Friday, December 24, 2010

Marking in the House

Marking in the house can be an obnoxious and frustrating problem.  Scent marking is urination in the house that is not related to an actual physical need to eliminate.  To address this issue, it’s important to understand why dogs scent mark.  You will also need to manage the dog closely while you modify this behavior.

Scent marking is a house breaking issue.  However, dogs that mark in the house generally are not eliminating because they have to go potty but rather to fulfill a social or self-soothing function.  That is, the dog is saying “this is my house” either in an attempt to communicate with a perceived rival or to make themselves feel more comfortable in a stressful situation.

Different dogs mark for different reasons.  For puppies that are raised in the home environment, marking is usually not an issue because it is eliminated during a good house training regime.  Dogs that are neutered prior to adolescence often don’t learn to mark or their urge to mark may be very low.  However, marking may still crop up in response to stress.  Marking frequently needs to be addressed for male dogs that are raised outdoors and then brought into the house later in life, especially those that remain intact well into adulthood.  For these dogs, basic house training may be accomplished fairly quickly but scent marking is a separate established behavior that needs to be addressed.

In many cases, marking is not a day-to-day issue but crops up occasionally in response to stress or changes in the environment.  Changes in routine or the household, moving, or additions or changes within the pack are common stimuli.  Many dogs do not mark in their own home regularly but will mark in a new house or when visiting another house (especially one that has or previously has had dogs) or when another dog is introduced into their home.  Dogs that are insecure, aspire to a higher social standing (alpha-wannabes) or lack well-defined boundaries and leadership in the household may be more likely to mark.  While scent marking is more frequently an issue with male dogs, female dogs can be culprits as well.

Marking usually involves small amount of urination in particular locations compared to urination for elimination.  Marking tends to occur in particular locations – door frames, wall corners and the corner and edges of furniture are all prime locations.  Marking frequently involves the release of only a tiny amount of urine.  This can be a problem because the dog may repeat the behavior many times before you realize there is an issue.  Urination for elimination may be on a flat or vertical (for males) surface but generally involves larger amounts of urine.

If you can’t always determine whether your dog is marking or eliminating, it really doesn’t manner because management is going to be largely the same.  Dogs that mark need to be treated as though they are not housebroken; especially in situations that you know are going to exacerbate their marking.

Steps to take:
1)      Go around the house and clean every spot (or potential spot!) with an enzymatic cleaner.  Remember that marking can involve just a couple of drops of urine.  These spots may be much harder to identify than housebreaking accidents.  Untreated spots will encourage your dog to remark that area.  It will also encourage other dogs in the house to mark that spot.  Pay special attention to vertical corners, walls, doorframes and the edges furniture.

2)      Treat your dog as though he isn’t housetrained, especially in situations that trigger his marking.  Refer to my previous note on housetraining.  The issue with marking is that you need to manage even more carefully than you would during normal housetraining because dogs will mark even when there is no physical imperative to urinate.  In fact, dogs can somehow manage to squeeze out one last drop or two to mark even after they have urinated over and over again.

3)      Look for triggers so you can manage before your dog marks.  Some dogs mark all the time.  These dogs need to be house trained over again.  Other dogs mark only occasionally in response to certain stimuli.  Watch your dog closely so you can manage your dog successfully.

My Ben is great in the house most of the time.  However, I know that Ben will try to mark when a new foster dog is brought into the house or when I take him into a new house that also contains dogs (particularly males).  Knowing Ben’s triggers allows me to manage him before he starts peeing on things.

4)      Manage, manage, manage.  Don’t give your dog opportunities to mark.  Crate him or keep him tethered to you so he can’t mark.  Let him out for short periods of structured free time in the house and watch him like a hawk.  It only takes a couple of unsupervised seconds for a dog to mark, much less time than it takes for a puppy to have an actual accident.  Make sure you take him outside frequently for unrestricted play time during this period since his activity in the house will be very restricted.  This holds true whether he is marking in his own house or marking when you bring him into a new house.

When I bring a new foster dog home, I introduce Ben and the new dog outside first where marking is okay.  Then I crate Ben and the foster dog in the house until they are comfortable with each other and Ben has relaxed.  This process usually takes several weeks.  In the interim, I rotate letting one dog out in the house at a time and supervising them closely.  I also let them spend lots of time together outside getting to know each other.  When I take Ben to a strange house, he stays on leash or crated until he has settled and relaxed in the new environment.

5)      Show him what you want.  With your dog on leash, take him into a managed situation where you know he is going to want to mark (ie., walk him up to a spot in the house that he has frequently marked in the past).  When he starts to sniff the spot, correct him verbally (ah ah or leave it) and when he looks away from the spot to you, give him verbal praise and lead him away from the spot.  Take a little break, and then walk him up to the same or another spot and repeat the process.  When using this technique, make sure you alternate it with taking him outside and allowing him to mark outside on leash.  Give him verbal praise for marking outside.  You want him to learn that peeing in the house is not acceptable but that it is safe and okay to urinate in your presence outside.

I use this technique when introducing Ben to a new house.  I walk around the house with Ben on leash and correct him when he starts to sniff a suspicious spot too eagerly.  My goal is to correct him when he starts to *think* about marking, but before it actually happens.  Once we have checked out the house in a supervised fashion and Ben is starting to relax, I can gradually give him more freedom.

6)      Help your dog to be more relaxed and confident.  Implement a “Nothing in Life is Free” policy in your household.  This program helps insecure dogs to feel more confident, reduces the status of pushy dogs, and provides healthy boundaries and leadership for dogs of all sorts.  If there is major change in your environment (moving, addition of another dog to the pack, changes in your work routine, etc.), try to keep your dog’s routine as consistent as possible.   

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