Scent marking is a territorial statement that is both natural and useful in a dog’s world. You’ve probably noticed your dog doing it around the garden boundary, or on the nearest lamp-post when you take them out for a walk. It only really becomes a problem when they start marking in the house, but it’s quite likely that your dog thinks it’s natural to do it there too!
You can tell the difference between a dog urinating and a dog marking simply by the amount they eliminate, as only a small amount is used to scent mark – which is about the only bit of good news when they start doing it in the house! However, even a small puddle can cause a nasty lingering smell, which from the dog’s point of view is the whole point of it.
A lot of owner’s first reaction is to think that their dog needs more potty training, or even that they are doing it on purpose. This is rarely true and approaching it from that point of view is highly unlikely to help. To stop the problem we first need to understand what lies behind this behaviour, because simply punishing your dog for making a mess is unlikely to change anything and could make things worse.
How Scent Marking Works
In the wild, establishing and protecting territory is an essential part of a dog pack’s survival strategy and using their urine to mark the boundaries of that territory is a highly effective way of doing it.
Marking is done by both male and female dogs and in the wild tends to be the job of the most dominant members of the pack, because the pheromones in their urine also communicates their status to any other dog that comes sniffing around. Basically, it’s a first-line deterrent to outsiders and helps avoid confrontation, as the higher the status of the dog, the bigger the potential threat.
Dogs don’t just mark the outer boundaries of their territory, they’ll also do it inside their territory around areas that are particularly important, such as the den. It indicates to intruders the willingness of the pack to defend the area. This explains why a dog will not just mark the garden shed, but sometimes even their own bed.
Why Mark in the House?
There are a number of different reasons a dog starts marking in the house. The most common one is when you move to a new home; everything smells different to your dog, which can make them feel uneasy and trigger the need to both claim the territory and create familiar smells. However, this is often a one-off occurrence and as smells get more familiar, this behaviour doesn’t tend to continue.
One thing that does seem clear is that the more confident your dog is, the less likely they will feel the need to mark in the house, whereas the higher the levels of anxiety in your dog, the more likely marking will occur.
Some anxious dogs will mark every time you go out, even if you only pop out for 10 minutes. Often they will do it by the door that you left by or as close as they can get to it. In this scenario they are not only indicating their willingness to protect the area while you’re gone, they are also leaving a scent trail so that you know where to come back to. It works for their pack members in the wild, they just haven’t worked out that you don’t have as good a sense of smell as they do!
In our experience, if the dog has assumed the role of ‘pack leader’ this can also trigger the need to mark within the house, because the role automatically makes them responsible for the safety of their owners. This is a very difficult role for a dog to fulfil because they don’t understand the human world and it can cause them a lot of anxiety.
If none of the above scenarios fit with your dog, make sure you check with your vet that there are no underlying health problems such as a urinary tract infection.
The Best Way to Approach the Problem
On a practical level, you will need to manage the situation while you deal with the underlying problem. As I mentioned earlier, punishment of any kind will not help, and could compound their already anxious feelings.
If your dog has free run of the house while you are out, you may want to consider limiting their space to somewhere that is easy to clean. Then, when you come home to a puddle, simply put the dog in a different room while you clear up the mess. Don’t say a word to your dog as they really won’t understand what they have done wrong. Equally, don’t feel sorry for your dog and try and comfort them either, as you could turn their behaviour into a way of your dog getting your attention and they will carry on doing it.
In the meantime, find out how you can show your dog that you are leader of pack leader, not them, it will not only help reduce the anxiety, the marking should also stop. Contrary to what a lot of owners think, this does not mean you need to be dominant or rough with your dog, you should always use using positive training for the best results.