you may not notice that stealthy leg lift on a store fixture or couch corner.

There is a device called a “belly band” available for dogs who consistently have trouble with indoor marking.  It is simply a wide elastic band secured with velcro that keeps the penis of a male dog tucked up against his body while he’s inside.  This supposedly inhibits the desire to urinate.  

Early spay or neuter for your pup may also help proactively.  Prolonging your dog’s operation may allow time for hormones to flow, which in turn may set the stage for marking behavior to occur.  Once a behavior becomes habitual, it is far more difficult to discourage in a reactive manner.  Consult your vet and request the earliest date for spay/neuter.  If your vet wants to wait until a certain age, provide feedback and reintroduce the topic if your pup begins to show regular and repeated signs (like lifting the leg, marking, humping other dogs) that may indicate hormones are flowing.  The latest veterinary research out of Tufts Veterinary School suggests that four months or four pounds, whichever first occurs, is a safe time to perform the operation.

Next up:  Curious behavior in off-leash/play situations.


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