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What Do Your Dog's Urination Rituals Really Mean?

dog scent markingAn extensive study on canine scent marking published recently in the journal Animal Behaviour provides conclusive evidence dogs of both sexes compete for status through urination.

The characteristics by which canines judge one another's position in the doggy hierarchy include the location chosen, angle of leg lift, height of the marking and quality of the urine.

Overmarking is when a dog pees on or near the mark left by another canine. Adjacent marking is when a dog urinates very close to, but not directly on, the mark of another dog. Both types are known as countermarking.

Putting to rest previous assumptions that overmarking is done exclusively by males to hide female urine marking, this study reveals both male and female dogs do it. And they do it to urine marks of either sex, not just marks left by the opposite sex. The dog's status plays an important role in the tendency to countermark.

According to Anneke Lisberg, study co-author and a researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater:

"Although both sexes countermark, they do it a little differently: Males are more likely to overmark than females, and high-status males exposed to a place like a dog park are the energizer bunnies of marking. Males and females investigate urine, and the higher tailed dogs of both sexes urinate and countermark. But the males don't stop after the first mark or second or third."

(Dogs of either gender with high tail positions are assumed to be higher status dogs.)

Lower status dogs, more submissive than their higher ranking counterparts, often don't do any countermarking at dog parks. Based on studies of other animals that urine-mark, it's in fact risky for a submissive individual to even pretend to overmark. In the world of canines, it seems attempting to fake elevated status with countermarking is inviting trouble from higher ranking dogs who know the difference.

Dr. Lisberg explains how scent marking probably helps dogs relate to one another:

"Because these are signals that can be investigated from a safe distance, it may be that dogs are able to sort out a lot of their relationships through marks before they ever meet face to face. If they can sort out things chemically, it could help them make smarter decisions about whom to approach and how to approach them."