Urine Marking – Is it appropriate?

By Lynn –

While no one’s yet confronted me about it, I’m sure I get a lot of mean looks from people behind curtains or those who are just really good at concealing their facial expressions when it comes to letting dogs mark while on a walk. Why? The short answer is because I don’t allow it: it interrupts the pace of our walk, it’s rude, and it focuses the dog’s mind on something other than me.

The long answer is a little bit more involved, and it probably doesn’t lessen the mean looks in the long run.

In a good working relationship, a dog looks to it’s owner as a pack leader. Ideally, the relationship is one where the dog has been allowed to learn by reinforcement, as well as mistakes and fair corrections, so that the dog is not afraid of misbehaving so much as it is confident that any decision that it does make will be a good one because it knows where the boundaries of “bad” behavior lay. Because the dog learns that it is not in charge, it then assumes a more submissive, albeit confident, role as a happy, secure, loyal pet who will do just about anything for it’s owner.

Where marking comes into this is the need (drive) to claim something, be it an object, territory, or person. A dog who respects it’s leader and who is comfortable with that hierarchy should feel no need to desire anything such as what is achieved through a quick urine squirt, because there is no need for it. While on a walk (which is the most common activity to observe marking), a dog is co-operating in an activity that bonds it closer to it’s owner: the owner leads, determines which path will be followed, determines what stops will be made and when, and the dog gains attention (reinforcement) by keeping a focus on these activities. I don’t mean that the dog should be keeping a full eye-contact competition heel the entire time; indeed, a walk should be relaxing (even the portions where the dog is asked to do obedience exercises) and the dog should be allowed to notice what’s going on around it, but without going too far forward or lagging too far behind it’s person.

I’ll cover in a later blog how and why, when taught correctly, this is actually beneficial for the dog in terms of mental exercise.

By going off to sniff an object with the intention of marking, the dog is indicating a certain lack of respect for the person by going outside the expectations of what is considered good behavior. Whether this happens in the home on the corner of a couch or a toy, or outside on a bush or tree, it’s behavior that I consider unnecessary if the dog has a good working relationship with it’s leader. While this behavior, such as the likes of jumping, digging, chewing, mouthing, etc is natural to dogs, it is not something that I want my dog doing: we consider it no problem to curb other such behaviors in the interest of teaching respect for humans, and when taught appropriately, the dog doesn’t suffer in any way by NOT being allowed to perform those behaviors (provided it is given an effective outlet for those affected by activity!). As such, to deny my dog the opportunity to mark is not taking away any part of his manhood, nor is it depriving him of what some overly emotional types consider “just being a dog.” As a matter of consequence, I like to consider that the majority of well-trained dogs who respect their pack leaders are truly more dog-like and live fuller lives than those who are allowed to rule the house, treated as commodities (here’s lookin’ at you, Hollywood!), or live outside 24/7, among other circumstances.

In regards to marking during a walk, it is no doubt an annoyance for owners to have to stop at every tree or bush and give it the old sniff-n-squirt. While a walk should be relaxing, it should also have a rhythm to it. It should have direction, a purpose and the intent to go somewhere, even though most of them start out and end at the same exact point. It should be relaxing, fun and focused, allowing for the benefits of both physical and mental exercise. I want a dog’s brain to work with me and make it’s own decisions. While going off to mark a tree indicates a degree of independence prided by some owners (“Oh look, he’s doing his own thing! Such a big boy!”), it is not an activity the dog should feel pressed to do–as if the every tree he doesn’t visit will turn into some demon if not calmed by the presence of a drop of urine. The almost-frantic frenzy dogs enter in an attempt to mark as many outdoor items as possible is visible to a lot of people, but the obsessiveness of the behavior isn’t so obvious to those who insist that it is a part of their daily excursion.

In some cases, this is actually quite rude to allow a dog to mark. As with breaking the heel position while out on walks, it indicates a lack of respect for the pack leader’s domicile and possessions, as well as those of others. I see this often with dogs on extendable leads: he is frequently allowed to stray from the sidewalk onto someone’s property, often right up to the house itself, and mark at will what is officially that of someone else’s. Even marking bushes next to the sidewalk is rude if they are obviously part of a landscape arrangement: dog urine, while known for causing brown spots in the lawn, can also ruin parts of plants if applied too often. The poor little boxwood out front has certainly seen quite a few lifted legs!

Might one argue that, if no urine application is desired, we might just avoid putting such plants in proximity of the sidewalk? It’s possible, but implausible. The land that my family paid for is ours to play with; why should we cater to those who insist on allowing their dogs to use it as their personal toilet or target range? It’s easy for someone to pick up any poo piles that might occur–quite naturally might I add–and it’s even easier for a responsible owner to prevent a dog from marking, even if it’s attached to an extendable leash; however, with most of these owners, it’s quite difficult to get through the idea that it’s the right thing to do!

The drive to mark is not just a male thing. Females do it too, although it is not as commonly seen because they tend to overmark more flat surfaces, and some do not even lift a leg while doing do. While neutering can fix the behavior, oftentimes it is something that has become a behavioral habit for the dog, and this is where the benefit of correction comes into the picture: just as we correct a dog for jumping (and subsequently reward him when he does not), we can correct a dog for marking (although the reward might not be as overt as the one for not jumping). Even intact dogs can learn to not mark, although this might take some effort if intact bitches are present. It’s not impossible as some people seem to moan and groan about; the dog simply needs to learn respect for it’s pack leader, and the boundaries within which it may act and the consequences that come from both misbehaviors as well as good behaviors! This is what truly makes a dog, a dog…and that is indeed the best kind of companion to have by your side!