Canine housetraining challenges

From dogs soiling in their crates to dogs afraid of eliminating in front of people, this behaviorist gives you tips to help owners handle their difficult-to-housetrain dogs.
source-image
Apr 01, 2007

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.