Last reviewed on January 22, 2016
I am sitting at a coffee shop talking to a nice young couple with a 2-year-old male Maltese named Steve. He has the whitest coat and the blackest nose. He is good looking, for sure. From the very beginning, he is my best friend — wagging his tail and jumping on me. The owners got him from a really great breeder at 3 months of age. He had never been in a crate. When they tried to crate him, he cried the entire night. It broke their hearts and they never used a crate again. He still urinates in the house.
Fast forward to the next day: I am sitting in my exam room with a nice, one year old yellow Labrador Retriever named Sophie. She has spent most of the appointment so far chewing on a worn tennis ball. She was purchased from a pet store when she was four months old. The puppies were kept in baby pools covered in newspaper with other puppies. They were not walked outside. She likes her crate, but will urinate and defecate inside. She will also urinate and defecate outside as well. If they don’t take her out quickly enough after dinner, she eliminates in the house, usually on soft surfaces.
These are the stories real dogs and real owners. Luckily for these dogs, their owners love them dearly. Believe it or not, studies examining the reasons for relinquishment of dogs to shelters generally have house-training woes pretty high on the list. It surprises me because house-training is pretty straightforward. So why do so many dogs end up on death row for peeing in the house?
Sometimes people just don’t know how to house-train a dog. There are lots of good resources for house-training online and in dog training books. (You can find a simple handout on house-training on the Resources page of my website.) Often people don’t understand the basic concepts of house-training. At its simplest (which is the way I like things), house-training is the act of teaching the dog to eliminate on your schedule, in a certain environment, and/or on a certain substrate. If the dog is being taught to eliminate outside, they have to learn that elimination only occurs when there is a sky (not a roof) over their head. If they are learning to eliminate on pee pads, they have to learn to eliminate only when they feel a soft substrate under their paws.
These simple rules should be followed:
1. Give the dog access to the elimination area frequently (every 1-2 hours at first).
2. Make eliminating pleasurable by rewarding her when the puppy chooses the right place.
3. Remove the opportunity to eliminate anywhere, but the designated elimination area while training (constant supervision).
This last one is the one that messes people up. Most people give the puppy too much freedom too soon. Dogs and puppies who are being house-trained have to be supervised every second that they are not outside or confined for a minimum of one month. Direct supervision means that the puppy is in the room with the owner and within the owner’s direct eyesight or on a leash being held by the owner. Yes, I get that is hard, but which is worse: the time it takes to house-train a dog or a ruined oriental rug? As the puppy proceeds through the house-training process, the amount of time that she doesn’t have to be supervised can be increased.
In my experience, serious house-training problems result from a glitch in the house-training process, not a simple lack of knowledge. Some dogs, like Steve, were never crate trained as pups. When Steve put up a fight on the first night, the owners gave up. Without a way to confine him, he never learned to eliminate outside exclusively. When a crate or some other type of confinement is not used it is more difficult to train the puppy. For these puppies, a small confinement area or exercise pen would work better than a crate. The entire area can be papered or better yet, covered in sod so that the puppy learns to prefer that substrate
In Sophie’s case, crate training was not the issue. The issue stemmed from how she spent the formative months of her puppy-hood. She learned to eliminate under a roof on a soft surface. Puppies develop a substrate preference somewhere around 7-8 weeks of age. If a puppy is raised in a kennel, she is more likely to eliminate on cement instead of grass. If the puppy was raised on paper, she is more likely to prefer paper or other soft substrates.
To Sophie, there is no crime in urinating and defecating in her crate or inside of the house for that matter. She did it her entire life up until now and it has worked out OK for her. The idea that a dog will always regard a crate or other small area as one to keep clean is not accurate. If the dog has learned at a young age or otherwise that it is acceptable (to her) to live in a soiled house, that will often continue into adulthood.
Some dogs have confinement anxiety or barrier frustration. This is a pathologic problem regarding confinement, which has an accompanying physiologic reaction. These dogs simply can’t be crated without a lot of behavior modification, and often medication. This behavior generally shows up in puppy-hood, sometimes as early as eight weeks. They are comfortable in the crate until the door is closed, then they panic. I am not talking about crying and barking for 15 minutes. I am talking about complete panic, jumping, screeching, trying to escape, urinating and/or defecating in the crate. It is pretty difficult to work on getting your dog to accept the crate calmly when you have to confine him there for hours at a time for the purpose of house-training. It just doesn’t work. Like the dogs that are not crate trained, a small confinement area and availability of the appropriate substrate is best.
Some people start out pretty well with house-training and then make mistakes like screaming at their puppy or shoving her face in the urine or feces when they find accidents. Wait; don’t judge these people too quickly. These are usually good people and good owners who don’t really know what to do. The end result is that the puppy thinks that the owner is crazy!
A more scientific description of what happens is that the dog associates the owner’s presence and the presence of the urine with punishment. She has not learned that the act of urinating causes the owner’s behavior change unless she was caught in the act. Even then, the use of punishment from a scientific standpoint is iffy. This is because urinating and defecating is self rewarding. Have you ever held it on a long drive? Didn’t it feel good to finally go to the bathroom? It is the same for dogs. Once the puppy has received reward, there is no way to make that reward go away regardless of how foolish the owner acts. The association of the owner’s presence with the presence of urine or feces causes the puppy to try alternate strategies such as eliminating only when the owner is not present. These dogs may sneak off into the corner of the owner’s bedroom to eliminate, or they may refuse to eliminate while on a leash or when the owner is near-by.
I generally tell people that if their dog has an accident, they should roll up a newspaper and hit themselves over the head with it while repeating, "I forgot to watch my puppy. I forgot to watch my puppy." Seriously, if the puppy is caught in the act, the owner can interrupt her with a hand clap. Then, they should immediately bring the puppy to the elimination area outside or to the pee pads inside.
Housetraining is no reason to give a dog up. There is a lot of help out there in the way of good material on the subject. When in doubt, go back to basics and you should be OK.
Dr. Lisa Radosta