Canine housetraining challenges

2007-04-01
Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB

A well-housetrained dog is a requirement for most pet owners. In fact, behavior problems are a common cause of relinquishment to animal shelters, and inappropriate elimination has been reported to make up 15% to 24% of the behavior problems seen in veterinary behavior clinics.

A well-housetrained dog is a requirement for most pet owners. In fact, behavior problems are a common cause of relinquishment to animal shelters, and inappropriate elimination has been reported to make up 15% to 24% of the behavior problems seen in veterinary behavior clinics.1 While keeping a poorly trained dog confined outdoors is one solution, it does little to maintain or establish a strong bond between a dog and its owner. And keeping a social species such as the domesticated dog confined and alone is likely to result in a relatively poor quality of life for the dog.

General practitioners should be prepared to assist pet owners by inquiring about housetraining issues at the first puppy visit. Teaching acceptable elimination habits is much easier when an animal is still young; changing the behavior of an adult dog with objectionable habits will only get more difficult the longer the dog practices the unacceptable behavior. Basic puppy housetraining has been covered well elsewhere, so this article focuses on some of the more complex challenges that can arise when trying to housetrain dogs of any age.

NORMAL CANINE ELIMINATION BEHAVIOR

Housetraining a dog will be more easily accomplished with a basic understanding of normal canine elimination behavior. During the first few weeks of life, the bitch licks the urogenital area of her pups to initiate elimination and then ingests the waste. By about 3 weeks of age, the puppies begin moving away from the nest to eliminate, and by 5 weeks of age, they begin choosing a specific location for elimination.2 By 8 to 9 weeks of age, the elimination location and substrate have become more established.3 So 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 weeks of age is the best time to housetrain a puppy.4 Dogs acquired after that age can still be housetrained, but they may have already established some location and substrate preferences that are unacceptable to their owners. These dogs may simply require more time and patience.

HOUSETRAINING PRINCIPLES

The principles of housetraining apply regardless of a dog's age or experience. Briefly, these principles include closely supervising the dog and confining it when supervision is not possible, providing food and water on a consistent schedule, giving rewards for appropriate behavior, teaching a cue for elimination, and avoiding punishment. Use the handout to review these principles with pet owners.

INITIAL EVALUATION

When presented with an adult dog that is housesoiling, first determine whether the dog was ever completely housetrained. If the owner can verify that the dog was at one time completely housetrained, then the next step is to rule out any medical conditions that might lead to increased frequency of elimination, urgency, incontinence, or difficulty in accessing the proper site for elimination.

Once you've ruled out medical problems, consider other causes of housesoiling. Anxiety disorders (e.g. separation anxiety, environmental or storm fear or phobia), age-related cognitive decline, inclement weather (making a dog reluctant to go outdoors), and changes in the owner's schedule leading to poor timing in taking the dog outside to relieve itself are just a few examples of problems that can contribute to a lapse in housetraining.

Dogs with anxiety disorders or age-related cognitive decline are unlikely to benefit from typical housetraining approaches alone; these conditions will need to be treated first to resolve the housesoiling issues. Treatment for these conditions has been well-covered elsewhere.5

SOILING IN A CRATE

A dog's natural tendency to avoid soiling its den area is just one of several behavioral features that can be used to aid in housetraining. However, for a variety of reasons, a pet owner may be faced with a dog that does not seem to mind lying in its own waste. One of the most common reasons this occurs is the pet owner repeatedly leaves the dog confined for too long, and the dog eventually eliminates because it is uncomfortable and cannot hold it any longer. In these cases, the dog learns to tolerate lying in urine and feces and may even develop a substrate preference.

Pet owners who acquire a puppy from a pet store or an unethical breeder or who adopt an older dog from a shelter may be faced with a similar scenario. When young puppies are confined to cages during the first few weeks of their lives and are forced to eliminate there, they also seem to learn to tolerate lying in their own waste and cannot develop preferences for more acceptable substrates such as grass or soil. A similar situation develops when an adult dog is confined to a cage, such as may occur in some animal shelters. These dogs can also develop a substrate preference for hard cage surfaces.

Retraining a dog that soils its crate takes patience and close supervision, but it is an achievable task. Keep in mind that the sooner the client begins to work on this problem, the greater the chances of success. If the client is dealing with the problem in a young puppy, remind the client that an 8- to 12-week-old puppy usually needs to eliminate at least every two to four hours. Any dog that has already become accustomed to eliminating in its crate needs to be taken out even more frequently than would be expected—sometimes as often as once an hour. Essentially, the pet owner needs to be proactive and take the dog out frequently before it has a chance to eliminate inside, remembering that most dogs are likely to need to eliminate after waking, playing, and within 30 minutes to an hour after eating. Initially, the dog should be rewarded with quiet words of praise and a small food treat every time it eliminates outside.

If an owner is unable to take a dog outside frequently (every one to three hours) or the dog shows anxiety related to crate confinement, then another option is to confine the dog in a slightly larger space, such as a bathroom or laundry room. If such a space is unavailable, a portable exercise pen could serve the same purpose. The crate, with bedding and bowls for food and water inside it, should be placed within the confinement area. Newspaper or commercial housebreaking pads should then be used to cover all of the remaining space in the area. Most dogs, if given the opportunity, will eventually choose to eliminate on the paper or pads rather than on their bedding, near their food and water. Once they begin using the pads or paper routinely, they are likely to limit their elimination to one particular part of the confinement area. When this occurs, the owner should begin slowly reducing the area covered in paper or pads each day, until only a few square feet remain covered.

Crate soiling due to anxiety

It must be emphasized that some dogs soil their crates as a result of anxiety. Anxiety-related disorders that might result in elimination in the crate include confinement anxiety, separation anxiety, and noise fears and phobias. Dogs that display signs of anxiety associated with their crates (panting, salivating, tucked ears or tail, vocalizing or extreme struggling when being placed in its crate) should never be physically forced into crates. The anxiety will only become worse with repeated events, and dogs that become extremely afraid of being confined can do serious harm to themselves in an attempt to escape.

It can be difficult to use a crate to housetrain a dog if the dog has become anxious or afraid when confined to a crate. If a dog begins to show resistance to being put into its crate and its body language is consistent with signs of fear and anxiety (e.g. ears and tail down, panting, salivating), then the client should immediately stop using the crate for confinement. These dogs should also be evaluated for other signs of separation anxiety, as fear of being confined may be associated with separation anxiety. It is imperative that crate or confinement anxiety be separated from separation anxiety. Retraining to the crate may or may not be a part of the treatment protocol for separation anxiety, depending on the individual patient and the client's circumstances.

Retraining a dog to be comfortable in a crate

Clients should be made aware that if crate or confinement anxiety has been present for a long time, it may not be possible to desensitize the dog to crate confinement. Some dogs may never be able to be confined to a crate or other small space. If the problem seems to be limited to fear or anxiety of the crate without concomitant signs of separation anxiety, then retraining to the crate can begin.

The intent of the training is to help the dog see the crate as a comfortable, pleasant place where only good things occur (Figure 1). The crate must be large enough for the dog to stand up and turn around in. When dealing with a puppy, instruct the owner to purchase a crate large enough for the dog when it is an adult. For housetraining purposes, part of a large cage can be blocked off with a cardboard box so that the puppy has just enough room to stand and turn around in.

The crate should be placed in an area where the dog spends much of its time. The crate door should be open, and the owner should prop or tie the door open temporarily so that the fearful dog does not become accidentally locked inside.

The next step involves associating pleasant things such as food or treats with the crate. An owner can toss treats into the crate and allow the dog to retrieve them, even if the dog chooses to leave the cage to consume them. The dog's food and water bowls should also be placed by the crate and every meal fed there.

1. With time and patience, most dogs can be taught to view their crates as comfortable retreats.

Depending on the dog's level of fear, within a few days or weeks, the owner should be able to move the bowls into the crate, initially just inside the entrance, so that the dog can stand and eat without stepping into the crate. Once the dog is comfortably eating from its bowls at the entrance of the crate, the bowls can be moved farther into the crate. At no time during this procedure should the crate door be closed or the dog forced into the crate. If at any time during the process the dog does not want to enter the crate, then the bowls have likely been moved too soon and they should be returned to the point at which the dog would eat and drink comfortably from them.

When the dog will routinely enter the crate for treats or food, then the door can be closed for about one or two seconds at a time. Each time the dog enters the crate, the length of time that the door stays closed can be extended for a few seconds. This procedure should be stopped if the dog acts frightened, stops eating, or wants to leave the crate. The owner should then go back to closing the door just for the length of time that the dog previously tolerated.

The next step is to begin hiding chew bones, stuffed chew toys, and other special treats in the crate so the dog begins entering the crate to look for them. Once the dog will enter the crate and lie down to chew on a toy, it is time to begin closing and latching the door for short periods. The first time the owner tries this, he or she should not leave but stay close so that if the dog begins to lose interest in the treat or to act anxious, it can be released. Ideally, the dog should not be allowed to experience fear or anxiety in the crate. The owner needs to learn to be observant enough that he or she can release the dog before it begins to show these signs.

Once the owner feels that the dog is ready to be left in the crate, the owner should leave only for a short time (initially just one to three minutes) so the dog's first experience of being confined to the crate does not become a frightening one. Finally, if the dog eventually will need to be confined for long periods, instruct the owner to always provide plenty of food-stuffed toys to keep the dog occupied while alone. When the owner returns home, these special toys should be removed and only given to the dog when it must be confined to the crate. In this way, the dog associates crate confinement with something special rather than something scary or anxiety-provoking.

FEAR OF ELIMINATING IN THE PRESENCE OF PEOPLE

A relatively common and challenging situation arises when a dog develops a fear of eliminating in front of people. This situation usually occurs because the dog has been punished for eliminating in an inappropriate location. Dogs with this problem require an enormous amount of patience and may require more time to successfully housetrain than usual. The principles described above and in the handout for housetraining can still be applied with some minor alterations that will depend on the dog's degree of fearfulness and the owner's environment.

Rather than confining a dog to a crate when it cannot be supervised, the owner may find it convenient to tether the dog (if it is not too large, making this potentially unsafe) to himself or herself so that the dog stays with the owner as he or she moves around the house. During this time, the owner can practice frequent command-reward sessions, asking the dog to perform a simple task such as "sit" and rewarding it with praise, food treats, or a toy. Punishment for a lack of response should be completely avoided. The worst thing that should happen to the dog for noncompliance is that it is ignored. In this manner, the dog learns to associate the owner's presence and the sound of the owner's voice with a pleasant outcome. Learning what behaviors earn rewards without any unpleasant consequences may also help a fearful or anxious dog become more confident.

If the owner has a safe, fenced yard, he or she can first try allowing the dog to go outside off leash while the owner quietly watches the dog from the doorway. If the dog eliminates, the owner should quietly praise the dog. If the sound of the owner's voice causes the dog to stop what it is doing, on future excursions outside, the owner should wait until the dog finishes eliminating before calmly praising the dog.

If the home does not have a yard and the owner is limited to walking the fearful dog on a leash, he or she should first try walking the dog with the longest lead available, taking it to the same location every time the dog goes out, and standing as far from the dog as possible while completely ignoring it. Instruct the owner to stand quietly in this manner for about two to five minutes or until the dog eliminates. The dog can be walked to several different spots and allowed to investigate each, with the owner stopping for two to five minutes at each spot. If the dog does not eliminate in this time, then the owner should return home and either confine the dog to a crate or, ideally, keep it tethered to himself or herself. About 15 minutes later, the dog should be taken outside again, and the above procedure should be repeated. Once the dog appears to select an area for urination, that area can be revisited each time the dog is walked, but the dog may still need to sniff and investigate nearby areas to be stimulated to eliminate. With patience, the dog should eventually eliminate outside and learn that it will be rewarded for this behavior.

In cases of extreme fearfulness, the dog may eliminate in the crate after an unsuccessful walk outdoors. If this occurs, tell the owner to follow the protocol for training a dog that soils the crate. Once the dog learns to limit its eliminations to the provided papers or pads, the owner can begin trying to change the dog's preferred substrate to one that is more acceptable, such as grass or soil.

CHANGING A DOG'S SUBSTRATE PREFERENCE

For a variety of reasons, many dog owners find it easier to first train a dog to eliminate indoors on papers or pads. When a dog has matured and can wait longer between eliminations, the owner may wish to change the dog's substrate preference to grass or soil. This change can be most easily accomplished if the owner can first move the pads or paper closer to the door through which the dog will go outside to eliminate. Once the dog is regularly eliminating near the door on the paper or pads, the owner can begin observing the dog for signs that it needs to eliminate, interrupting the behavior, and taking the dog outside to a slightly urine-soiled pad. The pad can be laid down immediately and the dog allowed to eliminate on it. The odor and the familiar surface should encourage the dog to eliminate outside.

Once the dog becomes accustomed to going outside and eliminating on the familiar surface, the owner can move the pads or paper outside to a location and surface where the owner would like the dog to eliminate. Eventually, the paper or pad presented for elimination can be reduced in size by cutting or folding. The dog will become accustomed to walking across the grass toward the pad and, as the pad gets smaller, the dog will start eliminating on the grass. Eventually, the owner can cease providing the pad entirely.

You should make the owner aware that changing substrate preferences can be time- and labor-intensive. For this reason, warn owners of new puppies against choosing paper- or pad-training unless their schedules require it.

CONCLUSION

Most behavior problems are easiest to treat early in their development. Veterinarians who are proactive and inquire about behavioral issues, such as housetraining, are in the best position to diagnose and initiate treatment of a problem before the owner wastes time and money attempting techniques that do not help or even make a problem worse, possibly resulting in relinquishing the dog to a shelter. Veterinarians who can treat these cases save patients' lives and further bond clients to their practices.

Sidebar: HOUSEBOATS AND HIGH RISES

Adapting a dog's elimination habits to a new environment

Changes in a dog owner's lifestyle can often present challenges for dogs that already have well-established substrate and location preferences for elimination. But moving from a house to a houseboat or an apartment does not have to result in a dog's being re-homed. With patience and some basic knowledge of normal canine elimination behavior, most dogs can be taught to adjust to their new circumstances.

A change of owner lifestyle, such as moving into a houseboat, does not have to mean giving up a pet. Even old dogs can learn new tricks!

First, create a cue

If there is time before a move is completed and the dog has not already been taught to eliminate on command, teaching this new trick is the first step. When an owner accompanies the dog outdoors for eliminations and repeats a cue such as "Go potty" or "Do your business" immediately before or just at the moment the dog begins eliminating, the dog will learn to associate the cue word with the act of eliminating. Once a dog knows what is expected of it when it hears the cue, it will be likely to eliminate. Initially, when the owner is teaching the word cue, the dog can be rewarded with food treats, praise, or play every time it eliminates on cue.

Smooth sailing

Because most well-housetrained dogs have a substrate preference for grass, the first step in teaching a dog to eliminate on a boat will require providing a few feet of sod. Sod can be purchased during warmer months from most home repair centers or nurseries. It can be much harder to find during the winter. The sod can then be laid on a heavy plastic tarp in the location of the owner's choice such as on the foredeck. Safety for the dog needs to be considered if it has free access to or will use the area while the boat is at sea. The owner can then take the dog to the area at routine intervals during the day and repeat the command for the dog to eliminate. When the dog eliminates, it should be praised and can also be given a small food reward to reinforce the behavior.

A small amount of sod soiled in this manner will not live long, so it may have to be replaced regularly until the dog becomes accustomed to eliminating on it. Feces will need to be removed regularly since the dog may not want to eliminate in a small area that is heavily soiled with feces.

After the dog becomes accustomed to eliminating on the sod, the next step is placing a section of indoor-outdoor carpeting or artificial turf, such as that found at most home repair centers, under the sod and on top of the plastic tarp. Over several days to weeks, the section of sod can be cut away and disposed of in small increments, allowing plenty of time for the dog to become used to walking on the artificial turf. Eventually, the sod can be completely eliminated, and most dogs will continue using the artificial turf. At least two sections of the artificial turf should be kept on hand so a clean, dry section is always available to replace a soiled one.

Apartment living

This sod technique may also be useful, depending on the size of the dog, for teaching a dog to eliminate on papers or pads after moving to an apartment. Newspaper or commercially available housetraining pads can be placed under the sod and on top of a plastic tarp instead of artificial turf.

Litter box systems made especially for dogs are also now available. A dog that is accustomed to eliminating on grass could also be retrained to use litter by initially placing a section of sod on top of the litter in the box and then slowly, over a period of weeks, cutting sections away until the dog is walking on the litter. The canine litter box must be large enough for the dog to step into easily and turn around in.

Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB

P.O. Box 1040

Fort Worth, TX 76101

REFERENCES

1. Landsberg GM. The distribution of canine behavior cases at three behavior referral practices. Vet Med 1991;86:1011-1018.

2. Voith VL, Borchelt PL. Elimination behavior in dogs. In: Voith VL, Borchelt PL, eds. Readings in companion animal behavior. Trenton, NJ: Veterinary Learning Systems, 1996;169-178.

3. Scott JP, Fuller JL. Development of behavior. In: Genetics and the social behavior of the dog. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1965;84-116.

4. Horwitz DF. A practitioner's guide to housebreaking puppies. Vet Med 1999;94:165-169.

5. Landsberg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L. Fears and phobias. In: Handbook of behavior problems of the dog and cat. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders Co, 2003;258-296.