Canine Behavior/Dominance vs territory
Hello! Our 5 month old pit bill puppy, Ollie, has recently started to urinate on me, I believe intentionally. He doesn't do it to my husband or the children, only me. I work from home so Ollie and I are almost always together and I am his primary caregiver. One time he did it right after we were wrestling and playing tug of war on the ground, every other time I was doing chores in the kitchen when he just came up to me and peed on my foot. We have a pretty regimented household - we (humans) eat every meal before he does, when his dinner is served he has to sit and stay until he is released to eat, we walk out the door first when we go outside, and he isn't allowed to go in certain rooms of the house unless invited. I'm wondering if he is trying to dominate me? Or could it be more of a territorial thing? Thank you very much for your help!
Thank you for your question. It can be frustrating and confusing when our dog does some undesired behavior and we can't figure out why it's happening.
My first question to you is: is your 5 month old puppy actually potty trained? For at least the last 90 days, has he gone potty in the right place, without any mistakes except for these odd peeing on your foot instances? Or is he still having accidents in the house other than the one you're asking about? If he's still having accidents in the house, this may just be his effort to tell you he needs to go. Or he may have been giving what he believed to be clear signals of his need to access his potty area and when he wasn't given access (door wasn't opened for him), he came to get you, but by then it's too late and he has to pee where he is.
Puppies frequently need to urinate more often during play and so the fact he's interrupting play and peeing is not surprising. That he's doing it on you is irritating, but more likely an issue of insecurity than one of taking ownership given the context in which it's happening. I encourage puppy parents to move games to the potty area every 20-30 minutes during play so that when the dog has the sudden need to go, they're in the correct area and you're present to praise them and tell them how great they are for going in the right place.
The instances when you're doing chores, you're moving around, scurrying, making noises, busy, busy, not engaging with him and he's approaching you and doing this. It's possible that what's happening is as I first described - a failure in communicating his need to go outside. It's possible that he did it once by accident and got attention for it (even if that attention was scolding him or questioning why on earth he would do such a thing), and so the behavior was reinforced for him as a successful way to interrupt your chores and get his attention.
The next question I have (after is he actually potty trained?), have you taken him to the vet to see if he has a urinary tract infection (UTI) or any other urinary issues that might cause oddly timed/placed urination? You didn't indicate how long this behavior has been going on, but whenever there is a new, unexplained behavior, the first order of business is a vet check to determine if the behavior is a manifestation of a medical problem. Often it is, and treating the medical problem will resolve the undesired behavior.
Now, I do want to take a moment to discuss your greatest concern - is he trying to dominate you? Dominance in non-humans is a highly misunderstood concept. The reality is that dominance is a relationship dynamic between two members of the SAME species, where one individual consistently gains priority access to valued items such as mates, food and resting spots. In other words, dominance does not occur between a bird and a dog, nor between a cat and a bird, nor between a dog and a human. It's only between a dog and a dog, a bird and a bird, a cat and a cat... But even then, domestic dogs do not engage in dominance the way most people understand it.
So the short answer to your primary question is: No. He is not trying to dominate you. His behavior is odd and certainly unacceptable. But the most likely reasons for this behavior are
1. he's not actually potty trained and so there is a failure to communicate clearly between the two of you. Or he needs more frequent opportunities to go outside to the correct potty spot - with you present so you can tell him how great he is for going in the right place.
2. He did the behavior at one time, possibly out of a sudden need to go during play, or possibly by accident, and it resulted in attention and so he has learned that this is a successful way to get you to engage with him.
3. He may have a medical issue (this really should be listed first as it's the first thing to rule out), that needs to be treated.
Yes, dogs will sometimes pee on things to mark them. But usually it's a bush or other perimeter object that alerts other dogs that they are now entering the peeing dog's territory. It's far less common for a dog to pee on their own bone or bed or other coveted items to mark that as theirs. With "owned items" dogs are far more likely to hide (bury) the item, and/or stay near by and physically guard that item from others that they perceive to be a threat.
Along with moving games to the correct location frequently during play so that he can be in the right place at the right time, I would also encourage management during your chores. You didn't indicate if he enjoys hanging out in a crate, or if you have ever considered confining him to another room while you're doing chores. But if he has a crate (and likes to be in it ), then I would set him up in the crate with a food-stuffed Kong or other long lasting thing that he can enjoy while you're doing chores. If he doesn't have a crate or doesn't enjoy it, then simply confine him to another room or in a securely enclosed yard while you're doing chores. Just make sure that he's got entertainment to occupy him so he doesn't feel like he's being punished. Also, make sure he gets to enjoy those items while you are present (consider feeding most of his dinners in a Kong* so that he learns that meal time is fun and you are present for most of them. This way, when he gets an extra Kong in the middle of the day, even though it's while he's separated from you, it's not a punisher and has already been associated for him with bonding time with you.
Kong toys are solid rubber toys with a large hole at one end and a smaller hole at the other. You can stuff it in many different ways and to varying degrees of difficulty to help your pup learn to be persistent with it. You can feed entire meals in Kongs, you can freeze stuffed Kongs to make them last even longer. And you can make snack Kongs that have less food and/or less calories in them. You can feed entire meals or portions of meals, so for example if it's chores day, you might feed only half his breakfast in his bowl, and then a couple hours later, when you are ready to do your chores, he gets the other half of his breakfast in a frozen Kong. Just be sure that you're adjusting daily portions of regular food to account for extra calories if he's getting Kongs - we don't want him to get pudgy.
Below are three videos for teaching your dog how to enjoy a Kong and for more advanced recipe ideas for once he's good at it.
Kongs for Beginners
One Way to Load a Kong (for advanced users)
If he will happily engage with his Kong and leave you to your activities, then you don't even need to confine him, but having the option of confining him is useful should you need to.
Finally, I wanted to touch on the importance you've given to your regimented household. In general, there is no one right or wrong way to live with a dog. There are many routines that work well in homes and it's largely about finding the right fit for the humans and dogs that are in that household. In my home, my dogs nearly always eat before me. I do ask them to Sit and Wait while I put their food down - whether it's in a bowl, a stuffed Kong or some other food-dispensing puzzle toy. This is just an issue of impulse control as I don't care for them to dive into the food before I can even set it down. But I do often feed them before I feed me because it's just more convenient that way. I also nearly always send them through doors first and down/up stairs before me, again because it's more convenient for me. In fact, they will often stop at doors or stairs and check to see if I'm coming and I will tell them, "go ahead" before they continue on. While we're out for leash walks, I prefer them to be next to, or just in front of me as I like to be able to see what they're doing/getting into in case I need to give them a Leave It command. My dogs have free access to furniture including the couch and my bed and they sleep on my bed with me.
They also have excellent obedience - come when called, even when that means they have to stop chasing a squirrel or a bunny. They will come from out of view while walking in the woods. They Drop It (even when the 'it' is a dead animal they've found or a favorite toy), they Leave It when I tell them to (even when the 'it' is a super yummy smelling piece of food that's fallen on the floor). And if I tell them "Out", they will leave the room/area they are in. They will Sit/Stay when asked. I can put food down on the end table next to the couch and then leave the room to get something else and they will not even go near the totally accessible, unsupervised food (even steak and potatoes are respected).
I share all of that, because I want to point out that obedience is not about going through doors or eating in a certain order. It's about teaching the dog clearly (by the dog's standards) what is expected, and what the consequences are for doing the expected behavior. In my home, the consequences of doing the right behavior is love/praise/cuddles/pets/super tasty treats and games. The consequences for failing to do the correct behavior is a verbal indicator that they have failed to earn one of the things they really like. I usually say "Try again" or "too bad". With consistency in teaching them that it pays really, really well to do as requested, they have demonstrated the ability to live by my rules without any conflict or need to force my will on them. It's a very relaxed, mutually respectful and cooperative life I have with my Chow/mix and my Rat Terrier mix (both breeds considered to be "stubborn").
If it works in your home to eat your dinner before your pup eats, that's totally fine. And of course, there may be rooms that he just shouldn't have access to without supervision or direct invitation. I talk about these issues because I want to be sure that your choices for the 'house rules' are about what routines you find most useful to you, and not founded in a misunderstanding about dominance theory that makes you believe you MUST do things this way or you risk having an unruly dog. So long as the routines and consequences for behaviors are consistent, your dog will learn to follow whatever rules you set up. It's not necessary to make your home regimented and strict for your dog's sake, unless that is truly your nature in general.
The most important training tip I can give you (or any client) is this: Set your dog up for success so that you can tell him how great he is. This will make him far more likely to repeat that behavior again and again in the future.
If we set the dog up for failure, so that we have to tell him "no", we will tell him 'don't do that', but we are not telling him what he should do instead. It's far easier in the long run to just tell him what we want him TO do from the start. So setting him up for praise, love, affection, games, tasty treats (earning his dinner kibbles either in training or through puzzle toys or just Sit polite while you put the bowl down), outings, etc. will bring harmony to your life with your dog more quickly and in a much more long-lasting way than alternative strategies.
I hope some of this has proved helpful. Please have the vet check your pup for UTI or other urinary issues that may be causing oddly times urination - unless you can pinpoint another cause such as maybe he's not actually potty trained yet... And I encourage the management options during chores - this way he can't wander up to you and pee when you're not prepared for it. I do encourage a potty break before confining him so that we avoid him peeing where he's confined (setting him up for success).
Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine