Due to the fact that urinating and marking are two different behaviours, a perfectly housetrained dog may still be prone to marking in the house. These dogs are unable to distinguish the difference between the two and generally consider marking to be completely acceptable. Most dogs will mark during walks, some in their yards. Others take marking to a new level, scenting your home and every other location they visit. While more common in males, females are also known to mark their scent (particularly during and just before their heat cycle). Popularly considered to occur in dogs that have not been spayed or neutered, it is not exclusive to them alone. While it often begins for that reason after three months of age, dogs may develop a habit of doing it – some obsessively so.
It is fairly easy to distinguish between urination and marking, which primarily occurs with lifted legs on surfaces such as doorways, table legs, furniture and other vertical objects. Females may even lift both legs, comically mimicking a handstand. Dried, sticky ‘surprises’ create small pools around these objects. This is the biggest clue, along with catching them in the act.
Why do dogs mark?
Unlike with urination, marking is a communication problem rather than a housetraining one. Dogs leave messages for other dogs with their urine. They could be saying ‘I just came by’, ‘this is my sofa’ or ‘I intend mating with this female’. If your dogs are marking, they have something to say. Usually this relates to creating a safe and predictable environment for themselves. For example, an anxious dog may mark in an effort to provide some familiar security in an otherwise unpredictable territory. There are several triggers that may prompt your dog to communicate and it is important to figure out which is applicable to you. While the treatment for marking involves an outside housetraining plan, redirection and prevention, it will certainly help if you are able to determine what is triggering the marking in the first place:
Dogs that have intact reproductive organs are more likely to mark than those without them. This triggers sexual marking. Females will increase their scent dispersal in anticipation of their heat cycle and males will respond happily by communicating their intentions in the same manner. When there is no heat cycle to blame, sexual hormones are still produced. Unneutered males will often mark when females are around, even if they are spayed.
Something New in the Environment
All areas that a dog frequents are considered their environment. This includes the home, yard, friend’s houses, walk routes, parks or other regularly visited places. The smell of another dog’s urine and an encounter with a different dog or animal usually causes marking outside, but when this extends to marking indoors, it becomes problematic. New furniture, new objects, new shoes, new bags, new anything; your dog may want to ‘baptize it’. If it is not normally left lying haphazardly about, it is destined for a soaking by dogs with this problem.
Anxiety is known to produce more urine than other marking disorders, which generally consist of only a small amount. Sometimes these dogs may mark on horizontal surfaces as well, instead of just vertical objects. This may be caused by someone leaving the residence, a new person entering the household dynamic, new furniture placed in the home, conflict between dogs living together, luggage lying about, distrust between your dog and someone in the house, as well as any circumstance that may be construed as uncomfortable or strange to your dog.
Exciting social encounters are often responsible for urine marking. This is noticeable when your dog only marks in certain situations and it usually involves objects, other dogs or even people suffering a good soaking. Many dogs will only urine mark when exposed to females, particularly if they are in heat. Some will only mark when in the presence of other males. Others will only mark in other houses where dogs have marked before, while many will only mark when highly aroused in social environments where they experience overstimulation. If this begins outside, it will often continue in the house until the excitement wears off.
Solving a urine marking problem…
Urine marking is a normal behaviour for dogs and should not be punished. They must be allowed to mark, but only in the right places. Treatment involves initiating proper outside housetraining techniques that should be combined with preventing the behaviour indoors. It is also critically important to address the underlying trigger at the same time. Regular opportunities to go outside and be rewarded for proper marking will help diminish the problem inside, but this will not solve it alone.
How to break the habit of urine marking…
- Thoroughly clean all areas where your dog marks. Avoid ammonia-based products as they increase the smell and will continue to attract the dog to the spot. Rather use enzymatic cleaning products. It is often difficult to find all the places your dog marks on. Use a UV LED Flashlight every night to check your house thoroughly. It is imperative to get the smell out of your house completely.
- Provide your dog with an acceptable target outside to mark on. This could be a bush, a tree, an old fire hydrant, an upside-down bucket or anything that you desire. Use a regular outside housetraining schedule to encourage this behaviour in the right place. You should prompt your dog to mark by exposing them to the urine of another dog, or something that triggers the behaviour to occur. Immediately after doing this, take them to the spot and reward them for marking there. Make sure these visits are frequent and always reward your dog for outside marking.
- If your dog’s marking is predictable and they only mark certain objects (bags, shoes, furniture or anything else), or if they only scent specific areas, you may discourage them from marking there by placing treats in the area. Dogs will seldom mark in places they consider a source of food.
- Avoid inviting other dogs to visit your house and prevent their access to your yard as well.
- Use a jockstrap or bellyband on male dogs, especially when taking them into other homes. These products fit snugly and absorb the urine very well. This is a courtesy to your friends, who should not have to clean up after your dog or have to worry about their dogs marking over yours. Such products may be used in your dog’s environment as well. They will certainly help the mess. However, they will not solve the behaviour problem and they only offer a short-term solution.
- Close all doors to rooms that are not in use. It is vital that your dog has restricted access to marking opportunities. If they are unable to go there, then they are prevented from marking in those places.
- Place harmless booby traps in frequented areas. The goal is to discourage your dog from returning to the scene of a crime, not hurt them or scare them inhumanely. Good examples include double-sided tape, small ball bearings or other knobbly and unpleasant surfaces. While this may stop your dog from going back to the same place, it may cause them to begin marking elsewhere instead. Remain vigilant.
- You may try synthetic hormone diffusers. These products have pheromones that may possibly help to calm your dog.
- When you catch your dog in the act, interrupt them immediately and take them outside to their marking target. A loud ‘no’, a hearty hand clap, a chain thrown on the floor (not at the dog) or other loud noises will usually work, unless your dog is so strongly motivated that they are totally oblivious to what they are doing. The idea is to startle them, redirect their attention and then take them outside, which is why it is best that the loud noise happens from a distance. Keep a collar on them and use it, gently yet firmly and consistently. Do not shout, scream or be physically harsh as this has been proven not to work. Instead, your dog will likely learn that you are an unstable source of unpredictable punishment and they will avoid you altogether (while happily marking when you are not around).
- In an ideal world, you should try to catch your dog marking whenever they do it, every time. If you need to leave the house, put the dog outside or confine them. Should you be unable to keep a vigilant eye at all times, keep your dog on a lead. When your dog marks the outside target, let them off the lead for twenty minutes or so. This is simply to make sure your dog is with you at all times, not marking in other areas of the house and it gives you the opportunity to catch them in the act. It is important to introduce this as a game, as opposed to a punishment. Your dog should feel proud that their job is being your close companion and pleasing you. Reward your dog regularly for good behaviour on a lead.
- Although using medication to treat urine marking is not usually advised, it is helpful in extreme cases and should only be considered as an absolute last resort. Speak with your veterinarian about available medications that may help you and your dog.
How to deal with urine marking triggers…
All triggers must be addressed, but they should be treated in collaboration with breaking the habit. Stopping the cause will do nothing to a thoroughly ingrained behaviour. Be persistent, be consistent and be extremely vigilant. The more opportunities a dog has to regress to an old habit, the smaller your chances of success.
- Intact Dogs
Unfortunately, neutering males and spaying females is the only real solution for solving the marking behaviours of intact dogs. Urine marking is greatly reduced, occasionally totally eliminated, in roughly sixty percent of them. The surgical procedure is seldom solely responsible for correcting this problem however, and owners will still need to be vigilant about breaking the habit as well. If you have breeding plans for your dog, then you will have to rely on ending the habit alone. Extra vigilance is advised, as this is unlikely to work very well if your dog remains intact.
- Something New in the Environment
Introduce your dog calmly to whatever is new in the environment. The sooner you make it a part of their everyday routine, the problem will begin to ease up. Dogs may get insecure when things are not as they have always been. If it is not meant to be lying around then take it away. If you are able to put objects out of sight, then do so (such as shoes, bags, grocery shopping, schoolbooks and the like). If you are unable to pack it away, then take your dog to the item and place treats in, on, under and over the object. Dogs do not like to mark on their food. This will teach your dog that the object is a source of food and is the quickest way to get them used to having it around. If it is a person or a newborn baby, give your dog treats whenever they are around. Before the person, pet or baby enters the house, go for a long walk together. It is always a good idea to do introductions in neutral territory and it is an excellent group activity. It is also critically important that the household routine stays the same as much as possible. Do not prevent your dog from being involved, as they will learn to associate the stranger with negative things and resent its presence. Do not lock your dog out, ignore them, kick them out of the way or do anything that will make them feel excluded. If you have a new baby, the dog must never be punished for showing interest in the child, they should be encouraged to smell and interact appropriately. Include your dog whenever they want to be there, reward them often and remain calm at all times. We are unable to stress the importance of teaching dogs that good things happen to them when the baby is around.
An anxious dog is likely to do anything they can to bring some semblance of normality into their lives. They will mark to create a comforting, familiar scent in their environment or they may be trying to warn others away from their area. This is not to upset you; it provides the dog with some security and allows them to communicate the way nature intended them to do. These dogs typically cower, run away, roll over, shiver and avoid eye contact or they present similar submissive signs in an unwelcome situation. As soon as the threat diminishes, they start marking everywhere – usually out of sight and away from the threat. When dealing with an anxious dog, we need to be careful about aggravating their state of mind. The more afraid the dog is, the more threatened they feel. Attempts to corner them and punish their behaviour may result in an unwelcome snap, or worse. What we need to do is provide the dog with safety. They need a few areas where they may retreat and not be disturbed until they are ready to come out. This will give them an escape route to prevent unwanted conflict. Often, simply providing them with their own private area where no one is allowed solves much of the problem. You should also restrict access to other areas of the house by closing the doors. The next step is to watch our dog to see what triggers them to become anxious. If someone looms over them and they start marking a few minutes later, then nobody must tower over them anymore. This way, as soon as your dog starts marking, we will know what happened. Once we are able to determine the source of their stress, we will be able to help them overcome it or prevent it happening altogether. Unfortunately, dogs that suffer extreme anxiety become afraid of a variety of things and they live in a constant state of terror. It is our job to make sure their environment stays calm, safe and stress-free at all times. It is advisable to contact a professional behaviourist if your dog has chronic anxiety.
- Social Marking
If your dog gets excited in social situations, it is best to either keep them on a lead or close all doors to rooms you are unable to watch. If someone comes to visit, or it is the sight of another dog or animal in their environment, you need to catch any marking as it happens. Put the lead on when your guests arrive and greet them as normal. Then take your dog outside to their marking spot and reward them for marking there. Do this as often as possible and make sure that you have your eye on your dog at all times. Bellybands and jockstraps are effective, but will not stop the behaviour from occurring. The dog will usually stop marking after everyone leaves, things go back to normal and the excitement wears off. While marking outside is encouraged, it is not appropriate to mark on people in the park or on their pets. If your dog is guilty of this, they must either remain on a lead or wear absorbent products. Remember, the more your dog gets out and about, the more used to it they will become and the excitement will not be so extreme.
Remember, if we provide security, routine and predictability in our environment, our dog will not have much to say. They will feel more balanced and less anxious, which will reduce their need to communicate via smelly messages. Exercise your dog daily and they will not have excess energy to waste on obsessive behaviours anymore.