Marking in dogs is defined as when the dog lifts his leg on objects or people and leaves behind a small amount of urine.
Marking is thought to be related to marking a territory. The dog leaves his scent to tell other dogs he has been there. It is a natural behavior for feral or village dogs but typically an unwanted one in pet dogs, especially indoors. It helps to think of it as a form of communication.
The most common reason a dog marks is when a dog that is not confident and may feel the need to mark objects and even people. Most dogs seek objects that stick out in the environment. In a mowed lawn, the dog will find the tallest bunch of grass. Of course they also mark posts, rocks, trees and man-made objects. When this behavior occurs indoors inappropriately, (such as lifting a leg on furniture or walls) this behaviour is most often see when a dog is stressed. Outdoors, is is often seen in the context of excitement. Keep in mind that stress can be both bad or distress and good or eustress (excitement). I would argue that a dog patrolling his territory that marks to let others know he is there is also experiencing the stress of the threat of an invader. Hence the need to mark. If the dog doesn't care or is happy to share his territory, he/she doesn't mark as much (personal observation). Dogs can also be triggered to mark by the presence of ammonia-containing products such as cleaning solutions. This could be interpreted as the dog seeing another dog in his territory. That is stressful.
When a service dog marks indoors in a new environment, it might that he is stressed in that environment or that other dogs have been there and urine residue is left from other dogs or cleaning solution. If he is leaving a longer stream of urine, it more likely indicates that he has not yet generalized the potty cue to mean where you indicate only and may be a clue that the behavior is not yet under stimulus control.
Stress increases cortisol production in the body and higher level of cortisol causes more urine to be produced. So more urine needs to be excreted.
Some dogs use marking as a displacement behaviour. That means when they are uncertain about something or want to change how they are feeling, they do a behaviour that is a common behaviour to them (the thought is that it provides some comfortable to them as well as gives them time to process the situation). This might included sniffing the ground, scratching themselves, yawning, looking away or even peeing for short bursts (marking).
Any major stressor can trigger a dog to start marking when that dog has never marked before.
- Changes in living situation: joining a new family, adding or losing another dog or person. Change of physical arrangement (furniture) or living in a different house.
- Change in the relationship or health of another dog or cat in the house.
- Addition or use of ammonia-based cleaning products. These contain the same chemical as urine and residue may trigger a dog to want to "over-mark" as if he is covering another dog's urine.
- Very high arousal such as playing with another dog or doing a very exciting activity.
- Change in development stage (adolescent increase in testosterone typically peaks at 11 months)
- Going through a fear period.
As the situation is resolved (the dog gets more comfortable with a new living situation, relationships and trust is built, or the dog gains skills in dealing with situations and or individuals that trigger concern or fear), there will likely be a reduction of marking. For example, my current female dog Jessie (GSD mix) used to mark about every 50 feet on walks when we first got her (7 months to about 2.5 years). She was a nervous dog who had just changed homes, was now living with 2 senior dogs and people of different age and activity level than she was accustomed to. As she grew more confident /comfortable with us and learned where her boundaries were with our senior dogs and us, the need to mark decreased. She had been spayed at 10 weeks of age so that was not part of the issue.
Another example, I had a ESS/Dal mix who would only pee in the yard. He would not mark there. When we got a second dog, our golden, he started marking in the yard. Once he felt comfortable with her a few weeks later, he stopped marking. When he was away from home he rarely marked. Only when he encountered larger male dogs that he was worried about, would he mark several locations near the other dog until we moved away from that dog. He did not do this near small dogs of either sex or female dogs of any size. He was neutered at 8 months of age.
How do you Prevent or Solve the Issue?
1. First, rule out a health issue for frequent urination such as a bladder infection (often seen in females they strain to pee and very little comes out, may be accompanied with blood in the urine).
2. Look at the situation from your dog's perspective. How might he be feeling? What might be stressing him out? How can you build his confidence?
3. Handle the situation as you would a small puppy:
- Confine your dog when you cannot directly supervise (meaning you are actively watching him). Keep him in one room with you. Close doors or put up baby gates. Block access to areas behind couches etc that you cannot see.
- Take him out on an hourly basis.
- Clean up any residue with vinegar and enzymatic cleaner which breaks the urine down into chemicals not recognized by a dog. Make sure to clean anything marked by other dogs and also clean splashes on walls. Depending on how bad the marking has been, you may need to clean drapes or even remove the carpet and replace with smooth flooring.
4. Build his confidence
- Introduce him to other family members more gradually. Give him his own space. Give him time to acclimate to a new location, people etc.
- Work with both dogs together but with a barrier between them (X-pen, baby gate etc) to give the new dog space. Gradually reduce the distance between them, then when the two dogs are showing relaxed body language in each other's presence, you can reduce or remove the barrier.
- Use counter conditioning to desensitize him to scary things.
- Use a structure like the "Look at That" game from Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed.
5. Reduce the frequency of potty outings.
6. Put the pee behaviour on cue (service dogs need this behaviour anyway). Teach it to the point of stimulus control. Start with teaching it in your yard. Then cue him to pee before you leave home so he's empty.
Next, choose a few designated places on your daily walks where he is allowed to pee and cue him to do it there. He is not allowed to pee anywhere else. Interrupt him (9. below) if he starts to pee anywhere else.
7. When he is not needing to go out as frequently to pee (about 4 hours), gradually increase the amount of space or rooms that he has access to. Start this by spending time in that new space or room with him: let him explore while supervised right after being out for a pee, play with him, provide a chew toy to chew on, bring his mat a crate for resting while you watch tv or talk on the phone etc.
8. Teach him a positive interrupter such as a kissy sound to have him turn back to you. Build up the distraction level gradually so he learns to turn back to you no matter what the distraction might be.
9. Then, if you catch your dog in the act of starting to mark (sniffing around or hiking his leg) in the house or away from home, use a positive interrupter (such as a kissy sound) to redirect him. It is perfectly okay to pull firmly and steadily on his leash to move him away from the object he is peeing on if he is slow to respond to your interrupter.
10. When training in public places, be aware that some stores that use ammonia to clean their floors and windows and that ammonia is found in plant fertilizers (garden centres). Many well-trained dogs make mistakes when ammonia residue is present. At least, it might explain why your dog might be making the mistake. It simply means you need to do more proofing and train some set ups with ammonia.
Spaying or neutering may reduce making but does not stop it. Do your homework before spaying or neutering your dog as there can be both physical health and behaviours side effects especially in Golden Retrievers and German Shepherd dogs. (See Health blog posts)
Both males and females may mark, spayed or neutered or not. Interestingly, both sexes may also lift their legs when they pee or mark.
Once it becomes established, the behaviour may be a learned behaviour (habit). Getting help with behaviour modification may be needed from a professional positive reinforcement trainer.
Belly bands (bands that are put around a male dog's belly and over his penis) or panties for female dogs can be problematic as they can keep bacteria in contact with the skin and result in health issues if not changed very frequently. Changing how the dog feels and the environment to help that is a far more effective way to help your dog change the behaviour.