By Kathy Diamond Davis
Author and Trainer
Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB
When a dog starts having housetraining accidents, it’s easy to believe the dog is acting out of anger or some other defiant motive. That is rarely the case. Let’s look at reasons for housetraining accidents and methods for improving your dog’s batting average.
Medical causes should always be ruled out first. Any medical condition that causes increased frequency, urgency, or volume in urine or stool can lead to house soiling. Having the dog evaluated by your veterinarian is a good idea. Your veterinarian may recommend specific testing such as fecal, urine, and blood tests based on your dog’s specific problems and the results of the physical exam.
- Dietary problems can cause housetraining issues. Feeding a high-fiber diet can result in the dog not being able to hold feces until the next relief opportunity, as can feeding on a schedule that just doesn’t work for your particular dog. Many dogs need to defecate within an hour after eating. Any change in food (including treats) can result in diarrhea and loss of control, too. Feed your dog carefully and consistently for the best housetraining results.
- Intestinal parasites or other illness affecting the intestines such as inflammatory bowel disease or even a food allergy can cause the dog to lose control of his bowels.
- A dog with a urinary tract infection, kidney failure, or urinary incontinence from other causes needs veterinary care. In most cases, housetraining problems from these causes can
be solved or vastly improved by treating the medical condition appropriately.
- Orthopedic problems can make it painful for your dog to squat for relief. The dog may wait and wait, afraid of the pain, and then lose control in the house. Sometimes the family thinks the dog’s arthritis or other orthopedic pain is under control because the dog doesn’t complain. This is especially true for older dogs, but even young dogs can have orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia, knee, or spinal problems that result in pain. Your veterinarian can likely help your dog be more comfortable and at the same time improve the housetraining problem.
- Another senior pet problem that can lead to house soiling is senility. Your elderly dog may have simply forgotten where he is supposed to go. Have him examined by your veterinarian as apparent senility can actually be caused by a myriad of medical causes. If your vet determines that the problem is senility, going back to the basics of housetraining (direct supervision or confinement when you can’t supervise and rewarding urination/defecation outside) is in order. Your veterinarian may also prescribe supplements for brain health and recommend appropriate mental stimulation to delay further signs.
Once medical causes have been eliminated, consider these behavior causes. Getting to the root of the problem will ensure proper treatment and the best chance for successful resolution of the problem.
- Sometimes we think a dog is housetrained when that is not actually the case. Housetraining does not automatically transfer to a new location, either. Dogs need consistent human help to keep the housetraining habits we humans want from them. Be sure not to give your dog too much responsibility for housetraining before he is ready. The general rule is that your dog should have one month without accidents before adding freedom a little at a time.
- Dog instincts can be overwhelmed by the scent of past accidents, whether it’s this dog’s scent or scent left by another pet. It’s imperative to remove this scent, and people often use the wrong products. The most reliable results are from bacterial enzymatic odor eliminating products. These products actually degrade the urine rather than just cover up the smell.
- When dogs are punished for housetraining errors, a common side effect is that they become afraid to relieve themselves in front of people. This makes it extremely difficult to teach the dog your desired relief location.
The solution to this problem is to stop all punishment (even a harsh tone of voice) and start giving the dog rewards such as food treats for relieving himself. At first you can reward the dog for simply being in the relief area. Another step can be to move feces from an indoor accident out to the relief area and reward the dog there. Look for any opportunity to reward the dog for behavior that’s moving in the right direction. Dogs are incredibly forgiving.
- Sometimes dogs become afraid to go to the relief area. This can happen for various reasons, including weather conditions that scare the dog, leaving the dog outside alone too long, the dog being shocked by an electronic fence collar, a dog with a nervous temperament, other animals outdoors, humans teasing or abusing the dog outside, and frightening sounds such as fireworks or gunfire.
A veterinary behavior specialist can help deal with the underlying anxiety creating the aversion to the relief area, which needs to be addressed to make your dog more comfortable in order to solve this problem.
- If your dog doesn’t have access to the relief area when his body needs relief, that’s a recipe for housetraining problems. Take the dog out more often. A journal of accidents can help you spot the pattern of when your dog needs to go out. These management issues can be caused by adding a new family member to the home, a family member moving out, or changing the family’s schedule, among many other causes.
- Causes of anxiety, such as separation anxiety, can lead to house soiling. If the dog is anxious or panicking, the stressed body needs to relieve more often. A veterinary behavior specialist can help address underlying anxiety.
- Fear of the crate (think claustrophobia) can cause the same symptoms as separation anxiety. Some dogs can be rehabilitated when they’ve developed a fear of being crated, while for most dogs it’s better to permanently use an alternative method. A veterinary behavior specialist can diagnose and treat this problem.
- Male dogs tend to mark their territory. Female dogs do too, but their drive is usually much lower. Urine marking is typically just a small amount, often on a vertical surface such as a chair leg, bed skirt, or the grocery bag you just set down. This is different than toileting, which is a large amount usually on a horizontal surface.
Neutering helps solve this problem, but may not eliminate it if the dog is marking for other reasons such as anxiety or as part of a territorial display. Some causes of urine marking not related to hormones include a baby in diapers, a baby starting to crawl, a new family member, a family member moving out, and territorial aggression to visitors or dogs, and people passing by outside the house. The specific causes need to be determined and treated for resolution of urine marking. A belly band—soft fabric around the tummy to catch urine—can be helpful in managing urine-marking as a short-term solution, but can foster infection if overused.
- Female dogs in heat tend to urinate frequently. Spayed female dogs don’t go into heat, so spaying is one solution for this possible housetraining issue, as well as eliminating the potential for staining furniture from the discharge.
- Some dogs have been raised in conditions that forced them to live in their own waste. This scenario damages their instincts to keep the den area clean. Since housetraining a dog requires that instinct, you will need to help this dog regain it. During the housetraining process, don’t use a crate or small area that forces the dog into contact with the waste. Use a larger confinement area for a while, so the dog can get used to being clean. Keep the dog’s area very clean. Eventually you may be able to use a crate with the dog.
- Sometimes, due to past management, a dog has a long-established habit of relieving on a surface, such as carpet or in a specific location, such as the spare bedroom, that you do not want the dog to use. It helps to keep the dog off carpeting and out of the undesired locations except when you can pay full attention to redirect any elimination behavior to the proper place.
- Alternatively, the dog may have an aversion to the material you prefer that he relieves himself on, such as if your backyard is made up of rocks. In that case allow your dog to eliminate on his preferred material and gradually add in the material you prefer.
Be a Detective—and a Friend
You can see from this long list that a lot of things can throw off a dog’s housetraining habit. You need to determine what could be causing your dog’s problem. There could be multiple reasons. With your veterinarian’s help and possibly the help of a behavior specialist, you can make it better.
Housetraining is a habit. The dog doesn’t understand why we want this, and yet dogs are so adaptable that most of them can be helped to develop the housetraining habit and to restore it when something has interfered. Even people have bathroom problems from time to time, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised that it happens with dogs.
One way dogs help humans to live longer, healthier lives is by needing our care. This is a day-to-day reason to get out of bed and to think beyond our own problems. You could even say that housetraining is good for us!