Pissing Matches in Dogs: Territorial, Lots of Fun, or Both?

We really don't know what dogs are talking about when they pee, pee, and pee

Posted Apr 29, 2017

Pissing matches are a form of canine conversation but we don't know what the dogs are really talking about

I’ve never met a dog who doesn’t sniff and pee. Both genders, all ages save for newborns, every breed, and dogs of every social status will stop to check out the pee of other dogs. The reasons dogs stop and what they learn probably differs, and how long individual dogs investigate another dog’s pee varies tremendously. Not all pee is equal. Or, as we might expect, the messages or information pee conveys will be more or less important depending on the dog sniffing and who peed. 

As with many other aspects of dog behavior, we still have much to learn about why dogs do what they do when they pee and what they learn as they sniff the pee of other dogs. On a visit to a dog park one day, a woman told me, rather seriously, that she thought that not allowing dogs to use their noses the way they want can cause serious psychological problems. I’ve thought about this a lot since then. We really don’t know if dogs suffer psychologically when they’re deprived and can’t fulfill their need to sniff and pee if they choose to do so. Surely, when dogs are rushed along, they don’t get to savor and properly assess and process various odors, and who knows what this does to them. This form of sensory deprivation might be devastating, since they lose detailed information about their social and nonsocial worlds.

Of course, dogs often pee simply because they have to go, but peeing is also used for what ethologists call scent-marking. When scent-marking, dogs intentionally direct a stream or two of urine at a particular object or area, and this practice is widespread among numerous animals. Marking is a form of communication, and the presence of multiple marks by multiple animals may amount to a type of conversation. By marking, individual dogs are saying things like, “This is my place and you better stay out.” Or, “I’m in heat,” or “I was here,” or perhaps even, “I smell that you were here, and this is my way of saying I’m still around, too.” 

People often ask me if dogs mark territorial borders as do their wild relatives. They wonder if canine pissing matches mean something like, “This is my place!” While some people claim dogs don’t mark territorially, it’s premature to say they never do. In fact, I’ve seen free-ranging dogs on my mountain road behave just like wild coyotes and wolves when they mark territorial boundaries. These dogs will pee, scratch the ground, look around to see if others are around, and then pee some more. On occasion, they’ll lift a leg and not urinate, and then they walk a few feet and immediately lift a leg and pee. Lifting a leg and not peeing is called "dry marking," during which a dog, usually a male, sends a visual signal that indicates he is peeing when he's not.Similar behavior was observed among free-ranging dogs living outside of Rome, Italy by Simona Cafazzo and her colleagues. In an essay in James Serpell's edited encyclopedic book on dog behavior, Drs. John Bradshaw and Nicola Rooney note, “Among free-roaming dogs, males may urine-mark as a component of territorial behavior, while females mark most frequently around their den sites.” (p. 150)

What are Bodie and Rigby's pissing matches all about?

I've seen numerous pissing matches also called over-marking and counter-marking over the years at dog parks and when dogs pass one another on leash. However, pissing matches don’t always take place outdoors, My cycling teammate John Talley and his wife, Tyla, wrote to me about a pissing match between their two dogs, Rigby and Bodie. Bodie is Rigby’s father, but Rigby joined the Talley household first. Once Rigby was nicely settled in, Bodie arrived, and soon after, Bodie started peeing in the house. Even though Rigby was already house trained, once Bodie started peeing inside, Rigby did, too. Plus, it turns out that Rigby always has to have the last pee, and he will pee right in front of Tyla, she told me. No shame there!

In addition, Bodie will ground scratch after peeing, and this has become part of their ongoing pissing contest. Tyla told me that Rigby never ground scratched before Bodie came along, and now Rigby does it regularly, even if Bodie isn’t around.

Is this a territorial battle? Is Bodie just doing what dogs do in a new habitat, and is Rigby, into whose home Bodie intruded, just “defending” his place? I honestly don’t know. I've seen hundreds if not thousands of pissing matches over the years, but all of them were outdoors. Scent-marking expert, Dr. Anne Lisberg, notes, and I agree, that it’s a testament to dogs’ social skills that so many dogs are thrown together at our whim, and they are able to work out sharing space in a home without resorting to pissing matches or duking it out. 

What the Talley’s observed is often called over-marking or counter-marking, and we don’t know all the reasons for it. I’m often asked if males overmark or countermark more than females. As I tell people, according to one study that focused on these behavior patterns, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. In one study, Drs. Lisberg and Charles Snowdon reported, “Males and females were equally likely to countermark and investigate urine and countermarks made up a similarly large portion of countermarking for males and females.” Dr. Lisberg later told me, “Males accounted for more marks and countermarks at the dog park than females—marking males were more like energizer bunnies who just kept marking. While a typical marking female might urinate once or maybe twice and be done, a typical male marker might urinate two to three times or more. So total percent of urine marks would have been strongly male biased, as seen in other studies. Within each sex, again, higher-tailed females marked more times per dog than low-tailed females, and higher-tailed males marked more times than low-tailed males. The lowest-tailed males and females didn’t countermark at all, and the lowest-tailed females didn’t urinate at all in the entryway.”

Does size matter?

You might not think that size matters, but it might be related to peeing, at least in shelter dogs. In a study called “Scent Marking in Shelter Dogs: Effects of Body Size” by Betty McGuire and Katherine Bernis, we learn “small dogs urinated at higher rates and directed more urinations than did large dogs.” These researchers suggest “small dogs prefer scent marking because direct interactions are risky.”

I never really thought about this possibility. Dr. Lisberg also notes dogs might be avoiding conflict through sniffing and marking, and here is another wonderful and important topic that can be studied in nonshelter dogs at the dog park to learn just how robust these results are. I’ve often wondered if dogs who have to lift their heads to get a good or better whiff of pee know that it was left by a larger dog. Perhaps size does matter, after all.

Dr. Lisberg’s take-home message about peeing by dogs is very important. She wrote to me in an email, “Urine marks are really complex signals, and dogs seem to be far savvier than most owners seem to think when it comes to deciding what to sniff (and for how long) and what to counter-mark (adjacent or over-mark). When we walk our dogs, all we notice are the big responses, but we don’t see the likely many signals that they are ignoring or avoiding. For the most part, dogs are not wantonly running around and sniffing and urinating on everything (despite appearances to the contrary), but rather appear to be making decisions about what marks are important to pay attention to and whether and how to respond.”

Who's walking whom? Let a dog's nose lead the way

There still is so much to learn about peeing and pooping by dogs, and dog parks are great places in which to do these studies. If you don an ethologist’s hat at the dog park and when you see people walking their dogs on a leash, you can learn a lot about dog behavior and conduct highly valuable “citizen science” along the way. 

While we know quite a lot about patterns of peeing in dogs, it's amazing how much we still have to learn about why dogs pee the ways they do. In the end, we humans have to pay attention to what each individual dog needs especially when we tether and walk them (for more on this topic, please see Dr. Jessica Pierce's "Not Just Walking the Dog"). At a minimum, we should let their nose lead the way. Like it or not, dogs are captive to our every wish, and we need to be sure we’re not stressing them out and depriving them of vital activities, sensory stimulation, and communication.

When it’s dog walk time, let your dog set the pace, and let their walk be for them. Let them sniff and pee to their heart's content and enjoy the fact that you are allowing them to be dogs. 

1Bekoff, Marc. “Scent marking by free-ranging domestic dogs: Olfactory and visual components.” Biology of Behavior, 4, 123-139.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.

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