What is Audible Marking in Dogs? Put simply, it is a dog adding a vocal element to its marking behaviour. It’s a sort of deep, grumbling sound that is similar to a growl, but with less menace. It accompanies a dog’s urine marking or ground scratching.
It is a term that was coined in discussions between myself and Theo Stewart when discussing the behaviour of my dog, Harvey. To the best of my knowledge, the term has not previously been used.
At the time of writing this post, a Google search for “Audible Marking in Dogs’ reveals only a few exact matches. And those are my YouTube video of Harvey exhibiting the behaviour (see below) and then my forum and social media posts discussing the video!
1 Audible Marking in Dogs – Video
OK, so I’ve given you a very brief explanation of the term Audible Marking in Dogs.
However, I realise from speaking with others that the behaviour is pretty uncommon and so you may still not fully understand what I’m talking about.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. How many is a video worth? Well, in our case, quite a few more I’d suggest as it enables you to actually hear the behaviour as well as see it.
So, here is Harv doing his thing:
2 Examining the Behaviour
Having watched the video, what do you think is the explanation for the behaviour exhibited?
That’s exactly the question that I posed to a number of others with an interest in dogs and dog behaviour. Before we move on to consider the responses, let me give you a little background information so that you can make a more informed decision:
- In a couple of weeks’ time Harvey, who is entire, will be 8 years old.
- He has made this grumbling noise while peeing ever since he was a pup – as soon as he could cock his leg without falling over!
- He makes the sound pretty much every time that we go out, and whether he is on-lead or off. All the clips on the video are on-lead simply to ensure that I was in the right place at the right time to record them. They are more likely to occur at the beginning of a walk than at the end (perhaps because he is ‘fully loaded’ at the start!).
- He makes the sound regardless of who is walking him.
- He LOVES sniffing. He would happily choose 5 yards of sniffing over a 5 mile walk!
He really enjoyed the scent-training classes that we took him to before the whole Covid thing started.
- He is fine when meeting the vast majority of other dogs – ranging from complete indifference to happy tail-wagging and ‘play with me’ invitations.
Rarely, there are dogs that he will take an instant dislike to – and I can tell from the body language that the feeling in the other dog is mutual. I do my best to avoid these encounters, even if that means turning around and going back the way I’ve just come!
- He loves people and it rarely takes more than a couple of minutes in any meeting before he is rubbing his head on their legs and then rolling onto his back for belly rubs!
- He has a walk with a dog walker 3 times a week. He is, apparently, a ‘complete angel’ whenever they have him and seems to love all dog and people encounters.
- When he was around 9 months old he was attacked by a Border Collie. We were walking along the pavement, Harvey on-lead, when the other dog appeared out of nowhere – off-lead and no owner in sight.
It briefly did that herding thing that Border Collies sometimes do and then just went for Harvey. I had to ‘persuade’ him to stop with a swift introduction to my right boot!
We made sure that there were lots of encounters with friendly dogs afterwards but even after all this time he is very wary of most Border Collies. The grumbling noise had started well before this incident, I just mention it for completeness.
Before we go on to discuss the feedback from others, and my conclusions, let’s take a quick look at marking behaviour in dogs generally and consider the questions ‘What is marking in dogs?’ and ‘Why do dogs mark?’
3 What is Marking in Dogs?
So, you collect your new puppy and, the second that your attention is elsewhere, he lets loose a stream of urine that seems to defy the laws of physics!
How does all of that pee come out of such a small puppy?
Well, that isn’t marking. That’s just a desperate need to go and an indication that it’s time to start the house training process.
Why isn’t that an example of marking behaviour in dogs?
I’d say that there are 3 reasons:
If a dog has a full bladder and needs to relieve himself then there will be a long, continuous stream until the need no longer exists.
Urine marking is typically fairly short in duration, often just a quick squirt.
What was your dog doing immediately before the release of urine?
In the featured image at the top of this post, you can see my dog, Harvey, releasing some urine. This is what he was doing immediately before that:
When a dog sniffs something so intently that a Typhoon could fly by and the dog wouldn’t even notice, then you can bet that another animal has already marked that spot.
When finding such a spot, a great many dogs will feel compelled to ‘over mark’ the spot, effectively adding their own scent to the existing scent(s), or to ‘adjacent mark’.
This desire can be so strong that a dog will go through the process of marking even when they are, how shall I put it, ‘out of ammo’!
So, if a dog wants to relieve himself then, pretty much, any spot will do. But if he wants to mark then it will be in a specifically chosen location.
A simple bladder emptying episode is fairly infrequent, probably only once or twice on a typical walk.
Marking, on the other hand, is much more frequent.
Sniff. Mark. Walk.
Sniff some more. Mark some more. Walk some more.
I know that many people find this supremely irritating and feel that it spoils their walk. If this is you then I have two observations:
- It isn’t your walk!
Its the time that you take your dog outside so that he can do the things that he wants to do. If you can combine that with a nice walk then great, but that isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the primary purpose.
- Go sniff!
Teach your dog a ‘Go sniff’ cue. When you say ‘Go sniff’ during a walk he gets to do his thing. When he has finished you say ‘All done’ and continue on your way.
If you choose this approach then everybody that walks your dog needs to be on board with the ‘Go sniff’ cue and be consistent. If they aren’t then it won’t work (or won’t work as well as it should).
Other Types of Marking in Dogs
We’re all familiar with the urine marking scenario outlined above.
But, what other forms of marking are used by dogs?
Another pretty common form of marking is kicking up soil (or grass, or whatever the dog happens to be standing on at the time) with their back feet.
Some people consider this to be another form of scent marking. However, to the best of my knowledge, dogs don’t have scent glands in their feet! (Although they do sweat through their pads)
More likely explanations, in my opinion, are:
- It’s some kind of visual marking (like bears clawing at a tree).
- They are actually trying to disperse scent that has been left by another animal.
In terms of the subject of this post, audible marking in dogs, it’s worth noting that Harvey undertakes this behaviour both when urine marking and when feet marking.
4 Why do Dogs Mark?
OK, so we’ve looked at the usual types of marking in dogs; depositing urine on objects and using the back feet to disturb the ground.
And we’re considering the possibility of whether there is such a thing as audible marking in dogs.
To help our considerations further let’s look at what drives marking behaviour in dogs. That is, ‘Why do Dogs Mark?’
As Jennifer Aniston used to say in a well-known TV ad “Here comes the science bit – Concentrate!“
Scientific Study 1 – Lisberg & Snowdon
This study looked at the different behaviours of urine marking in a group of domestic dogs consisting of intact males, intact females, neutered males, and spayed females.
The study looked at behaviour in relation to social status within groups and also in relation to both urine marking from familiar dogs and also urine from unfamiliar dogs.
The study found:
- All subjects showed high interest in unfamiliar urine samples
- Urine from intact males and females elicited longer investigation
- Sex, status, and familiarity patterns suggest that the strong interest in unfamiliar urine was to assess unfamiliar conspecifics in multiple social contexts, including mate and threat assessment
Scientific Study 2 – Lisberg & Snowdon (yes, again!)
This study followed on from the one above by the same authors. It looked at countermarking in relation to sex and social status.
The findings were:
- Only male dogs overmarked
- Intact males preferentially overmarked intact female urine
- Overmarking males had higher social status than males that did not countermark
- Dogs adjacent-marked only unfamiliar samples
- Neither sex nor social status affected adjacent marking
- Both males and females marked at and investigated ‘scent posts’ comprised of serial countermarks, often associated with visual landmarks
- Males and females with higher social status urinated, investigated urine, and countermarked more than dogs with lower social status
- Dogs of lower social status investigated urine from unfamiliar dogs longer than did dogs of higher status, suggesting that the dogs most at risk of losing resources were those most likely to investigate as potential risk assessment
- Social and sexual patterns suggest that overmarks and adjacent marks may be distinct signals
Scientific Study 3 – Cafazzo, Natoli, & Valsecchi
Study link: Scent-Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free-Ranging Domestic Dogs. (2012)
This study, involving free-ranging domestic dogs, specifically focused on the significance of different scent-marking behaviour patterns by testing two hypotheses:
- Indirect territorial defence hypothesis
- Dominance/threat hypothesis
The study established that:
- Markings are used by dogs to form a ‘property line’
- They are also used to threaten rivals during agonistic conflicts
- Both males and females used scent-marking to assert dominance
- Raised-leg urination and ground scratching probably play a role in olfactory and visual communication
- Ground scratching is used as a display of social dominance and as a means of territorial defence
- Ground scratching in domestic dogs is likely to be an additional visual mark to reinforce the olfactory cue of urine marking
- The act of ground scratching is most often performed by older high-ranking individuals
- Urinations from females may convey information about their reproductive state
- Defaction does not play an essential role in olfactory communication
Scientific Study 4 – B. McGuire, B. Olsen, K. E. Bemis, & D. Orantes
Study link: Urine marking in male domestic dogs: honest or dishonest? (2018)
This is an interesting study in that it doesn’t so much explain why dogs mark, rather it demonstrates the importance of the act for dogs.
The study found that:
- Marking is thought to communicaate information about the signaler’s size and corresponding competitive ability and accurtaley reflect the signaler’s attributes (ie an honest signal)
- However, new data suggests that scent marking can be dishonest in some circumstances, such as urine marking in adult male domestic dogs
- The height at which urine marks are deposited can give some indication of the size of a dog. However, it was found that smaller dogs often increase the angle of their raised leg, and thereby the height of the marking, in what is assumed to be an attempt to indicate that they are bigger than is actually the case
Honesty in dogs:
Scientific Studies – Summary
It seems likely that the hugely superior sense of smell that dogs possess, when compared to humans, enables a huge range of information to be communicated in a non-verbal way.
It can be difficult for us, with our limited sense of smell and primary focus on vision, to fully comprehend the intricacies of such communication.
That said, advances in study techniques are being made, such as the biologging and machine learning approach discussed by Owen R Bidder et al, and these should lead to a greater understanding.
So, what have we learned about marking behaviour in dogs?
Why do dogs mark?:
- Assessment of unfamiliar dogs, especially potential mates and potential aggressors
- Communication of social status, with males and females of higher social status marking, investigating, and countermarking more than dogs of lower social status
- Defining territorial boundaries
5 Audible Marking in Dogs
So, armed with that knowledge, let’s give some further thought as to whether Audible Marking in Dogs is, in fact, a form of marking. Or something else entirely.
5.1 Third Party Observations
Theo raised the matter with her behavioural discussion group and got some interesting feedback. In the interests of confidentiality, I’ll just use first names.
Some of the points made were:
- Emma has encountered the behaviour in a couple of shelter dogs. One was extremely aggressive and the other extremely aroused by other dogs. Both were male dogs and considered to be territorial.
Additionally, it was noted that it always seemed to be when marking over male pee that the growling sound was made. The dogs also habitually scraped the ground after marking.
- Owen observed that Harvey seemed to be in a state of high arousal and was probably reacting to the smell of other dogs. Owen had also seen the behaviour in some shelter dogs.
- Roberta said that she had a female, spayed, husky-malamute dog that exhibits the behaviour. She doesn’t do it every time that she marks, but quite a lot. She sniffs where another dog has marked, growls, and then pees on it.
The dog is very friendly with people and other dogs, not at all aggressive.
- Jo noted that one of her dogs used to show this behaviour when overmarking. Over time (years!) she was able to identify the dogs that left the marking that elicited the behaviour most strongly. In his case they were all males and all bull breeds (a breed that he had a particular dislike for having been attacked by a pair of Staffordshire Bull Terriers). He would also always scratch the ground after marking.
Jo also noticed that the intensity of the growling and scratching was influenced by how long ago the mark had been left. The most intense reactions usually indicated that they were likely to see the dog in question during the rest of the walk.
I also raised the topic in a FaceBook group called The School of Canine Science. The group is run by Jo-rosie Haffenden, Nando Brown, and Dean Nicholas (if you have any interest in dog training and behaviour I’m sure that you will be familiar with these names).
Now, I don’t want to mislead you, none of those individuals commented on the post that I made. However, I think that it goes to show the sort of people who frequent the group.
These were the observations:
- Chrissy suggested that Harvey looked a bit tight in his right hind leg and that the grumbling may be a result of low level chronic pain.
- Georgia hadn’t seen this type of behaviour before but wondered whether he was smelling pee from other dogs and then giving an audible signal before he marks too.
- Tosia considered whether perhaps the grumbling was almost like a sign of annoyance that another dog had marked his spot. That is, a vocalisation caused by an emotional response to a ‘neighbour audacity’. Tosia had witnessed dog fights that were prompted by one dog overmarking another dog’s marking.
- Sara commented that it may simply be an arousal issue. That is, the sniffing and marking were making Harvey so aroused that he grumbled in response (and that this response has become conditioned).
- Sonia agreed with Sara that it may be a form of conditioned vocalisation.
- And Lynn said that her dog sometimes goes out into the garden and gives a happy bark after a particularly high value meal.
Finally, I posed the question on the My Labrador Friends forum, too.
And here are some of the thoughts from there:
- edzbird observed that Harvey was REALLY interested in scents and that he wasn’t expressing pain.
- Oberon concurred that it was definitely not a pain sound. She also added that her dog made these sounds during rough play and she believes it is a pleasure sound – a ‘that feels good, I’m getting into this’ kind of thing.
- Candy has never known any dog to do this but thought that it was a ‘happy boy dog’ thing.
- Xena Dog Princess was also in the pleasurable sound camp.
- Loraseal thought that it wasn’t a pain sound and that it may be a response to my ‘Go sniff’ cues.
- Emily_Babbelhund also thought that it definitely wasn’t pain. Her own dog exhibits the behaviour very rarely. She interprets it as being letting out his excitement in as many ways as he can; sniffing, marking, scratching, and talking.
- Boogie also thought it to be pleasure/satisfaction.
- M.F. commented that their dog shows the behaviour sometimes. A very throaty sound, often accompanying scratching the ground. The dog is very friendly and avoids confrontations.
- Jelinga wondered whether the sound doubles up on the scent marking in a sort of ‘I’m better than you’ manner.
- And Beanwood wondered whether the sound was related to act of marking and was some sort of ‘happy fist pump’.
5.2 Weighing-up the Observations and Further Consideration
So, do we have any sort of consensus of opinions?
Pain or discomfort
Well, although some thought that Harvey may be in mild pain and was vocalising those feelings a larger proportion felt that this was not the case.
I think that it is highly unlikely to be pain.
Why? Well …
- Although he has mild arthritis now, he has shown this behaviour from when he was relatively young (old enough to actually cock his leg and mark) so it seems unlikely that there would have been any arthritic pain at that time.
- He grumbles a lot but there are times, especially when in his own garden, that he does not. Surely if he was in pain then he would be in pain consistently.
- It’s difficult to articulate this but he doesn’t, to me as his human, seem to be in pain. He seems very content – almost please with himself!
Arousal or excitement
Many observers commented on Harvey’s apparent high state of arousal when making the grumbling sound.
There is certainly some merit to this.
It isn’t the sort of excitement that would result in a ‘Wall of Death’ episode in the garden where he races around in a circle at high speed, with eyes bulging and his tail tucked between his legs! But, is certainly very intently focused on the scents that he can smell.
This brings us to …
The majority of the commenters observed that the behaviour happened while urine marking or while scratching the ground.
And that the grumbling maybe some sort of emotional response from Harvey, ranging from annoyance at other dogs for marking in his spot to some sort of celebratory ‘I’m better than you’.
When discussing the matter with Theo, we thought that the behaviour was as if Harvey was asserting himself and really enjoying being the man. A display of attitude! He wants the whole dog world to know that he has passed by!!
So, is audible marking in dogs a thing?
The behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation. Nor is it sufficiently loud, like a warning bark, that it would send any sort of message to dogs at a distance.
Therefore, I don’t think that we can say that it is a distinct form of marking in its own right.
Rather, as it always accompanies urine marking and/or ground scratching, audible marking appears to be some form of embellishment to those other forms of marking.
It may be an added signal to nearby dogs that are able to hear it.
It may be a signal to the accompanying human that other dogs have been in the area and a response needs to be left.
Or, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, it may simply be some sort of emotional expression brought on by the other forms of marking. A need to draw added attention to the act of marking. The vocal equivalent of a fist pump.
5.3 Further Feedback Request
I think that audible marking in dogs is fairly rare (for a long time I thought that Harvey was the only dog that did it!).
I’d love to hear from you if you have, or know of, a dog that does it. Please let me know in the comments below.
6 Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some FAQs related to marking in dogs.
What is Audible Marking in Dogs?
Put simply, it is a dog adding a vocal element to its marking behaviour. It’s a sort of deep, grumbling sound that is similar to a growl, but with less menace. It accompanies a dog’s urine marking or ground scratching.
Why do Dogs Mark?
It’s a surprisingly complex question. A dog’s sense of smell is many times better than that of a human and this enables them to obtain far more information from urine marking than you may imagine.
It is thought that marking provides information in relation to both potential mates and potential aggressors. It also helps to define territorial boundaries. It is even thought to provide information on social status.
How do you Know if your Dog is Marking?
When it comes to urine marking there are 3 main factors; duration, intent, and frequency.
If a dog needs to relieve himself there will be a long, continuous stream of urine. Whereas, urine marking is typically fairly short in duration, a quick squirt and it’s done.
If your dog was sniffing a spot intently immediately before the release of urine it is probable that he is now over-marking another dog’s urine mark.
A simple bladder emptying is fairly infrequent. Urine marking, on the other hand, is likely to occur quite often.
At what Age do Dogs start Marking?
Dogs typically start marking as soon as they are old enough to cock their leg comfortably without falling over! There will be practice attempts as a dog matures but it typically starts at around 3 months old.
Why is my Dog Marking in the House?
Urine marking outside is used to provide and obtain information relating to potential mates, potential aggressors, social status, and territorial boundaries.
In a home, the same threat assessment considerations usually don’t apply – your dog will normally be sufficiently comfortable in the house that he doesn’t feel the need to mark.
If he is marking, rest assured that it isn’t him being spiteful or willful – dogs aren’t like that. It is likely because he feels threatened by something new (rugs and carpets, furniture, a guest’s handbag, or even the guest!), especially if it has the scent of another dog on it. It could also be a response to feeling anxious.
The quickest way to prevent this from happening is likely to be to have a consultation with a qualified dog behaviourist.
8 The End
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