Scent marking in dogs

Oh Reggie. You continue to surprise me. I have sung your praises (ok bragged) about how you don’t ever, ever, urinate or defecate on a walk because you know it’s exercise time and you go in the yard only. This week you surprised me. Well, you downright shamed me for a little while.

This winter has been brutal; for everyone. There is so much “yellow snow” I noticed Reggie started taking an interest in it. He’s never really done this before but we’ve never really had this much snow to retain this much…scent before. He started over-marking on walks a couple months ago. I was surprised because, remember, Reggie has never done this. But, I just chalked it up to the crazy amount of snow and unusual circumstances inundating his senses. He was just being a dog, right? Until this week.

We had another round of sub-zero temperatures which didn’t allow for proper outdoor walks so I decided to go to the pet store to get a new, novel toy for stimulation. At the store we met a 4 month old female pit bull Reggie made friends with and then we went in search of the toys. As we were walking, I realized that there was tension on the leash and Reggie was no longer walking with me. I looked down and there he was marking a display of cat food! For shame…

I was stunned. He of course had no need to urinate; he had done that before leaving the house. This had taken a turn. He’s never done this before and this is not yellow snow. Was he showing off for the (presumably un-spayed) female pit bull? What’s going on?

According to a study by the APSCA, 90% of the dogs who urine marked started doing so by the age of 2 years. Reggie is 7. So there must be another reason. First step is to rule out something medical. Frequent urination could mean a urinary or bladder infection, incontinence, or other medical problems. Reggie has just had his yearly exam with a clean bill of health so I know it’s not medical in his case.

Other reasons could be submissive urination, separation anxiety, or house training problems. Reggie is not urinating in the house so it’s not separation anxiety or house training issues, and submissive urination is when you greet your dog and he gets so excited to see you he leaks. That’s not this situation either. Hmm.

That leaves territorial marking. Dogs communicate many things with pheromones in the urine; gender, state of reproduction, disease, age, status, etc. On a walk, dogs will sniff the scent-marks and remember that for when they meet every dog in order to scent-match and make that connection- “that Labradoodle lives on the corner.” Historically speaking you would want the biggest, strongest member of the pack to mark to warn predators. Others that smell that mark would know the status, health, and gender and in theory would leave that area.

So why is Reggie territorial marking now, at 7 years of age, when he’s lived in this home for several years? The answer I interpret from two sources, John Bradshaw author of Dog Sense, and Dr. Myrna Milani from Dog Watch. Reggie is stressed. From Dr. Milani, “the less confident the dog and the more complex the environment, the more likely marking will occur, the more frequently it will occur…” Uh oh. The problem is me.

Marking is not bad, but in Reggie’s case it is out of the norm. I am not displaying adequate leadership or training to Reggie which is causing him stress and making him feel like he has to protect (mark) the path we take around his home. The indoor exercise and enrichment activities I am doing to beat the sub-zero temps just aren’t a long term substitute for outdoor walks. Reggie needs this. Moral of the story? It’s the weather’s fault!

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