Canine Behavior/Yorkie rubbing head in pp
QUESTION: My 13 year old Yorkie has started rubbing his head in pp when we are not at home. When we walk him outside or am at home with him he doesn't do this. Only when we are not there does he run his head in the pp. he doesn't attempt to do this in poo or anything else. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
ANSWER: At 13 years of age, the first order of business with any behavior change (or physical change such as eating/drinking/potty habits) should be a complete medical exam, including blood work. Your dog is a senior and there are a great many ailments and conditions that manifest with odd behavior changes. So the first thing we need to do is rule out illness, injuries, chronic conditions and neurological problems. If a medical diagnosis is made, then treating that issue will likely resolve the new odd behavior. If he's given a completely clean bill of health, then we can look at this from a purely behavioral perspective.
I'm going on the assumption that you've smelled his head and recognize the aroma of urine, otherwise my first question would be: how are you certain it's urine and not water spilled from his water bowl or liquid from some other source, including his own saliva if he's been drooling?
Is he inside using pee pads or another kind of potty spot, or is he outside using grass, dirt or concrete (or some other surface) to pee?
If he's outside, it may be another animal's urine who has been moving through your yard and your dog is aiming for getting that scent on him. Dogs will often roll in stinky spots on the grass.
If he's inside and you're certain it's urine, well... it could still be an issue of wanting to get the scent on him. As he's aging, there may be some cognitive decline (dementia) and this could be affecting his instinctive behavior patterns of scent gathering.
It could also be boredom, or lack of space if he's confined in too small an area and so he's trying to clean up. Is he peeing where he's supposed to? Or is this behavior coinciding with potty accidents - peeing in places he shouldn't be peeing? If they're potty accidents, how have you dealt with the accidents in the past? Do you clean it up without a word? Do you scold him? Push his face toward it to "show" him what he did wrong while scolding him?
Without seeing it, and without a medical workup for review and a bit more history of this dog's daily habits and life over the last several years, it's impossible to say. The best I can do is speculate what might be going through his mind - and since we can't ask him directly, there's little chance to know for certain.
Is he showing any other signs of odd behavior? Is he having potty accidents when he didn't used to? Is his wake/sleep cycle shifting at all so he's sleeping longer/deeper during the day and then awake later into the night or in the middle of the night - possibly panting and/or pacing? Does he ever seem confused like he's uncertain of who someone is (someone he knows well), or uncertain why he's just walked into a room? Is he less interactive with people - choosing to lay in another room or facing the wall instead of the room? Is he noticeably clingier than he used to be - trying to stay closer than usual, possibly insisting on physical contact when he used to be more independent? Does he get "stuck" in corners or behind furniture like he's uncertain how to get back into the main room? Does he stand at the hinge side of the door rather than the side that opens? Have his eating habits changed - lack of interest, needs to be coaxed to eat or finish eating when he used to eat without issue? Or now eats with gusto when he used to be slow or a grazer?
Senior dogs can develop a form of dementia called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). In a lot of ways it's similar to Alzheimer's in humans and in fact the same drug is used to treat it in both dogs and humans. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that all other medical conditions that could be responsible for the behavior changes is ruled out, and when everything has been ruled out and nothing is left - the diagnosis is CCD. This is something only your vet can diagnose. But the above list of symptoms are often present in CCD. You aren't going to see all of them since some are contradictory to each other, but you're likely to see multiple symptoms from that list if this is a potential cause. Rubbing his head in urine could be considered an odd behavior that, coupled with others from the list, might be explained by CCD, though that would be new to me.
If CCD is diagnosed, there is a drug called Anipryl (Selegeline Hydrochloride) which is used to treat it. It can't reverse the damage done to the brain cells, but it can slow the process and in many dogs will reverse the declining behavior - at least for a while. My own rainbow bridge dog was on this drug for the last 4 years of her life. And for 3 of those 4 years, I had my dog back. She began to decline again in the 4th year of using that drug, but that was expected. She lived to be nearly 15 years old and managed to make a cross country move with me while on the meds - and did not suffer from the stress of the travel as she might have if she'd not been on the drugs.
I'm not a vet and I haven't examined your dog nor seen the results of any medical tests. I cannot say that this is what's happening with your dog. I can only say that given his age, it's something that should be considered along with all other potential explanations for this new and unusual behavior. When you take him in for his exam, tell your vet about any other behavior changes that you've noticed so that they can have a complete picture as they look for a root cause for this new behavior.
Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance - if you have any more information you can provide that might better guide me to what's triggering the behavior.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Yes we had him checked out a month ago for his annual exam. Blood work and examination are all good health. He is doing this behavior inside the house. On the floor most of the time and sometimes on his potty pad. We used to scold him for having accidents but it never really did any good so we just reward him when he uses potty pad while we are at work. He has the run of the house so being confined isn't the issue either. As far as his change in behavior he's always been an anxious dog as in separation anxiety has always been a challenge with him. The only change in this area due to age is he isn't as coordinated as he used to be. Sometimes he missed a step or the height of a curb. But mostly he seems to be in good spirits and health. Thanks for the info on ccd I will run that idea by my vet. You've been very helpful. Thanks
Thank you for the followup. The coordination issues (missing a step or curb) could be changes in his vision, or arthritis or muscle atrophy or a combination these age related issues.
With a clean bill of health, and a known history of anxiety, it could be an anxiety related behavior. In some way it's soothing or comforting to him. It may be that it smells familiar and so helps to calm him. It may be he has an itchy head and it just happens that where he lands to scratch it on the floor is also where he's gone potty. My little terrier mix rubs his head on the carpet 2-3 times every day. It's actually pretty funny to watch. I'm not sure if it's itchy scalp (he loves having his head rubbed by us and I think uses the floor if nobody is available to do it for him), or if it just feels good like a massage. It's clearly reinforcing for him as he continues to do it over time.
A note about potty habits and the timing of our comments to him. Both scolding and praise are ineffective unless they occur right at the time of the potty. I'm glad you stopped scolding him when you got home and found an accident. When we scold or praise a dog, we are scolding or praising whatever the immediately preceding behavior was that the dog was doing. So if he comes trotting over to you to greet you upon your return home and you scold him over a pee that happened 5 minutes ago (or 5 hours ago), really - in his eyes - you're scolding him for coming up to you to greet. The same is true for the praise and reward. So it's a great thing to reward him when you get home, but it's important to understand that you're not rewarding him for pottying on his pad. You're rewarding him for whatever he's doing at that moment - wagging his whole body in greeting, jumping up to greet you, getting a toy, stretching, whatever he's doing right then. :-)
Good luck. I hope the vet is able to help you sort this out. You might want to get a urinalysis since this is a new behavior. If he has an infection, he may be rolling in it because it smells unique and not normal to him...
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist