Christmas Trees are Not Indoor Bathrooms

This may not be obvious to your dog
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2014

“Brought home my first Christmas tree about 25 seconds ago. The dog peed on it about 23 seconds ago. So. Joy to the world and season's greetings and all that.” My friend’s Facebook post describes a situation many of us have faced.

Though Christmas trees are decorations to us, their purpose is far from clear to most dogs. Anxiety has always been a part of my experience when I bring a dog to visit people around Christmas. I encourage anyone whose dog is going to be around these evergreen signs of the season to assume that dogs might view the tree differently than people and act accordingly, if you want your tree to be free of dog pee. (And who doesn’t want that?)

Management and prevention are useful tools when trying to prevent this behavior issue, so do what you can to keep your dog from going over to the tree when you’re not looking. Use gates or other equipment to block your dog’s access. If that’s not possible, supervise him when that room is available to him so he can’t sneak up on the tree while you’re baking, wrapping gifts or panicking over a recent credit card statement. This takes discipline and commitment on your part because this time of year is busy for most of us. Keeping your dog on a leash inside can keep him from wandering over to the tree, too.

No matter how well your dog is housetrained or how many years it’s been since he had an accident, assume nothing when a tree is indoors, especially if it is your dog’s first experience with one. A dog who pees on a Christmas tree is confused rather than acting out. Give your dog some help by letting him know that you still want him to eliminate outside. Take him out often on walks and in the yard, and reinforce him with great treats for eliminating in the right places. Know the signs that your dog has to go. Be alert to any indications that he may be about to eliminate such as sniffing or circling. Spend quiet time with him near the tree massaging him or letting him chew on a Kong or other chew treat so he considers the tree part of his living space. Dogs are less likely to eliminate in areas where they hang out or where they sleep.

If your dog knows “leave it,” practice it with many objects in the house that are off limits, including the tree. Reinforce him with treats, play or toys for correct responses to this cue. If he sniffs the tree or goes near it, reinforce him for being near it but not peeing on it. Teaching him to do something specific near the tree such as “sit” or “lie down” gives him a go-to behavior to do in that area other than lifting his leg. If he develops a strong reinforcement history with a behavior other than peeing on the tree, he will be less likely to pee on it.

Remember that if your dog does pee on the tree, he probably didn’t realize it was a faux pas. The tree may even have been peed on in the great outdoors before you brought it home, and that can make it extra confusing for the canine set. Clean it with an enzymatic cleaner to take away the odor so that it won’t smell like a bathroom to him.

Hopefully, your dog will not decorate your tree this year (or your heirloom tree skirt, your favorite ornaments or any of the presents.) That will make it easier to mean it when you say, “Joy to the world and season's greetings and all that.”

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.