Karen B. London
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The first year I took my dog to my in-laws for the holidays, I was concerned that he might pee on the tree, so I took steps to make sure that he didn’t do so. I went back to Housetraining 101 for the first 24 hours of our visit. By that I mean that 1) I took him out to the yard and for walks often so he had plenty of opportunities to eliminate. 2) I reinforced him with top quality treats for peeing outside, and I did it every time to make sure that he knew where he was supposed to go in this unfamiliar place, and 3) I never let him out of my sight while we were inside. In addition, I practiced using “leave it” for a variety of objects in the house that were off limits, including the tree, and I reinforced his correct response to this cue with treats, play, and chew items. He never goofed, and I felt good about helping him avoid a mistake that might have lowered his popularity with the family.
Every year I am inundated by requests for advice about how to prevent dogs from peeing on the Christmas tree. It’s a legitimate concern and I’m always pleased at how many people are thinking ahead and being proactive about dealing with a potential behavioral issue.
It does happen sometimes that dogs use the Christmas tree as the bathroom, and regrettably, it so often involves a handmade tree skirt or other priceless family heirloom. On the bright side, many people find that their fears are never realized—the majority of dogs who are thoroughly house trained do not eliminate indoors just because a tree is suddenly under their roof.
To make sure that your tree stays dog pee free this year, there are several strategies, and your success is more likely if you take advantage of all of them. Largely, this is a management issue, so focus on preventing your dog from having an opportunity to eliminate on the tree. Consider blocking your dog’s access to the tree with gates or other barriers. Supervise your dog so that there is no chance for your dog to sneak towards the tree. Watching the dog constantly is the best way to guarantee that your dog will not decorate the tree in a way you don’t like. With smaller dogs, tethering your dog to you with a leash is another way to be sure you know where your dog is and what he or she is doing. Be alert to the signs that your dog may be about to eliminate such as sniffing or circling. Take your dog out often and reinforce elimination in acceptable locations.
By the time a dog has started to lift a leg or squat, it is often too late to stop your dog from urinating. If you do see your dog doing this by the tree, make a sound that’s loud enough to cause a startled reaction, but not so loud that it’s scary. Take your dog outside immediately and reinforce your dog for urinating outside with treats and praise. If the tree has pee on it, clean it thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner so the area will not smell like the bathroom to your dog.
I hope that those of you who have a tree inside are able to help your dog understand that this is a special, indoor tree and that it doesn’t mean that there is now a bathroom inside. Has your dog every peed on your Christmas tree, or have you been able to prevent this behavior?