Visiting Vet: House-training some male dogs is challenging

Visiting Vet: House-training some male dogs is challenging

The first time I met Junior, an unneutered male dachshund, he was six years old. Just recently adopted, his new owner completely doted on him. In hindsight, it’s funny that his initial visit was because Junior wasn’t feeling well after eating a bully stick treat. Also called pizzles, or pizzle stix, these treats are made from dried bull penis. That’s right. What I said. This part of a bull’s anatomy, made of muscle and vascular and connective tissue, measures about two feet long. In a lovely waste-not-want-not process, the organ is cleaned, stretched, twisted or braided, then dried, baked, or smoked and cut into pieces for dog treats.

Humans also consume pizzles. Chinese athletes ate Scottish deer pizzles during the 2008 Summer Olympics. The deer is a symbol of longevity and health in Eastern medicine and the team believed pizzle-eating would improve their stamina and enhance performance. In Jamaica, pizzles are cooked up into a delicacy called cow cod soup, which is thought to be a male aphrodisiac.

My amusement at Junior’s love for bully sticks stems from the fact that another thing he loves to do is, well, pizzle all over his owner’s house. Let’s talk about urine marking in the male dog.

Junior is just doing what comes naturally. He is not being bad or spiteful. He is not angry with his owner. He is simply obeying a strong instinct to mark his territory. Dogs use urine to communicate many things. Territorial boundaries. Pack hierarchy. Whether an individual is in heat, pregnant, neutered. Who’s in charge.

When Junior pees on the couch he isn’t saying “I’m mad at you.” More likely he is telling his owner “I love you madly and will protect you always.” He doesn’t understand that us humans would prefer he show his love in other ways.

When we house-train puppies, we are essentially teaching them “inside the house is your den, don’t mess it up. Outside the house is your territory. You can mark there.”

Small dogs are more likely to urinate inside the house than larger breeds. If we are trying to convince a dog that the boundaries in need of anointing are all outside the house, that makes more spatial sense to a Saint Bernard than to a Chihuahua. The Chihuahua thinks a smaller area is enough “inside” turf, and the rest of the house then is perceived as “outside” territory in need of marking.

Some small dogs have to be confined to prevent inappropriate urination, never leaving them loose in the house unless you can supervise. Using a crate is the simplest method, but some small dogs will even eliminate in their crates. Dachshunds and beagles seem particularly prone to this cavalier attitude toward hygiene.

For intact adult male dogs, the instinct to mark can override all our efforts at house training. Many things stimulate the impulse. There might be a female dog down the road in heat that you are not unaware of, but Junior can smell her doggy Chanel No. 5 a mile away. Maybe there’s a new male dog in the neighborhood or your friend brings his dog over for a visit.

And it’s not just procreation and canine competition that get Junior’s juices flowing. A new baby, dirty diapers, a soiled cat box, a change in the family schedule, a new roommate or pregnant woman in the house — any of these can inspire Junior to want to reassert his position in the household.

The main way to prevent urine marking behavior in male dogs is to neuter them, and to neuter them early. There is a clear correlation between testosterone and urine marking. A mature, intact male dog, especially one that has had sexual experience, will have a much stronger urge to mark. Eliminate testosterone and you have a good shot at eliminating the behavior before it begins. Neutered males will still occasionally mark (as will females), but it is far less common and easier to correct.

“In Junior’s case, some of this has become a learned behavior, a habit, over his six years,” I explained. “Neutering is still our first and best hope, combined with behavioral modification reinforcing housebreaking, but his age does make it more difficult to correct.”

Junior’s mother was reluctant to neuter him, and she didn’t think he would adjust to crating. Constant supervision was also impossible. Now what?

“You could use a belly band or doggie diapers to catch the urine,” I suggested. These garments can’t be worn continuously, because that can lead to skin irritation or urinary tract infections, but a dog can wear them whenever his owner can’t supervise or confine him. Unfortunately, some dogs will remove and chew up or eat the pads, but for dogs who tolerate wearing them, these items can be helpful. They don’t prevent the behavior but at least they keep the pee off the furniture. But Junior’s mother thought diapers would be an affront to his dignity.

“Well, then all we can do is go back to basic housebreaking techniques, just like training a puppy,” I said. “Thoroughly clean everywhere he pees with products designed to eliminate odor. The urine smell stimulates recurrent marking. Punishment is not helpful. If you see him in the act, say NO loudly, then grab him and take him out to a designated ‘potty’ area. When he urinates there, praise him enthusiastically.”

We talked about ruling out medical problems like urinary tract infection, bladder stone, or prostate trouble as underlying causes of his behavior. I gave her contact information for a number of dog trainers who might have other ideas, but I wasn’t hopeful. Without neutering and dramatic changes in training and controlling his environment, I doubted Junior’s urine marking would abate.

The older I get, the more I embrace the wisdom of old adages. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I thought. Boys will be boys, I thought.

But luckily for Junior, love conquers all, I concluded…and his mother loves him.