Consider having someone visit your dog for a mid-day walk if you work long hours. By Myrna Milani, BS, DVM. My dog urinates in numerous locations in my house, which I’ve been told is territorial marking. The only place she’s never gone is in my bed. On the other hand, my cousin’s dog only urinates in his bed and he was told that’s territorial marking, too. How can these two opposite behaviors mean the same thing?
To understand the variations that may occur in marking behavior, we first need to understand territorial behavior itself. Recall that establishing and protecting the territory serves as the primary animal priority. The wild dog pack’s territorial nature leads its members to claim an area large enough to support them and any offspring, but not one so large that it requires excessive energy to adequately defend it. Within that space, the animals also protect certain prime locations — such as choice feeding sites and dens — more diligently than areas at the periphery. However, because the ultimate goal remains to find food and water and reproduce, it makes sense to leave a token marker — such as scent-laden urine that communicates the resident’s willingness to protect this space if necessary — rather than actually physically challenging every suspicious interloper who approaches that space. Moreover, because marking itself requires energy, it also makes sense only to mark as much as is necessary to get the job done.
Because animals communicate their sex and status in the pheromones in their urine, that typically means that the most vigorous animals in the pack do most of the marking because they pose the most threat to any interloper. Imagine seeing a warning posted by the local police versus one posted by the third grade garden club: Which one would you take more seriously? Thus, marking serves as a marvelously efficient way to avoid confrontations. While a certain energy-efficient elegance underlies territorial theory when applied to a pack of wild animals, an individual pet’s personality, the quality of its environment, and its relationship with its owner may throw numerous curves into the process. Pet dogs living in complex human environments may find themselves trying to reach some sort of a workable compromise between the ancient drive to establish and protect a territory, and their own temperaments and any physical or other limitations that would make doing this a threatening endeavor. Under these circumstances, pets typically mark either that space they feel comfortable protecting or that which carries such a positive charge they’d risk injury or even death to protect it. In general, the less confident the dog and the more complex the environment, the more likely marking will occur, the more frequently it will occur, and the more it will involve intimate objects.
For example, Josie, a well-trained, stable dog who lives on a quiet, dead-end street feels no need to make any territorial statements beyond the messages communicated in her daily eliminations. Sandy, who lacks Josie’s confidence plus lives in a busy suburb, lifts his leg on prominent fence posts and trees around the perimeter of his owner’s yard in an effort to scare off invaders. Tuffy marks the upstairs hallway, effectively announcing his desire to protect all of his beloved owners’ sleeping quarters. Little Sugar only marks her owner’s belongings, and all of these except the bed. Her litter mate, Spice, only marks her owner’s bed. Additionally some pets will mark any new objects added to their territories, thereby claiming them and thus ruling out the need for a confrontation. Again, more confident animals may pee on the tires of the visitor’s vehicle, whereas those who feel more vulnerable may pee on the visitor’s belongings, or even the visitor himself.
In the majority of these cases, though, the marking exists because, due to a lack of training and other human displays that communicate leadership, owners have deliberately or unwittingly thrust this protective role upon their pets. Unfortunately, owners who don’t understand what the animal communicates via the display — i. While attributing such negative emotions to perfectly logical canine behaviors always ranks as a tragedy, it’s particularly sad in the case of very young, timid, or geriatric animals who believe they must protect their owners from the meter reader, school bus, and letter carrier day after day and endure the owner’s wrath, too. The dog does not understand it, and the owner’s anger adds to the dog’s confusion. On the other hand, once caring owners understand what causes the behavior, they can relieve their pets of the territorial stresses that cause the problem. Canine Marking versus Peeing: A Medical or a Behavioral Problem? I travel a lot in my work and after I returned from a two-week trip, I discovered that my 6-year-old, spayed Chihuahua mix, Chili, has been peeing on the corner of my bed.
Some people tell me it’s a medical problem while others say it’s behavioral. She’s a little baby as well as my best friend and I want to do what’s best for her, but I’m confused. And both medical and behavioral components may elicit or result from bond issues which deserve attention, too. To understand why this might be, let’s first view Chili’s problem as strictly medical. However, any medical problem that results in inappropriate elimination automatically sets her up for behavioral problems on two fronts. First, once Chili soils the bed, the scent of the urine may cause her to continue urinating there after any physical problem is resolved. Second, if her physical ailment makes her feel vulnerable and less able to protect her territory, she may begin marking her owner’s bed to communicate this sentiment, too.
On the other hand, suppose Chili begins marking the bed because something threatens her during her owner’s absence. Perhaps the pet-sitter her owner hired brings his own dog along, or maybe a noisy construction project begins in the apartment downstairs. In this case, the urine on the bed communicates, «Go away! I’ll fight to protect this! Because the pet-sitter’s dog and the construction crew do, in fact, go away every day, as far as Chili’s concerned, the marking works and she continues doing it. How could this behavior set Chili up for medical problems? Well, we know that frightened dogs may mark their territories numerous times daily. We also know that dogs who feel insecure in their space may only eat and drink the minimum amount. We also know that stress elevates blood cortisol, a hormone from the adrenal glands, which can undermine the immune response. And, finally, we know that dogs caught up in protecting their space may not take time to groom themselves properly after eliminating. Putting these altogether, we can see how a stressed dog with a depressed immune response who repeatedly squats and eventually strains to urinate who also lacks the time to practice proper post-elimination hygiene could wind up with a urinary tract infection which would cause her to eliminate as well as mark in inappropriate places. Additionally, the relationship between owner and dog often leads the animal to attach a strong emotional charge to the owners’ bed. Practically all bed-marking occurs in dog-centered human-canine packs in which the dog feels obligated to protect the territory. Depending on the dog’s personality, the bed may serve as the first or last target. Further complicating the bond effects, regardless when and why the mess on the bed appears, owners who discover dog-doo in their beds rarely react neutrally, let alone positively, to it.