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One of my clients has a 6-year-old spayed female pug. When the client visits other people's houses, the dog lifts its leg to urinate in the house. The owner has to keep the dog right by her side to prevent this from happening. The dog has had no accidents at home since it was a puppy. This sounds like a marking behavior. Do you have any ideas on other causes or suggestions for retraining?
A. You are correct that this is likely a marking behavior. However, knowing if the dog squats or lifts its leg in other circumstances either to urinate or mark may also be useful. For example, if the dog squats to urinate in its own yard but lifts its leg to deposit urine when on walks, then the leg lifting in a friend's house is likely to be marking behavior.
Many dogs will mark when confronted with new objects. Urine marking might also occur because of anxiety. The anxiety could be associated with a novel place, the presence of other dogs in the home, or even anxiety associated with the people in the home.
DIFFERENTIATING THE PROBLEM
Thus, leg position does not always clearly differentiate marking from elimination behavior until that information is combined with a detailed description of the entire behavior sequence as well as a complete behavioral history. Other associated information such as whether the dog sniffs a lot before and, possibly, after depositing urine or whether or not there is scratching of the ground afterward may help to differentiate marking from elimination. Scratching the ground after eliminating is another form of marking behavior. When combined with a lot of olfactory investigation, it suggests that the event has a purpose other than just responding to the need to empty the bladder. Another criteria that might help to differentiate urine marking from elimination is the fact that smaller quantities of urine are typically produced when urine marking. If the dog were eliminating, then a larger quantity would be expected, as the dog is likely to completely empty its bladder.
RULING OUT A MEDICAL PROBLEM
We are assuming that the dog is not exhibiting any polydipsia or polyuria and that urinary tract disease has been ruled out. If this were a completely new behavior in a 6-year-old dog, I would be cautious about assuming it is strictly behavioral with no medical underpinnings. Even some medical conditions and medications can increase a dog's level of irritability or agitation, making it more anxious and likely to perform an anxiety-related behavior that it may never have performed before. An increased degree of anxiety can also lead to an increased sensitivity to stimuli and, thus, an increase in behaviors such as urine marking.
ELIMINATING THE PROBLEM
Fortunately, because the behavior is limited to such a specific circumstance, treatment will be similar regardless of the diagnosis (urine marking vs. elimination). The first step is always to prevent the behavior, if possible, and it sounds as if the owner is already doing that. One way she can do this and also teach the dog some alternative behaviors at the same time is to have the dog on a head halter and leash when she enters other people's homes. When the dog begins to sniff and investigate an area, as if it is going to mark it, the owner can interrupt the behavior by gently turning the dog's head away from the area and asking the dog to do something else that is incompatible with leg lifting, such as having the dog sit. When the dog sits, the owner should be ready with praise and a small treat. When used as a reward, treats should always be small, about the size of a pea (or even smaller for small dogs), and something very special that the dog will consume quickly so it will be ready to look to you for your next instruction. It is likely that, if repeated often enough, these steps will eventually teach the dog that urinating inside any home is unacceptable behavior.
In this particular case, a head halter may be problematic. Shorter-faced dogs, such as pugs, bulldogs, and Boston terriers, can be difficult to fit with head halters. However, be aware that there are sources for head halters especially for short-nosed breeds (www.snootloop.com). When head halters are not a viable option, body harnesses can often work equally as well, especially if the dog is small, as in this case. With the dog in a body harness, you can stop its forward motion and often prevent it from performing the unacceptable behavior. You can then pull the dog toward you and speak to it in an upbeat tone of voice to get its attention and request an alternative behavior. However, you cannot physically turn its head toward you as you can with a head halter, which is just one of many reasons why head halters are usually preferred by behaviorists.
UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM
One of the reasons this case may seem extremely puzzling to you and your client is the fact that this is a spayed female dog, and most everyone associates marking behavior with intact male dogs. However, studies have shown that while urinary behavior is sexually dimorphic in dogs, urinary postures in female dogs vary greatly, and the variation may depend on reproductive status and even age, in addition to other factors that are not yet well understood. One study demonstrated that 13% of female dogs in the study population did not squat to urinate, and 3% of males did not elevate their leg to urinate, making it clear that some variation in elimination behavior is normal for dogs.1 Ultimately, both male and female dogs can be taught that outdoors is the only acceptable place for depositing urine for any reason, whether it is to mark or eliminate.
Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB
Premier Veterinary Behavior Consulting
P.O. Box 1413
Sweetwater, TX 79556
1. Sprague RH, Anisko JJ. Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle. Behaviour 1973;47(3):257-267.