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Housebreaking: What To Do About Marking (Excessive Leg-Lifting)

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

dog beside fire hydrantMale pups don't start lifting their leg to urinate until puberty (adolescence), which begins around 6 or 7 months old in smaller breeds, and around 10 to 12 months old in larger breeds.

Why does a dog lift his leg at all? To spray his urine as high as possible, thereby "marking" his territory. He's saying, "I claim this territory! I'm One Big Bad Dude – just look how high off the ground I can pee. Imagine how strong and mighty I must be! All you other sniffers should be shaking in your boots!"

It sounds a little amusing, doesn't it? The problem is that many dogs become compulsive  markers, hauling you toward every tree and fire hydrant to leave their scent here... and here... and here. Also here... and here...

Compulsive markers are more focused on their environment than on you. This is very disrespectful to you, the "leader."

DachshundCompulsive marking can also morph into displays of dominance or aggression toward other dogs.

Finally, some compulsive markers will even mark inside your house,  especially if you have multiple dogs and you're allowing them to decide "which one's the boss."

Terrible idea. As the leader, it is your responsibility to establish the rule that all of your dogs must live as equals. None of your dogs may pester, tease, harass, steal from, or bully another.

Certain breeds (such as terriers and toy dogs) are more prone to compulsive marking. Some tiny dogs dash around like little wind-up toys, lifting their leg busily on every vertical blade of grass, or even against people's ankles!

As far as gender, compulsive marking is most common, by far, in non-neutered males. However, many neutered males do it, too, especially if they have a dominant personality.

Even females (whether spayed or not) are known to mark. Of course, because of their anatomy, they just kind of lift one hind foot and dribble. Their urine doesn't go any higher, but they seem satisfied that it has!

What to do about excessive marking:

When your dog pees against the leg of the kitchen table, does anything good happen (in his opinion)? Yes, he feels satisfied that he's left his scent there for others to notice.

Does anything bad happen? That's up to you. Move toward your dog assertively and correct with a sharp, "AH-ah! No!" and a firm jerk on the leash or one of the other corrective techniques that work for your particular dog.

Shih TzuIf you provide the right negative consequence – one that outweighs the reward he receives from peeing against the table – most dogs will decide that marking isn't worth it.

At least when it comes to marking the table.  Dogs aren't always adept about generalizing from the specific. You might need to methodically correct marking the sofa, marking the door frame, marking the wheels of your car, etc... until the dog gets the idea that "Okay, so NONE of this is allowed."

Hopefully you've read enough of my articles to know that a dog who is marking indoors  should not be loose in the house! He should be in a crate or pen, or practicing his impulse control on his bed, or leashed to you so that he must follow you around.

Indoor markers, like all misbehaving dogs, need tons of structure, routines, and consequences in their lives. Establishing the proper leader-follower relationship is essential.

Chihuahua lying downImmediately begin working through all my training articles and put each one into practice in your household. For example, a compulsive marker should not be allowed on your bed or furniture. He should not be allowed to demand petting. He must Wait" for your permission before going through doors and gates. And so on.

Clean marked areas thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature's Miracle.  Plain soap or detergents don't remove the microscopic odor particles that can attract your dog back to the same area. Don't use any products with ammonia.

If your dog only marks outdoors, that's easier to control. At least for the time being, take him only for structured walks (part walking, part playtime) where he is discouraged from eliminating during the walking  part of the excursion.

Does neutering help solve compulsive marking?

No, neutering doesn't solve compulsive marking in most dogs. Although with toy breeds, it can help.

What solves compulsive marking are negative consequences and the proper leader-follower relationship.

You need also keep in mind that there are some health risks associated with neutering, especially neutering too early.

Belly bands

Sometimes I get a desperate call from someone who has been living with a compulsive marker for many years. Typically this is an elderly owner with a small older dog who has a long-standing habit of lifting his leg in the house.

belly band on ChihuahuaWe go over all the tried-and-true ways to deal with this, revolving around consequences and leadership.

But with severe arthritis, she has a hard time getting around, and when I check back with her, she admits that she hasn't been able to follow the program. She asks if there's anything I can suggest to just protect her furniture.

So I tell her about belly bands.  These are pieces of absorbent cloth that you wrap around a male dog's private parts when he's indoors. If he lifts his leg, he'll soak the band, but not your furniture. You can buy them online.

Belly bands might be the only solution if an owner can't (or won't) follow my program of structure, consequences, and leadership that would truly solve the problem.

CAUTION:  Urine burns! A belly band can cause irritated skin, even infections, if left on a dog after they're wet. Belly bands should be checked (and replaced, if wet) every 1-2 hours. You can't simply put one on your dog and then head off to work!

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

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