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Mark Your Territory

Don’t let your dog’s bathroom habits rule your life

By Julia McDonough

Although they’re non verbal, dogs are great communicators. Subtle changes in body language, eye contact, and posture can speak volumes. But dogs also communicate on an invisible level through an olfactory sense that would be considered a psychic ability if found in a human. This is one of the more distasteful elements of dog ownership: even the most pampered pocketbook princess of a Malti-Poo will find another dog’s derriere quite compelling, and it’s common for a freshly-groomed dog to promptly roll in something dead or decaying to add a scent layer more attractive to his kind.  A dog on a typical walk is swimming in a sea of scent, learning about the local news through his nose. It’s no wonder that dogs put such a priority on investigating where their comrades have relieved themselves, or that some dogs just seem determined to leave that “little yellow business card” everywhere they go.

When someone brings a male dog into the office of the training center for their first meeting with us, we always advise them to keep the dog close and under supervision. This is not only for the usual reasons of safety and control, but also because an opportunistic male dog will almost always find something in our office or training room worth marking. “Oh, it’s OK”, his owners will protest, “He already peed outside.”

That’s when we have to break it to them that many male dogs don’t pee because they have to, but because they want to. And in a target-rich environment like a training center, vet’s office, or pet supply store, the temptation can overwhelm even a usually clean dog. Although marking behavior is also seen in some dominant female dogs, it is mostly the boys who make a real career out of it if allowed. So we’ll keep the pronouns and the focus of this article masculine.

Male dogs tend to lift their leg and mark as high as they can on a vertical surface, making their mark the most prevalent one. Some especially strong males will do the same thing when they defecate, choosing a fence or a tree rather than a flat piece of ground. This is an ancient behavior shared by all canines, a way of establishing their presence and literally marking their territory. An adult dog who feels free to do this in his home does not have a housebreaking problem as much as he has a deference problem: he thinks that the curtains, furniture or wallpaper he marks are his. He’s just reminding you. And when you continue to allow him to have full run of the house without any sort of structure or responsibility, you are agreeing with him.  

A good, balanced obedience program is the best way to get a chronically marking dog back in alignment with a proper family/pack structure: adult humans in charge, dog in a follower role. When your dog learns that he needs to answer to you for any privileges or resources, he will settle into that follower role with a sense of relief. And by relief, I don’t mean the kind that ruined your patio furniture. Requiring your dog to defer to your judgment everywhere you spend time with him puts the correct picture in his head: this is your house, not his territory. There are some strong male dogs who, through a combination of inherent traits and learned behaviors, will not take kindly to giving up their position as decision-maker in your home. A truly experienced balanced trainer can help you get things back in order expediently and humanely with a dog like this.  

Of course, prevention and management must take place also. One of the best pieces of advice a trainer can give an overwhelmed dog owner is “Don’t let him do that!”. If your dog can’t be trusted to keep his legs figuratively crossed when he’s out of your sight, then don’t let him out of your sight. He is crated or leashed or else under a solid stationary command such as “sit” or “down”. When you leave the house, either crate him or restrict his access. And if you have grey areas such as a sun porch, patio, or screen house, make sure you are extra vigilant about controlling your dog’s physical access to the things that may make him want to mark. Dogs have a hard time contextualizing. If the furniture is outside, perhaps it is the same as a tree. If a tree comes into the house at Christmas, it is definitely still a tree. (“Indoor plumbing!” think our grateful New England student dogs in December.)

Many dogs are turned into shelters and rescues for marking behaviors, which is a pretty thin reason for giving up a dog if it’s truly the only reason. The fact is that chronic marking behavior can be successfully addressed through a combination of prevention and correction if the owners are willing to follow a few rules:

  1. First, get a sample of your dog’s urine to the vet if this is a brand new behavior. If your dog has a urinary tract infection (UTI) then he may not be able to control himself.

  2. Dogs who are left intact naturally want to mark more often. While my own male and those belonging to my training partner and staff are all intact, none of them have issues with marking: they are simply not allowed to make that decision. Even when on walks with us, they have to get permission to relieve themselves rather than self-reinforce unnecessary (and ego-boosting) marking as they go along.  Unless you own a thoroughly health-checked male with an outstanding temperament and no behavior issues, you’re probably better off neutering him before he reaches full maturity. Because there are a number of pros and cons to early neutering, do your research and speak with your vet. We wholeheartedly disagree with pediatric (pre-6 months) neutering/spaying due to the health and behavior issues associated with it. But sensibly neutering a male before he develops the marking habit is not a bad idea for most pet owners.

  3. If you didn’t catch him doing it, forget about correcting him. And really forget about rubbing his nose in it or yelling at him. This will only confuse him. And no, he really isn’t “acting guilty” when you scold him: he is showing you submission because you are yelling at him. If you do catch him in the act, a sharp verbal HEY! or NO! should interrupt him. Hustle him outside to finish his business, and remind yourself again that you shouldn’t be letting him have so much freedom that he can screw up.

  4. Clean up any accidents with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle or Simple Solution. Products like this actually eat up the bacteria that causes the odor. The stuff that just covers it and makes it smell better to our weak human noses doesn’t mask it at all to a dog. And any cleaner that has ammonia in it actually smells like urine to the dog, which makes him think that maybe you’re getting in on the act, too, and he should mark over what you left there!

  5. Take away your dog’s territory and give access to it back to him only a bit at a time, re-introducing it as your territory  by training him everywhere you expect him to stay clean. Too much freedom of choice is what gets most dogs in trouble: some of it fatal trouble. You might feel a little bit guilty crating your would-be pee-graffiti artist when you’re not home, but you will feel a lot worse if his habits cause you to drop him off at a shelter.
Marking is one of the more primitive and unpleasant parts of dog behavior, but it is generally easy to fix. It should never be a deal breaker for keeping an otherwise great male dog!