Ask a Trainer
“How Can I Train My Adult Rescue Dog to Stop Scent Marking All Over the House?”
Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell on how to keep your dog from using your living room as a toilet. carlesmayet / Adobe Stock
Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.) «We adopted a young male dog from a puppy mill who is an ideal playmate for our female dog and is perfect in all ways but one: though we walk him multiple times a day, take him out after meals and pay close attention to him, he still pees in the house, and will even lift his leg on us! We’ve taken him to the vet and he received a clean bill of health. How can we stop our dog from scent marking our house — and ourselves?» Scent marking is a very normal and common behavior, particularly in male dogs, but it becomes a big problem when marking occurs in your house. Dogs mark to advertise their presence and to claim territory and resources. Pee and poop contain pheromones, or chemical messages, that convey information — age, gender, health, and reproductive status — about the dog doing the marking. Resources such as toys, food bowls, chew treats, bones, and beds are the most likely objects to be marked. As you’ve experienced, a dog will also actually mark a person or something that smells heavily of that person, such as a sofa or bed. Even though marking can have a dominant and competitive component, it may also occur if a dog is overstimulated — for example, during or after vigorous play — or becomes anxious in a particular situation, such as when a person leaves. This common expression of anxiety in dogs is often mistaken for spite, resulting in punishment, which only serves to increase the anxious behavior. Scent marking is also more common in multi-dog households where dogs compete for space, resources, and human attention. Related article Unlike with submissive urination which is typical in puppies, both sexes scent mark, but intact males are the worst offenders, as signaling sexual availability and claiming territory is “encouraged” by the presence of testosterone. In many cases, neutering can significantly reduce a dog’s desire to scent mark, but some continue even after they have been neutered.
How to Stop a Dog from Marking
Although this is a difficult behavior to break, taking the following steps can improve the situation.
Prevent Scent Marking in the First Place
- Remove high-value resources that encourage competitive marking, and do not allow the dog or dogs who scent mark to roam freely throughout the home.
- Prevent access to favorite marking spots by restricting the dog(s) to a dog-proofed room or crate when you are unable to actively supervise them.
- Avoid competitive or vigorous play indoors, as excess activity encourages urination.
Train Your Dog to Stop Scent Marking
You must catch your dog in the act. Never punish your dog for markings that you find later.
- If your dog is about to mark, interrupt the behavior with a short, sharp vocal noise.
- Immediately redirect them to something more positive, or take him outside and reward them for the desired behavior.
- Repeat. Continue to provide your dog with positive reinforcement of desired behaviors. It may take some time for your dog to begin making the connection, but most dogs respond quickly. Human patience and sensitivity is the key to success.
Pro Tip: You can also help an indoor-marking dog succeed by walking them in new and different areas; this will encourage them to mark outside rather than in your home. Related article
How to House Train a Puppy Mill Dog
Training young adult dogs who are not housebroken to go to the bathroom appropriately can also be a challenge. Most dogs raised in a normal domestic situation respond well to a good house-training schedule, but those who have lived in puppy mills are notoriously difficult. Dogs are essentially clean animals and do not like to toilet where they sleep and eat, but because puppy mill dogs are confined to cramped cages, they are forced to do just that. This makes crate training (a usually successful way to house train a dog) much less effective. However, even puppy mill dogs can be taught to toilet appropriately. You’ll need to go back to house training basics. Here’s how:
- Allow access to outside areas every hour, then make less-frequent trips as the dog builds up control.
- Follow a schedule to establish a ritual of behavior, which will eventually become predictable and reliable.
Related article The bottom line: Every dog needs to feel confident about going to the bathroom. Punishing accidents will only scare the dog into finding ways to toilet in secret — so avoid doing so at all costs.
Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer and star of It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, TV personality, and founder of both the Victoria Stilwell Academy and Positively, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.
INDOOR URINE MARKING: OVERVIEW
1. Employ alert, active supervision of your dog. Any time you are not watching him, use a management tool (such as a crate, gate, exercise pen, or belly band) to prevent him or her from marking. 2. Consider what might be adding to your dog’s stress. Menace from another dog? A lack of structure? A smoke alarm chirp, incessantly warning of a low battery? Remove any stressors you can. 3. Use an enzymatic cleaner on every location that has been “marked.” Your dog’s nose is far stronger than yours, and even the tiniest whiff of urine may serve as a prompt for him to mark again. Use a black light to make sure you haven’t missed any spots that need to be cleaned. Tinkle, tinkle, little Pug, must you mark upon my rug? Or the side of the couch? Or the leg of the coffee table? Many dog owners are familiar with a dog’s unwanted usage of “pee mail,” more accurately known as “urine marking.” While this leg lifting is a perfectly normal behavior, “normal” does not mean “acceptable” when it comes to the peaceful cohabitation of humans and canines. Marking is different from urination; a dog urinates to relieve his bladder of the sensation of feeling full. In contrast, marking does not involve full evacuation of the bladder; instead, the dog releases a small amount of urine as a communication strategy. Urine contains pheromones, chemicals that provide critical information regarding a dog’s age, gender, health, and reproductive status – all very interesting and important olfactory reading if you’re a dog. This is why dogs are so intent on smelling where other dogs have fully eliminated or marked. Marking is most common in, but not limited to, male dogs, and typically begins at puberty. Depending on the breed (small breeds mature faster than large breeds), this usually happens around six to nine months of age. As male dogs begin to sexually mature, the increased presence of testosterone encourages the signaling of sexual ability and territory marking. Dogs who are neutered around six months of age are less likely to urine mark, or mark less often, compared to intact dogs or dogs who are neutered later. That’s not to say all unaltered dogs mark. As with many things, training goes a long way toward preventing marking among all dogs. L. Buttigieg
Acceptable Urine Marking
When out in the world, urine marking is like social media. Watch your dog while on a walk. Each time he stops and sniffs, he’s “reading” the canine equivalent of a Twitter feed. Think of your own social media habits. Some posts you quickly read and move on to the next interesting tidbit. Some posts you “like.” Some posts inspire you to post a reply or comment of your own! Well, your dog makes similar choices. So long as he’s using his urine-based social media responsibly, we see no problem with this behavior, as it gives your dog, and those who happen by at a later time, valuable information.
When Urine Marking Becomes a Problem
Marking inside the house is another story. When dealing with an indoor marker, it’s wise to first make sure you don’t actually have a basic housetraining problem. When young dogs, especially young toy- and small-breed dogs (whose bladders are smaller, resulting in less output, and, often, a need to relieve themselves more frequently), are given too much freedom too soon, they may develop the habit of urinating in the house. This is frequently done out of the owner’s sight, causing the owner to believe the dog is house-trained. When the owner finally catches the dog in the act, the dog is labeled a “marker.” In reality, the dog was never properly house-trained. As a general rule of thumb, until your new dog or puppy has been accident-free for at least a month (and perhaps as long as three full months!), he should not be allowed to roam the house unsupervised. Adhering to this lengthy benchmark goes a long way toward making sure your dog fully understands the “house rules” of toileting habits.
Marking in Multi-Dog Households
Marking is predominantly a stress- and anxiety-related behavior. Indoor marking is more common in multi-dog households because dogs compete for resources: bones, toys, prime lounging spots, access to humans, etc. This competition can be very subtle, and often goes unnoticed by humans. For example, a pointed glance or sudden stillness by another dog in the household – perhaps guarding a toy or a coveted spot – may seem mild to us, but to an anxious dog, might feel like a much more serious situation (perhaps like the difference between someone directing a mild expletive our way versus flashing a switchblade at us at the ATM). Most confident, well-adjusted dogs handle these normal interactions with ease – both in terms of giving and receiving information. Anxious or insecure dogs can struggle, and, as a result, are more prone to marking as an outlet for that stress.
Other Common Urine Marking Triggers
A sudden change in routine, moving to a new home, short- and long-term houseguests, visiting animals, death of a housemate, worrisome noises outside, unexpected encounters on walks, illness, and even re-arranging the furniture are all things our canine friends might find stressful. Newly adopted dogs often mark in an attempt to create a sense of familiarity in an otherwise completely foreign environment. A dog you’ve had for a while might mark during or following a visiting animal’s stay in the home, or even mark human guests’ belongings when left out, for similar reasons. “This doesn’t smell familiar . . . . Here, let me take care of that.” Marking becomes an attempt to create a sense of normalcy. It’s like putting your favorite family photo on your desk during your first day on a brand-new job. “See! I do belong here. My stuff is here!” Like people, our dogs get used to things being a certain way, and, just like people, some dogs handle change better than others. Owners frequently report their dogs started marking out of “spite” following a life change. But spite and vindictiveness are uniquely human emotions. Dogs just aren’t wired that way. Plus, remember that, to dogs, urine (and feces) is a source of extremely useful information. A puddle of urine or pile of poo is like a page one New York Times article; it’s A-1 reading material! Why would your dog leave you such a gift if he was trying to “get back at you” for something? If you had the powerful nose of your canine companion, you’d look to the scent of your dog’s urine to enlighten you about his emotional state. I think we can all agree we’re glad we aren’t dogs when it comes to this habit. Trust your trainer when she says it’s not spite, it’s stress! Even stressful run-ins away from home can lead to incidents of marking at home, just as a stressful day at work might cause us to reach for a glass of wine as soon as we head through the door. For example, if your dog is fearful and finds walks stressful, he might not mark during the walk (since doing so would further announce his presence, and fearful dogs largely prefer to blend in, not stand out), but the residual effects of the stress-inducing event might cause him to mark as a coping mechanism once he returns home.
Medical Reasons for Indoor Peeing
Any time there’s a sudden change in your dog’s behavior, it’s wise to rule out underlying medical reasons for the behavior. No amount of behavior modification will overcome a medical condition. If you can’t easily identify the possible stress-related reason for your dog’s behavior change, we recommend a vet visit. A dog with a urinary tract infection (UTI) can experience an almost constant need to “go,” and will often expel small amounts of urine frequently throughout the day.
How to Stop Your Dog’s Urine Marking
Individually and in combination, the following strategies can help stop the marking: 1. Employ management. The first step in correcting a marking issue involves diligent management in an effort to stop the rehearsal of unwanted behavior. Keep a close eye on your dog – no unsupervised time! – so you’re able to immediately interrupt all attempts to mark and redirect his efforts to “go” outside. When you can’t supervise, consider confining your dog to an x-pen or crate, or use baby gates to create an area small enough to deter soiling. If marking is limited to a specific room, restrict access to the area for at least a month (the same benchmark as housetraining). Some clients report success moving their dogs’ food and water to the problem area, as most dogs won’t mess where they eat. Often, employing diligent management to prevent the behavior is enough to offer long-term improvement. 2. Reduce stress. Identify events in your dog’s life that might create stress. Some stressors can be tricky. For example, many owners think showering their dogs with endless treats while requiring little in terms of basic obedience is a wonderful way to convey love. Unfortunately, a lack of basic structure often contributes to anxiety, especially in multiple-dog households. While I’m not a fan of rigid “leadership” protocols, I believe dogs do best when taught a basic skillset designed to create a working partnership with their humans, whose job it is to ensure the well being of everyone in the household. If marking mostly happens when you aren’t home, your dog might be anxious being alone. Be sure to keep departures and arrivals low-key to reduce the tension of an already emotional event for your dog. Teaching your dog to accept time away from you – even when you’re home – can also help reduce anxiety when you leave. (See “Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Symptoms and How to Modify the Behavior,” (October 2016), for more information about separation anxiety and isolation distress.) Also, be mindful of potentially scary noises that might be causing anxiety – for example, the ear-piercing back-up beep of the garbage truck on trash day. Often, once you’ve identified the trigger, you can successfully counter-condition your dog’s emotional response. Anxiety can be a tricky issue to overcome. Some dogs respond well to homeopathic remedies or flower essence blends designed to reduce anxiety. Another option is Adaptil, a pheromone-based product available as a plug-in diffuser or a collar. Adaptil products release pheromones involved in the attachment process between a nursing dog and her offspring, offering an olfactory message of comfort and security. In some cases, pharmaceutical intervention might be necessary. 3. Clean soiled areas. Use an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle to thoroughly clean urine spots in the home. Avoid ammonia-based cleaners. Urine contains ammonia, and such products can encourage further marking. If moving into a new home formerly occupied by dogs, consider professionally cleaning or replacing the carpet to reduce your dog’s desire to mark over existing animal scent. If this isn’t possible, use a black light to search for potential problem areas. 4. Consider neutering. While not a guaranteed fix, neutering your dog, especially before he reaches full sexual maturity (12 to 15 months), is likely to reduce or eliminate his tendency to mark by stopping the influence of hormones. 5. Discourage all marking, even outdoors. In some cases, the act of marking becomes a well-practiced habit that remains even after removing environmental stressors or choosing to neuter (especially among dogs neutered later in life). In such cases, I recommend drawing a hard line when it comes to marking, even outdoors. When on a walk, give your dog an opportunity to fully void his bladder, then quickly but casually interrupt all subsequent attempts to leave his calling card throughout the neighborhood. It need not be a dramatic interruption; simply keep walking as your dog attempts to mark, almost like you hadn’t noticed. (Note: An opposing view holds that thwarting this behavior outside can increase a dog’s stress, especially among anxious dogs. You may have to experiment to learn which approach improves the situation with your dog.) 6. Try a belly band. If you can’t directly supervise or appropriately confine your dog to minimize his marking, a fabric belly band might be helpful. A belly band fits like a tube-top around your dog’s waist, covering his penis. The band often discourages any amount of urination while the garment is on, or, at a minimum, absorbs the urine and protects your home and furniture. 7. Most importantly, don’t punish! Remember that inappropriate marking is a stress response. Calmly interrupting a dog as he’s marking is one thing. Reprimanding him after the fact will make things worse. Unless you intervene as it’s happening, your dog won’t connect your displeasure with his marking. He might look guilty as you reprimand him, but that look is an attempt to appease you in that moment – not because he realizes his marking, which took place however long ago, is unwanted. Similarly, avoid stern admonishments in situations where he’s likely to mark. “No marking while I’m gone!” or “You leave Grandma’s stuff alone!” will serve only to increase your dog’s anxiety, since he can’t understand your words, but recognizes a harsh, unhappy tone. Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Southern California. Urine-Marking Dogs do not urinate or defecate out of spite or jealousy. The unfamiliar scents and sounds of a new home may be stressing and he feels the need to reaffirm his claim on his territory. Likewise, if your dog urinates on your new boyfriend’s backpack it does not reflect his opinion of your taste in men. Instead, he has perceived the presence of an «intruder» and is letting the intruder know this territory belongs to him. Urine-marking is not house soiling House soiling is when your dog empties his bladder or his bowels inside the house. There are a few reasons he may do this.
- He is not housebroken.
- He has a medical issue.
- He is terrified and has lost control of his bladder and/or bowels.
Urine-marking, on the other hand, is a territorial behavior. Your dog feels the need to assert his dominance or ease his anxiety by laying out his boundaries. He does this by depositing small amounts of urine on anything he feels belongs to him—the furniture, the walls, your socks, etc. Urine-marking is most often associated with male dogs, but females may do it, too. Leg-lifting is the primary way of marking, but even if your pet does not lift his leg, he may still be marking. The amount of urine is small and is found primarily on vertical surfaces, but dogs do sometimes mark on horizontal surfaces. Reasons for urine-marking
- Your dog is not spayed or neutered. Unneutered dogs are much more assertive and prone to marking than neutered ones.
- There is a new pet in the household.
- Another pet in your home is not spayed or neutered. Even spayed or neutered animals may mark in response to other intact animals in the home.
- Your dog has conflicts with other animals in your home. When there is instability in the pack dynamics, a dog may feel a need to establish his place by marking his territory.
- There is someone new in the house; your dog puts his scent on that person’s belongings as a way of proclaiming that the house is his.
- There are new objects in the environment (a shopping bag, a visitor’s purse) that have unfamiliar smells or another animal’s scent.
- Your dog has contact with other animals outside your home. If your pet sees another animal through a door or window, he may feel a need to mark his territory.
How to Prevent It You mark your stuff by putting your name on it; your dog marks his with urine. We’ve covered why dogs mark territory, now here’s how to prevent urine-marking behaviors before they happen in your house. Before doing anything else, take your dog to the veterinarian to rule out any medical causes for the urine-marking behavior. If he gets a clean bill of health, use the following tips to make sure he doesn’t start marking his territory. Spay (or neuter) first Spay or neuter your dog as soon as possible. The longer a dog goes before neutering, the more difficult it will be to train him not to mark in the house. Spaying or neutering your dog should reduce urine-marking and may stop it altogether. But if he has been marking for a long time, a pattern may already be established. Because it has become a learned behavior, spaying or neutering alone will not solve the problem. Use techniques for housetraining an adult dog to modify your dog’s marking behavior. More tips
- Clean soiled areas thoroughly with a cleaner specifically designed to eliminate urine odor.
- Make previously soiled areas inaccessible or unattractive. If this is not possible, try to change the significance of those areas to your pet. Feed, treat, and play with your pet in the areas where he marks.
- Keep objects likely to cause marking out of reach. Items such as guests’ belongings and new purchases should be placed in a closet or cabinet.
- Resolve conflicts between animals in your home. If you have added a new cat or new dog to your family, follow our tip sheets to help them live in harmony.
- Restrict your dog’s access to doors and windows so he cannot observe animals outside. If this is not possible, discourage the presence of other animals near your house.
- Make friends. If your pet is marking in response to a new resident in your home (such as a roommate or spouse), have the new resident make friends with your pet by feeding, grooming, and playing with your pet.
- Watch your dog when he is indoors for signs that he is thinking about urinating. When he begins to urinate, interrupt him with a loud noise and take him outside. If he urinates outside, praise him and give him a treat.
- When you’re unable to watch him, confine your dog (a crate or small room where he has never marked).
- Have your dog obey at least one command (such as «sit») before you give him dinner, put on his leash to go for a walk, or throw him a toy.
- If your dog is marking out of anxiety, talk to your vet about medicating him with a short course of anti-anxiety medication. This will calm him down and make behavior modification more effective.
- Consult an animal behaviorist for help with resolving the marking issues.
What not to do not punish your pet after the fact. Punishment administered even a minute after the event is ineffective because your pet will not understand why he is being punished. If you come home and find that your dog has urinated on all kinds of things, just clean up the mess. Do not take him over to the spots and yell and rub his nose in them. He will not associate the punishment with something he may have done hours ago, leading to confusion and possibly fear. -From The Humane Society of the United States
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