Canine housetraining challenges - Veterinary Medicine
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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.


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.


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