January 15, 2024
The Mysteries of Dog Marking: Self-Awareness and First Impressions
By Cat Pesale
Max, our rescue chihuahua mix, does some dog marking outside during a walk.
It would be a mistake — albeit an honest one — to assume that any dog who lifts their leg is doing something more than relieving themselves after long periods of play, extended naps or meals.
Dog marking, also known as leg-lifting or territorial marking, is a more complicated behavior. Deep down, it is critical to how dogs communicate who they are, their standing on the alpha dog hierarchy, and where their territory officially stands. This is especially true when male dogs interact with unfamiliar visitors, even in multiple-dog households.
Domesticated dog breeds are not the only ones who mark, either. Urine marking is prevalent across diverse species. Foxes, jackals, and other canid and felid species are all documented markers, usually doing so as a way to express submissiveness or bring attention to their domain and authority. Even male rats mark before having sex with females as part of their mating process to communicate their presence and gratification.
Who knew the simple act of peeing could be so loaded with meaning?
For dogs, urine signals are critical to their self-awareness, even more so than looking into mirrors (more on that in a bit). But it can be a significant problem for new and experienced dog owners alike if this behavior carries over into the house. It’s not just a common problem with male markers either, though they get plenty of the blame and grief on this from owners. Female dogs that are not spayed are just as susceptible to marking when they’re in heat.
Therefore, it would benefit anyone looking to better understand dog marking to fully grasp its history and mysteries. Believe us, there is more to marking than one would think at first glance.
Dogs rely on their sense of smell to understand their surroundings. Just like our pug Rosie and Max here.
Looking Through the Olfactory Mirror
Have you ever seen a dog go up to a mirror, look quizzically, and start barking at their reflection non-stop? And then go up to the same mirror and do it again — and again? Or even just ignore the cute pup staring back at them on the other side?
There is a very logical reason why this often happens: dogs that look in the mirror believe they’re seeing a different dog in the room other than themselves.
Regardless of their breed or gender, dogs do not possess the same level of visual awareness that humans and many other mammals enjoy. It’s why they have consistently flunked the “mirror test,” which asks animals to identify man-made marks on their own bodies using mirrors, time and time again. While chimpanzees, some birds, and even an elephant have all passed the mirror test, no dog has.
However, in other recognition tests, dogs showcase stellar self-awareness. It’s just that they’re hard-wired to rely on their noses. As several animal behavior scientists made clear in the academic journal Animals, a dog’s sense of smell is very sophisticated — and significantly more nuanced than that of humans. Their olfactory capabilities are powerful enough to detect food, mating partners and environmental changes. But they are also robust enough to identify narcotics and explosives, as well as metabolic changes in humans that suggest the presence of cancer, diabetes, COVID and infectious diseases.
Max, who wears our escape-proof P-Suit® dog diaper when indoors, marks his territory on a nearby bush.
Naturally, when dogs think of themselves and interact with one another, they dive into everything nose-first. It’s partly why pee plays a considerable role in a dog’s internal dialogue and social life. It’s not because dog urine is another noteworthy odor in their world; it is infused with messages and signals only canines can understand.
One study published in Behavioral Processes and reported on by the New York Times put a dog’s ability to identify other pups — and themselves — through urine to the test. In the experiment, a Barnard College psychologist exposed 36 pet dogs of different breeds and genders to a series of plates that featured different scents. For each dog, she set up a dish containing the pup’s urine, a second plate featuring another dog’s urine, and a third mixing the dog’s urine in with added scents. As a control to rule out other factors, she also worked in a urine-free plate that featured an unfamiliar scent.
The Barnard psychologist then observed how each dog interacted with the various bowls. For this study, she considered a dog to have had a “significant” reaction to a bowl if they lingered around it. After seeing these dogs in action, she did spot some behavioral consistencies. All the dogs spent the least time around their urine — likely based on their familiarity with the smells they contained. However, they spent more time around bowls containing the urine scent of other pups, and the most time around bowls featuring their altered urine.
Dog marking can occur in response to various stimuli, especially urine scents from unfamiliar dogs.
These results also mirror those from an earlier study that suggested how dogs use urine to identify themselves and their surroundings. In this experiment, also published in Behavioral Processes, an animal behavior specialist from the University of Colorado at Boulder put his pup, Jethro, through a simple urine identification test. In what became known as the “yellow snow study,” the specialist watched Jethro and other dogs urinate in the snow, and then quickly collected urine-covered snow samples. Whenever he later let his dog outside, the specialist would covertly move both Jethro’s urine sample and other canine urine samples around the backyard to see how Jethro would react. Much as in the Barnard study, Jethro spent significantly more time investigating other dogs’ urine than his own — suggesting that dogs can distinguish their urine and scent from those of others.
Using Urine to Intimidate Others — and Fudge Perceptions
Urine from dog marking and territorial marking can also say much about the dog who peed for the pup that sniffs it. Unsurprisingly, many pups leverage urine marking to make themselves appear imposing at first sniff.
In films like Jurassic Park, Godzilla, or King Kong, film cameras ominously pan over massive footprints in the ground, suggesting to the unsuspecting humans encountering them that they belong to massive, dangerous creatures. Similarly, dogs leave their own olfactory footprints for their four-legged peers to gawk at. But it’s not the size of the urine mark puddle that spurs anxiety in dogs. Instead, it’s all about the height of the stain.
Regardless of whether dogs find another’s urine on poles, fences, or — in everyone’s nightmare scenario — expensive furniture and drapes, they generally interpret the height of urine stains the same. Generally, the higher on an object the stain starts, the more likely the leg lifter who caused it is bigger and more alpha-dominant. It’s a message of intimidation to other canines about a dog’s size and authority in the marked-out territory.
When communicating their size and social standing, the height and angle at which dogs mark can matter.
While larger dogs don’t need to do much to leave this type of impression, smaller dogs don’t have the same luxury. However, many in the scientific community questioned whether dogs were being truthful about themselves in how they marked, or if they were manipulating perceptions through the way they peed. One experiment covered in the Journal of Zoology looked into this very situation.
In the study, several academics from Cornell University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology videotaped various male dogs in action to assess whether the height of their urine marks accurately communicated their size and social status, or if their marking behaviors actually reeked of deception.
For the first study, the researchers measured the angle at which the dogs raised their legs relative to the ground to see whether that measurement corresponded to how high the dogs had marked. In the second, they reviewed the footage to determine if smaller dogs marked at a higher angle than larger dogs to exaggerate their size.
As it turned out, the findings yielded intriguing results. The angle at which a dog peed accurately suggested how high they marked, as well as the dog's size and weight. However, the scientists also discovered that the smaller dogs in the study regularly marked at higher angles relative to their size and weight. Their conclusion suggests that smaller dogs alter the way they pee to “catfish” others into believing they are bigger and mightier than they really are.
While the Cornell researchers did not factor overmarking behavior into their findings, it does shed light on why pups, especially those in pack situations and multiple-dog households, often use urine to communicate their standing. Or, at the very least, bluff their way into authority.
Dog marking is an essential part of the way canines communicate, and is nothing to be ashamed of.
How Dog Marking’s Role in Self Awareness and First Impressions Can Help Owners
All of these academic studies, which were performed within the last 20 years and covered in outlets such as the New York Times and Science, scratch the surface of the mysteries of dog marking. In fact, this behavior plays a huge role in how dogs express their emotions, communicate possessive behavior, and make clear their availability to mate. We’ll shed light on all of these mysteries in coming posts.
But for any dog owner, it’s important to get down to the nitty-gritty behind the science. The major tie between all of these studies is that dogs are a smell-first species, and that urine is part of the multifaceted language dogs use to communicate with others and interact with their surroundings. While this behavior is never acceptable indoors, it does not mean that owners confronting dog marking are not good trainers or are bad owners. They just need to recognize that urine marking is as natural to canines as fetching thrown objects or the rushing into the zoomies — and adjust how they approach this common behavior accordingly.