There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just blurt it out -- this has got to stop!
I am referring to our newest dog's brand-new hobby, by which I mean peeing on everything inside our house. And when I say "Mr. X" pees on everything, I literally mean everything.
A Maltichon (half-Maltese and half-Bichon Frise) the size of a canned ham, Mr. X has been with us for almost two years, but in recent months has taken to lifting his leg on everything from laptop computers and purses to books, appliances, space heaters and clothing. If it's on or near floor level, Mr. X will give it a quick squirt.
"Curse you, Mr. X!" is what I will hear my wife, She Who Must Not Be Named, shriek every morning as she discovers the latest yellow stains created by the newest member of our family. (I am paraphrasing what my spouse actually screams, but I think you get the thrust of my gist.)
We almost never catch him in the act, because Mr. X (OK, that's not his real name; we just don't want to embarrass him publicly) is an expert at slipping away unseen. We're also not talking large puddles of urine; we're talking a squirt-squirt here and a squirt-squirt there.
It's a complex issue, and one that is far more common than most pet owners realize.
"It's a huge problem," Dr. Jim Broughton, who owns Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital on Corydon Avenue, but who has been our family veterinarian for more than 25 years, tells me. "I'd say house-soiling is a big cause of people deciding to get rid of their pets. It's a huge cause."
The good news is it's a problem that can be cured. The bad news is it requires a lot of effort and dedication on the part of the owner.
Our experts -- Broughton and Val Poulton, a dog-behaviour expert and manager of intake and behaviour with the Winnipeg Humane Society -- agree the first step in dealing with the problem is having your dog examined by a vet to rule out an underlying medical condition.
Broughton says there's a big difference between a dog that just needs to be let outside to do his business and a dog that is deliberately lifting a leg to mark its territory.
"It's not a spiteful behaviour," Broughton says of Mr. X (better known in our house as "Bogey"). "He's just marking his territory. Dogs are territorial animals. He's basically saying: 'This is mine!' Urine-marking is a normal instinctive behaviour in dogs.
"Unfortunately, like a lot of other natural dog behaviours, we need to modify it because it's not acceptable for a dog to mark in its home. It's probably happening more now because he (Mr. X) is more settled and secure in your home. He's more ready to say, 'This is mine; this is my place.'"
At the root of the problem, the vet says, is that our beloved but problematic pooch has clearly never been properly house-trained.
Broughton and Poulton agree the best solution is to treat a dog that pees in the house like a brand-new puppy and employ basic house-training techniques.
A dog can be "crated" when left unsupervised, "because most dogs will keep their kennel clean and instinctively know not to soil in their crate," the vet advises.
"When they are supervised, we make sure they have lots of opportunity to go outside," he says. "When they do go outside, we praise the heck out of them with overly enthusiastic praise. Dogs are social animals and live for praise from their masters."
It is essential for the owners of scent-marking dogs to be vigilant and watch them closely. "He should never not be in the same room as you guys," Broughton says.
Our experts say this can involve restricting a dog to certain areas of the home by closing doors or using baby gates. You can even keep the dog on a leash when it's inside to ensure it doesn't wander away unseen. "You can tie the leash to your belt," Broughton says. "A lot of dogs don't mind because it helps develop the bond."
If you catch the dog lifting its leg inside, distract it by calling its name or clapping your hands, then get it outside immediately.
What you don't do is punish a dog for peeing in the house.
"The one thing that doesn't work and never has worked is punishing or scolding them for inappropriate urination," Broughton says. "Dogs do not have the cognitive ability to understand what they did hours or even minutes ago is what is resulting in them being punished."
The experts also stress owners need to use an enzymatic cleaner to get rid of urine odours at the "doggie level." The smell of their own pee will keep luring them back to urinate in the same spot.
But Poulton, who owns two dogs and came to Winnipeg last August after eight years with the Nebraska Humane Society, believes the concept of urine-marking is too easy an explanation for a complicated behaviour.
"I think that's the go-to answer everyone usually has, one that puts it on the dog and not the human," the behaviour expert said. The problem can stem more from poor potty training and it shouldn't be ignored because it can become too severe to deal with easily.
Poulton said that a dog may urinate inside simply because it's more comfortable than doing its business outside in cold weather.
It's critically important that when a dog does go outside, the owner is watching to ensure it does, in fact, urinate.
She said a common mistake is to just let a dog run around outside and assume it's taking care of business. "You should take them out on a leash first and get them to pee, then give the reward of running around the yard and sniffing."
Having two dogs in a house, as we do, can be an issue because they may see each other as competition and may start peeing inside if the other dog has previously peed in the same area. A few days of close monitoring and making it clear what is expected of the animal can make a world of difference.
"You're teaching the dog they're going to go outside or they have to go in the crate and sit next to it," Poulton says. "So it's basically go outside or you don't go at all, because you're not going to pee on the couch or on my shoes."
Hopefully this works with Mr. X, because we are really starting to get, um, ticked off.