Urine marking can prove a common problem for many dog owners. Behaviourist Inga MacKellar explains the reasons why older dogs might do it and offers some advice for tackling the issue where it’s unwelcome
Why does my dog do this?
Just like younger canines, urine marking is something both older male and female dogs do, primarily as a way to communicate with each other. The urine they place contains chemical compounds that give out information about their sex and sexual state. Bitches, for example, will increase their marking behaviour when they’re in season, to indicate their availability to mate, while male dogs that are not neutered tend to urine mark more than those that are. Dogs of both sexes will also use urine to mark their territory. Male dogs typically cock their legs, while bitches generally squat, sometimes with a slightly raised leg – this is called the ‘squat raise’.
Dogs also urine mark if they’re anxious or frustrated. This can become a problem when it’s happening in your home, and may come as a surprise to owners of older dogs if they haven’t behaved like this before. Anxiety or frustration can be caused by a wide range of factors: it may be that your dog can hear or see other dogs outside, sparking territorial behaviour, or he or she may be excited by the arrival of the postman or visitors. Some dogs are very sensitive to sound, so unusual or scary noises like fireworks or storms can cause them to urine mark.
There could also be underlying medical issues that cause or worsen the problem. As they age, dogs are more susceptible to health problems, such as arthritis, metabolic diseases like thyroid dysfunction, and dementia. So if your dog is in his senior years, pain and health issues could be contributing to his anxiety.
Older pets are sometimes more set in their ways, too, and can be reliant upon a routine. If this is disturbed – by the introduction of another pet or a move to a different house, for example – it may increase their anxiety and therefore their urge to urine mark.
What can I do about it?
First of all, you need to determine whether the marking is socially or sexually motivated, or is being caused by anxiety or frustration. Watch your dog for a few days and ask yourself some simple questions: are there lots of other animals nearby, or any that weren’t around before? Are there loud noises, such as building work behind the house? Has anything changed within the household?
If the urine marking is sexually or socially motivated, then neutering will often reduce the problem (and has a range of other health benefits, too). Pets are often neutered at a young age, so if this was done ages ago and your dog has only just started urine marking, then raging hormones are less likely to be the problem.
If you believe that anxiety might be causing your dog to urine mark, then it is vital to rule out any potential underlying medical factors that might be making it worse. Look out for any signs of pain – for example, stiffness getting up or a reluctance to move – and ask your vet to do a thorough checkup. With older dogs, some owners might mistake urinary incontinence for urine marking, so your vet could also check for this.
If a medical cause has been ruled out and your dog is just generally anxious, he or she might benefit from pheromone therapy. Sprays such as Adaptil mimic the natural pheromones that dogs produce, helping to reassure and calm them – your vet can provide advice about this too. More specific anxieties or frustrations also need to be identified and dealt with. Some factors, such as seeing or hearing other dogs outside, can be helped by restricting your pet’s view of the external environment and using music to muffle outside sounds. More complex factors causing urine marking, such as noise phobias or other fears, should be discussed with a professional behaviour counsellor.
Clean up any indoor messes with a solution made of one part biological washing powder or liquid to ten parts warm water. Praise your dog for urine marking in the ‘correct’ spot (outdoors!) and bear in mind that whatever the cause of the urine marking, it’s important not to scold. Pets don’t understand when we shout at them – it just makes them feel confused and anxious, making the problem worse. It’s also worth remembering that it can take older pets longer to respond to training or to undo bad habits, than younger ones. So if the urine marking has been going on for some time, you’ll need plenty of patience to pinpoint the problem and help undo the habit.