Life with a bunch of dogs is many things: mostly it’s rewarding and wonderful. Sometimes it’s frustrating and stressful. And sometimes it’s really interesting, which is what I call something when I have to take action, acquire new training tools, and make changes to improve a situation.
Like when a dog marks in the house.
Rowley, my BC, is the Big Dog around here. He’s 9+ years old, he works in dog sports, he is a benign and friendly figure to other dogs, and he’s very attached to me and I to him. He’s a Border Collie, I mean to say!
Beau joined us when Rowley was 3 and Beau was 4. Beau’s a Sheltie from rescue, a dog who lost his original home when his elderly owner went into assisted living. Beau attached himself to me and even more, to Rowley, immediately. Rowley is driving the bike, Beau’s in the sidecar. Rowley is the earth, Beau is his moon. It’s a relationship that has worked well. Beau’s job, if you will, is to be the Adjunct Dog here.
Alex, my Lapphund, came along when Rowley was 4 and Alex was a young puppy. Alex also has dog-sport work (nosework, for him) and Alex is not an Adjunct Dog.
Dee, who joined us when Rowley was 6 and Alex was 2, is a law unto herself, as befits the female in the (main) group. I think Dee actually has a great deal of misplaced confidence in her own ability to handle anything and everything, which is why Dee will never be allowed off-leash — ‘Of COURSE I can find my way home from here, see you in a couple of days!’ she would say. Um, no.
So with those dynamics, I was not happy at all when Alex started marking in the house. He was neutered later than any of my rescue dogs were – although not as late as some past Shelties were; I remember several that got the big snip when they were seniors! – and for a while I put it down to that, and to the fact that there are some senior rescue Sheltie girls here who are intact. But I was sick of the marking almost immediately, and finally I also got sick of making excuses for it, so I found myself in a Really Interesting situation. And I set out to figure out what I could do, because I will not make my dog live in a belly band.
You know who marks? Unconfident dogs mark! They don’t mark from any ‘dominance’ thing (which is complete BS and always has been), and marking in the house is not necessarily about ‘territory’ (Alex never wants to take Rowley’s bed, but he has marked in it) – no, they are likely to try to bury their own scent (urine is the essence of their scent) in the scent of another dog or even the scent of the owner. How interesting is that! So Alex’s marking on Rowley’s bed was … that! Alex marking on MY bed was … that! Neither Rowley nor I were happy about it, so Steps Were Taken.
Let me say here that what I mean by an ‘unconfident’ or ‘insecure’ dog is NOT a timid, shy, spooky, anxious dog, although I suppose such a dog would also be unconfident/insecure. I mean a dog who simply hasn’t mustered the emotional maturity, often through experience, to be at ease with his (or her) ability to handle things that come at him – not big stressful things like storms or traumas, but small things in daily life that resonate with them and won’t resonate with a more confident dog. An unconfident dog, meeting a new person, will mark. Not submissive urination, but marking. Interesting, eh? Keep that thought in mind, we’ll get back to it.
Alex didn’t become an unconfident dog through any temperamental deficiency; rather, I think he probably didn’t get a full measure of confidence because he grew up, like an under-shade tree, right next to the Big Tree that is Rowley. And this is one of those things about having a group of dogs that just shapes itself and turns out the way it does, and you then work around it and with it for the good of all the dogs. I usually do take all four dogs on outings together. They’re mostly only separated for ‘dog school’: Rowley goes to agility class, Alex to nosework class, Dee to manners/tricks class. That’s their one on one time with me and away from the group. But most of the rest of the time, it’s a group thing.
With Rowley now recovering from heartworm treatment, he has to take it easy and so the outings to the nature preserve are on hold; Rowley and Beau go for short leash walks in the neighborhood, and I take Alex and Dee on longer, faster leash walks. This has been an interesting opportunity to look at Alex’s behavior through the lens of confidence. This morning, for instance, I had Alex and Dee on a walk and we were about a mile into it, heading home, in the neighborhood, when man in a tracksuit passed about 20 feet from us and said ‘good morning’; I returned the greeting, and the walking man said ‘you enjoy your day now!’ and I made a comment about the weather, and we went on our separate ways. And Alex immediately pulled on the leash to go over and mark on a bank of hostas. No, I don’t think it was coincidence: I think it was Alex reacting to a new, unknown person that suddenly appeared and then disappeared. How about that! Of course I didn’t let him mark the hostas – a big part of the New Order is that no dogs get to mark on walks, I discourage it and in fact do not allow it. I stop for potty breaks, but marking? Nope. Dee doesn’t get to pick up crap from the street and eat it; Alex doesn’t get to lift his leg on anything. Too bad, so sad. So I brought Alex back to my side by saying ‘let’s go home for breakfast now!’ to him, and we continued on.
So here’s what I’ve done to remedy this situation that was not tolerable for me:
- No dogs in my bedroom during the day. I *may* occasionally let Rowley nap in his bed in there, since he is recovering from heartworm treatment, but my bedroom is now off-limits to dogs, admission allowed only by me, gate is closed at all times. At night, the dogs occupy their beds in my bedroom and I occupy mine. During the day, they have the rest of the house. This was not a hit with Alex, who – get this – liked to spend hours every day lying on my bed and barking out the bedroom window at my neighbors. Seriously! I allowed that! Ack, what can I say, sometimes we just are distracted by life its own self.
- No marking on walks. Sniffing is fine, sniff away! But don’t tell me you have to drag me over to that bank of day-lilies to sniff them; your nose works from outside of leg-lifting range. Walks are now 2 dogs at a time, and walks are with a purpose, which is set by me; walks are on a schedule, which is set by me. Think that sounds mean? LOL! I could spell the words ‘enriched life to the max’ in dollar bills on a billboard with all the money I have spent on activities, pastimes, and benefits for these dogs. Walks with a purpose and a schedule are not the Bataan Death March, I assure you.
- Any evidence of unconfident behavior will be addressed with training routines. The way I used to do two minutes of obedience on the sidewalk with Miss Pip (miss her!) when she would act reactively on a walk, I will do a minute or two of obedience (pushups are nice for this, the sit-down-sit-down flow that keeps the dog moving and thinking) with the dog – usually Alex, but not always!
- There is a modified NILIF program in place that requires an offering of work or attention from the dog in order to get attention or benefits from me. I think that builds confidence, since I show appreciation for accomplishments then.
I am hopeful that this will benefit all the dogs, and in particular will benefit Alex. When he failed to get his NW3 (Nosework) title recently, it was not because he gave a good effort but didn’t find all the hides – no, it was because on several occasions in the day-long trial, he played the fool. He did his dive and roll behavior that elicits laughs from people nearby and gets him attention FOR NOTHING. In short, he acted out his unconfidence. In the Vehicle hide, the judge even wrote on our sheet (– we failed the element and Alex alerted on NO hides) that Alex sometimes didn’t even engage or search. For a dog who has been working at Nosework for 4+ years, that’s not cool. That’s a sign that he isn’t comfortable, he isn’t confident. NW3 is hard, it’s really hard. I want us to get a NW3 title, but Alex needs to be more mature in order for that to happen. This ‘remedy for unconfidence’ program is one step in that direction. Wish us luck!