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House Training: Causes & Solutions

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.

1. 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 the dog is ready. Add freedom a little at a time.

2. Dog instincts can be overwhelmed by the scent of past accidents, whether this dog’s scent or scent left by another dog. It’s imperative to remove this scent, and people often use the wrong products. The most reliable results are from bacterial enzyme odor eliminator products such as Nature’s Miracle.

3. Dietary problems cause a lot of housetraining issues. Feeding your dog too much can result in the dog not being able to hold feces until the next relief opportunity. Feeding a high-fiber diet can do the same thing, as can feeding on a schedule that just doesn’t work for this particular dog. Any change in food (including treats) can result in loss of control, too. Feed your dog carefully and consistently for the best housetraining results.

4. Intestinal parasites or other illness affecting the intestines can cause the dog to lose control. Having the dog and a fecal specimen evaluated by your veterinarian is a good idea.

5. 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.

6. Orthopedic problems in the dog can make it painful 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. With older dogs and those with known or suspected orthopedic problems, your veterinarian can likely help the dog be more comfortable and at the same time improve the housetraining problem.

7. 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 for relief. 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.

8. 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 nervous temperament in the dog, other animals outdoors, humans teasing or abusing the dog outside, and frightening sounds such as fireworks or gunfire.

Solving this one can require detective work to find the cause, and changing how you handle the dog’s relief outings. Usually it works to go with the dog every time at first and give rewards. Gradually as the dog gains confidence, you can probably just stand in the doorway while the dog is outside, ready to let the dog in immediately when the dog is finished.

9. If the dog doesn’t have access to the relief area when the 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 the dog needs to go out.

10. Separation anxiety keeps a dog from taking advantage of your absence to get in a good nap. During sleep the need to urinate and defecate is suppressed, so the dog can wait a bit longer than at other times. If the dog is anxious, exactly the opposite happens—the stressed body needs to relieve MORE often. A veterinary behavior specialist can help with separation anxiety.

Managing separation anxiety requires a behavior modification program carried out by the family, which in some cases can be aided by temporary medication. Medication without a behavior modification program tends to be unsuccessful, so be sure to follow the instructions.

Fear of the crate can cause the same symptoms as separation anxiety. Some dogs can be rehabilitated when they’ve developed a fear of being crated, while with other dogs it’s better to permanently use an alternative method of confinement. A veterinary behavior specialist can diagnose and treat this problem.

11. Male dogs tend to mark their territory. Female dogs often do, too, but their drive is usually much lower. Larger male dogs often prefer to mark outside for a bigger territory. Your little fella may feel that a corner of the living room makes his territory a nice size. If your house has more than one level, the level less used by the family could seem like a perfect area to his instincts.

Neutering helps this problem. Other solutions include treating it as a housetraining issue, with careful supervision and confinement. A belly band—soft fabric around the tummy to catch urine—can be helpful in managing urine-marking, but could foster infection if overused.

12. Female dogs in estrus 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 the potential for staining on home furnishings from the discharge.

13. When there is more than one male dog in the household, you can get “dueling tinklers.” One marks and then the other “has” to mark there, too. One solution to this is prevention—avoid getting two males. If you want two dogs, make it a male and a female. If you already have the dueling tinklers, you’ll need to use supervision and confinement to manage them. Do not to resort to punishment, which adds more problems, even potentially aggression.

14. When a guest visits your home, your dog may be stimulated to urine-mark indoors. If this happens, your best bet is supervision and possibly confinement as in earlier stages of housetraining, to make sure the behavior doesn’t become a habit.

15. A new family member or a family member moving out can trigger housetraining problems. Scent is one reason for this, and changes in the schedule of the dog’s feeding, activity and relief outings can also happen. Help the dog with a return to the basics of housetraining, and a previously-housetrained dog is likely to make a nice recovery.

16. A pregnant woman, a baby in diapers, or a child moving from baby to crawling mobile status are all situations that can trigger housetraining problems in some dogs. Here, too, understand that your dog needs help, and go back to the basics to help the dog preserve good habits.

17. An unhousetrained dog in the house can ruin your dog’s housetraining, and a cat using a litter box can greatly confuse things, too. Of course the answer is to use supervision and confinement for all the furry family members.

Once they get used to the situation, dogs do quite well with the cat using a litter box in the house while the dog uses the outdoors. Perhaps this is because dogs understand something many humans do not: Cats have instincts that make using a litter box natural, and dogs don’t. Do keep pup from eating out of the litter box. Put the box where the dog absolutely cannot get into it. Don’t expect training to work when it comes to a dog resisting these “treats.” Some cats will not use a litter box that a dog raids, so this is important for your kitty’s housetraining, too.

18. Some pups have been raised in conditions that forced them to live in their own waste. This damages their instincts to keep the den area clean. Since the housetraining of a dog requires that instinct, you will need to help this dog regain it. Don’t use a crate or small area that forces the dog into contact with the waste. Use a larger confinement area for awhile, 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.

19. Sometimes, due to past management, a dog has a long-established habit of relieving on a surface you need the dog not to use, such as carpeting. It will help to keep the dog off carpeting except when you can pay full attention to redirect any elimination behavior to the proper place.

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. Think about what could be causing your dog’s problem. 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 humans 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 out of the easy chair and to think beyond our own problems. You could even say that housetraining is good for us!

Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others. Should the training articles available here or elsewhere not be effective, contact your veterinarian. Veterinarians not specializing in behavior can eliminate medical causes of behavior problems. If no medical cause is found, your veterinarian can refer you to a colleague who specializes in behavior or a local behaviorist.

Copyright 2004 - 2009 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.