Animal Psychology Module 6

Lose Your Mind To Understand Your Dog’s

Human brains and dog brains work differently. We help you get inside your dog’s mind to better understand some common problematic issues.

What you will learn in this module:

6.1 Psychology behind scent marking

6.1.1 Why do domesticated dogs still scent mark?

6.1.2 When peeing causes you a problem

6.1.3 Urination due to submission

6.1.4 Urination due to excitement

6.2    Elimination

6.2.1 Inappropriate elimination due to distress

6.2.2 Habitual elimination

6.2.3 Incomplete training

6.3    Issues at feeding time

6.1 Psychology Behind Scent Marking

Scent is an important method of communication for a wide variety of animals. In fact, humans are one of the only mammal species that do not rely on scent to communicate with and relate to other members of the species. When dogs and wolves lived completely in the wild, they relied heavily on odors from urine and feces to communicate with other members of the species. In the interests of self-preservation, they would have preferred to avoid meeting other dogs and wolves as aggressive encounters were risky to both parties. They largely stayed clear of other packs and groups. The reasons they communicated primarily centered on establishing and maintaining territorial boundaries. They used scent marking as their method of remote and long distance communication.

As urine and feces contain vast amounts of coded information for each other, dogs could leave a scent mark that would last for days. This was designed so dogs could leave messages that would be picked up by others. It meant there was no need for a face to face meeting to thrash things out.

6.1.1 Why Do Domesticated Dogs Still Scent Mark?

Domesticated dogs are now much more social than this and they no longer need to scent mark as much as they think they do. But, as it was such a necessary survival tool in their genetic history it is obviously still a deeply ingrained instinct.

All owners, particularly of male dogs, will observe their dog’s obsession with raising their hind leg and depositing small amounts of urine at various locations when out and about. Females can do this also, though less intently. Wild dogs that were studied in India found that bitches scent marked around their lairs, proving that it was about putting a boundary around her family group. The males also did this more widely in their area.

Pet dogs must still feel the need to claim territory in the area they live in. However, their job is an ongoing one. As they live in close proximity to other dogs and are only on the walkabout trail for a limited time, their previously left scents become over ridden by other dogs, and so they have to start all over again. Scientists think dogs can tell how old, how large, how anxious, how hungry, and how confident another dog is through the information in the scent, though it is not entirely proven. What is obvious is that from a males’ intent reaction, he can tell the reproductive status of a female from her scent mark. In his mind, he has good reason to leave his mark.

6.1.2 When Peeing Causes You A Problem

It makes sense that neutering either eliminates or vastly reduces the desire to mark territory. Much of the important information contained in the scent of urine is related to sexual status. Therefore, reducing the hormones responsible for reproduction reduces or eliminates the drive to respond to sexual clues from other dogs, and to leave their clues for advertisement.

Non-neutered males still maintain a strong urge to urinate, especially when they go to new places. If this is out in nature, that is fine. However, if it is in your new in-laws gorgeous home, it is not.

It does not mean your dog has a problem – it is a normal, natural instinct. It is just not very socially acceptable to other people. A good tactic in dealing with it is to get in the habit of watching your dog every second when they arrive at a new place. It is vital to catch this behavior the first time they visit. If they manage to scent mark once, they will try again. Follow at their heels and watch when they sniff and look like they are about to lift a hind leg. Use whatever signal you have for communicating ‘no’ or distract the dog with a pet distracter. Bring them immediately outside to let them do it there. If you prevent it from happening the first time, dogs seem to get the message that it is not a place to mark.

This is particularly likely to happen if there is another dog in the house or if there is still the scent of another dog. Even with a house trained dog, it can also happen in your own home if a strange dog comes to visit – understandable when you take into account the original boundary marking it was designed to do. Again, watch vigilantly and intervene at the first sign of sniffing or leg lifting.

There are times when a dog may start marking inside when he has been previously house trained. This could be due to anxiety for some reason. The best way to stop it is to identify what is causing the anxiety and deal with that. It could be due to a change in the social structure of the household, including the arrival of a new pet, a new baby, the departure of a member of the family, and a significant change in routine.

6.1.3 Urination Due To Submission

It is normal for puppies to dribble urine when greeting animals or people who they feel are higher up in the hierarchy of their social group. And for a puppy, almost all others are! They have not yet developed good bladder control and it can happen easily. As they grow up they usually grow out of this, but some dogs can still be prone to it even when they are fully grown.

This can be due to a nervous or under-confident disposition; the kind of dog who feels they have to lower themselves in status in the presence of those they feel are above them. Urinating in the dog world is a sign of submission.

If this is happening because of anxiety or nervousness, it is really important that you do everything you can to build their confidence, and sense of security. Cleaning up repeatedly after accidents may be very frustrating. If you let them know you are upset or angry then this will just add to the problem. They will react to your upset mood, will not know why it is happening, and it will make them even more anxious. When it happens, find a way of releasing your reaction in a way they do not negatively experience, and offer them patience and love to help resolve the problem.

6.1.4 Urination Due To Excitement

This is similar to submissive urination and happens when a dog gets over excited, usually when greeting a loved one or new person that comes into their environment. It would be typical in a puppy with poor bladder control, but can also happen in dogs that have very excitable natures. Probably due to successful socialization with humans during puppy-hood, some dogs immediately want to excitedly greet every new person they meet.

One way of trying to cure this tendency is to reduce the excitement level at greeting time. Use the distraction of a toy or treat to diffuse the situation, and eliminate the habit of jumping up to greet. If necessary, develop the habit of ignoring the dog when you first arrive home, delaying your greeting until things have calmed for the dog. You could also try going outside immediately so that you reinforce the habit of urinating outside only.

6.2 Elimination

The dog/human bond is undoubtedly based on love. A dogs attachment to people is often more intense than to individuals from their own species. Dogs cannot turn off these strong feelings and attachments. Moreover, as many as one in five hate being separated from their loved ones. They really miss them. The more emotionally, highly tuned dogs may not cope well with things like sudden noises when on their own.

6.2.1 Inappropriate Elimination Due To Distress

One symptom that separation distress can lead to is elimination indoors or in inappropriate places. Distressing as this may be for you,  the last thing you must do is react with any punishment, ‘showing’ the dog what they have done or speaking to them in anger. This will definitely add more distress and make the situation worse. Since we humans are responsible for ‘programming’ dogs to give us unconditional love, we have a responsibility to deal with the consequences so dogs do not suffer for it.

If you think it is due to separation distress, try the tips we suggested in 4.2.2 Addressing home alone anxiety. When you put on a coat or pick up keys, switch your dog’s association from the negative aspects of a period of separation to the positive. Instead of your pet thinking ‘this means leaving’ and ‘this mean I’m on my own’ to ‘this means returning/affection’ or ‘this means I get a treat’.

Pick up keys and then go straight to your dog and give lots of loving attention, a treat, or both. Next time, pick up keys, go to the door, and give happy attention. Next, pick up keys, go through the door, come straight back inside, give praise, and attention. Repeat this many times over a number of days, staying outside for a few seconds, then a minute, then longer. If you sense the dog going back to associating keys with distress, slow down the training and go back to the previous step. Eventually they will learn that things like keys and putting on a coat lead to a positive outcome instead of a negative one.

If you have a breed that is particularly prone to distress on separation like a Labrador or Collie then try to keep your separation as short as you can manage, and broken up instead of in long bouts. In the long run, if you are gone for a significant amount of time it will pay to get someone else to provide company or exercise to prevent a problem from developing.

6.2.2 Habitual Elimination

Elimination can be encouraged to become habitual.

Many dogs who are taken on a walk at a particular time of the day get into the ritual of eliminating on their walk. This works especially well if it is a morning walk.

The bowels move best during exercise, further supporting this as a routine. Once your dog has had exercise, fresh air, and a toilet trip they are much more likely to rest happily when you leave.

6.2.3 Incomplete Training

House training a puppy to only eliminate outside does take time and patience. Some learn faster than others. At about 5 weeks old, pups start to leave the sleeping area to eliminate. They naturally have the instinct not to soil their immediate living space. Once they decide on a particular spot, they tend to repeatedly eliminate in the same place. This is called location preference. What your dog needs at a young age is to be persuaded to choose a spot that suits their lives with you – outside of your home. This does coincide with their psychology, and many get the idea without too much bother.

Once a dog has eliminated in a spot indoors, this will start to become a habit. If it happens, make sure to do all you can to get rid of any odor and try to restrict access to this area. In the early stages of house training it will mean being around and watching closely most of the day. You will need to bring the dog outside very often, particularly shortly after eating. Incomplete house training is a reason some adult dogs still eliminate inside.

If this is an ongoing issue for you, it would be worth putting time aside to devote to the project of correcting it. You will need to be on the spot and vigilant. After some close watching, you will probably pick up some body language that signals when your dog needs to do a toilet run. This may include circling, pawing, barking, sniffing, panting, pacing, and staring at you. Act on it immediately, and go to the outside area you want them to use. Choose a word or phrase you will always use as they are going so that when you repeat it, at other times, they will associate it with this action and know what you mean.

6.3 Issues At Feeding Time

The two main causes of conflict between dogs, in our everyday lives, are when they are in competition for food or between males for a bitch in heat. The need for food is a basic, primal driver. It is important to get the feeding ritual right to avoid any problems in your household.

  • Never leave a food bowl available to your dog indefinitely. This can encourage guarding and possessiveness. Even though they do not have to hunt for food and their supply is guaranteed, they may still have a primal instinct to protect any that is lying around.
  • Let the dog know that you are the one in charge of food and decide when they eat. Don’t feed in response to requests from the dog.
  • Never feed when the dog is over excited, anxious or aggressive. This is like rewarding, and therefore reinforcing this behavior. Wait until they are calm and submissive. Then they will know that if they want food, this is the state they need to be in to receive it.
  • Always wait until the dog sees that everyone else in your household at that time has eaten before them so they do not think they have preference over anyone.
  • If they do not finish a meal, remove the bowl. If you are trying to encourage a reluctant puppy to eat, do not be tempted to leave it out. It is best to offer it for limited periods, and then take it away.
  • Train your dog to read your body language for commands like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ and use these to let them know when to wait for food and when they may start eating.
  • If you are aware your dog has a sense of competition around food, make sure to remove any bones or treats if new people and/or another dog are coming to visit in case they get possessive.

If you are having issues around food that are not resolving on their own then call in a professional trainer. Avoid feeding time leading to a threatening situation.

Special note:
If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your pet that you are finding difficult to resolve then one line of treatment that may be very effective is Homeopathy. It is a completely safe, natural method that helps to balance emotional issues, calm over-excitement or aggression, and increase confidence in a nervous dog. If you can find a vet who practices Homeopathy, this is the best option

Well Done!