It’s common, when you are taking your dog on a walk for him to lift his leg every few steps, even if he isn’t actually going pee. It’s something that a lot of dog owners think is odd, and some even are concerned about. It’s actually quite normal. Unless the dog is showing signs of pain such as whimpering or limping, there is nothing to worry about.
The dog is trying to mark it’s territory. While many see this as odd, considering that they aren’t actually going pee when they do this, it actually does release pheromones that other dogs can smell. A dog’s sense of smell is so strong that they can detect scents that we are unable to. It is for this reason that dogs will often rub up against their owners, as it transfers their smell unto you.
The behavior called urine marking. While some unfortunate owners are forced to deal with this inside of their home, most house trained dogs will only do it outside, especially when being taken on a walk. Both male and female dogs over three months of age can urine mark and it is almost always on a vertical surface or near one.
Dogs who are reproductively ‘intact’ do this far more than dogs who are spayed or neutered. This is largely because one reason for urine marking is to indicate mating availability. While many recommend neutering while young to eliminate or prevent this behavior in dogs, it is not always effective. Urine marking is more than just the behavior of an intact dog.
Dogs observe the world largely through their sense of smell, and while intact dogs will mark to indicate mating habits, all dogs will urine mark to claim their territory, and support the dog social order that they have established. They are pack animals that largely rely on a hierarchy. This can be seen in their wild cousins, where the Alpha wolf is the leader, and the other dogs show submission to it.
The pheromones in their urine communicate many things to other dogs, including age, sex, and their pack status. Which is why its common to see dogs sniffing places where other dogs have gone potty. They are looking for information on the other dog, and when they pee in a variety of places on your walks, they are looking to pass information on.
One of the most common reasons dogs will urine mark is to mark their territory. Even if the yard isn’t yours (and therefore isn’t theirs), they don’t know that. So any place that you commonly take them, whether it is the park, a friend’s house, or the route for your walk, they soon see it as their territory. They will mark it to let other dogs know that it is theirs.
If they smell an unfamiliar dog’s scent in their area, they will cover it with their own because they see it as their territory. This is especially true when they are interacting with a new dog in their yard or on their walks. If the dog is unfamiliar to them and the other dog urinates nearby, your dog will want to go over, sniff the pheromones to find out information, and then cover it with their own. While this is more common between two male dogs, it also happens between any dogs, whether male or female.
As stated before, this behavior largely comes from their ancestors. Wolves are extremely territorial, and will avoid going into another pack’s territory. Lone wolves will often avoid packs and wander between areas to survive. Pack behavior is important in dogs because they have survived with this behavior for ages, and keeping unwanted members out of the pack and the territory is essential to that survival.
Wolves would often fight over territory if a new wolf came into their area or if their territory began to run low on food. In much the same way people do not like their things being stolen, dogs do not like their territory being taken. While domesticated dogs are friendlier about what they perceive as an invasion, this instinct still causes them to ‘mark’ their territory.
While this occasionally might be a medical reason rather than instinctual, such as a urinary tract infection or diabetes, it is usually just urine marking. If you are concerned, consult a veterinarian and ask for their opinion. Otherwise, as long as the dog isn’t doing this indoors or on anyone, then it is nothing to be concerned about. It’s even amusing to long-time dog owners when their dog has marked the same spot every time they’ve passed by.