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House Soiling

John J. Ciribassi DVM, DACVB

Lack of consistent housetraining is one of the most common reasons for pet owners to give away a new puppy. Most dog owners recognize that puppies do not come pre-trained and that there will have to be some effort on their part to teach the puppy where to go. However, some new dog owners or those who haven’t done it or raised a puppy in years, fail to realize just how difficult and time-consuming the process can be. Combine this with the difficulty of training certain breeds, the distractions that take time away from training (such as having young children or jobs with long hours) and bad weather, and it’s easy to see how this task that should be simple can become quite complicated.

The basic goal of housetraining a puppy involves the development of surface preferences. This refers to the tendency for puppies to seek out preferred elimination surfaces (soil, grass, carpet, tile, etc) based on early experiences with these surfaces. So, if the puppy has consistent access to grass in your yard and is rewarded from an early age for eliminating on this surface, the puppy will always seek out this surface. Conversely, if the pup is allowed the freedom to choose a surface on her own, such as your new Oriental rug, this selection may end up becoming her preferred surface. To a puppy, it’s all about what feels good and what is familiar. Eliminating on surfaces that you find objectionable is not related to the puppy being vindictive or un-trainable. It’s just about a biological need to eliminate waste, and the dog is looking for the best place to do that. It is the owner’s responsibility to direct the pup to an area that is mutually acceptable for both. So, how do we accomplish this?

Confinement


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It is nearly impossible to achieve housetraining by allowing a puppy to roam the house freely when alone or overnight. Roaming will allow the pup to try various surfaces until she finds one to her liking. As a result, it is imperative that she be restricted to an area where it is least likely that she will choose to eliminate. The most common choice is to use a crate or cage called an exercise pen. However, some owners find that they can successfully use a small area to accomplish the same goal. Bathrooms, utility rooms or gated off areas of other rooms can provide enough deterrent for the puppy. The idea is that most puppies typically do not soil in the same area in which they rest. Whatever method you choose, the idea is that the puppy cannot have enough room to have a “bedchamber” (a place to sleep) and a “bathroom” (a place to eliminate). If using a crate, it should be large enough to allow the puppy to lie down, stand up and turn around without giving enough room for eliminating a separate area for elimination. Some owners will purchase a crate that is large enough to accommodate their dog as an adult, and use a partition to gradually increase the space available to the dog as she grows. Some crates have these partitions built in or you can use a board secured to the sides of the cage.

Whatever method you use, it is critical that the pup is not forced to remain confined for a period beyond what the timeframe during which she can retain urine or stool. The rule of thumb is that you take the puppy’s age in months, convert to hours and then add one more. So, for example, a 2-month old puppy can be expected to hold it for 3 hours (2 months, plus one) before she will need to eliminate again. There are some breed differences here with smaller breeds not having as much capacity and may not be able to go as long without having the opportunity to eliminate compared to larger breeds. This time period should be kept in mind not only when the puppy is alone but also sleeping overnight . Consider setting an alarm clock during the night so that you get up and take her outside at appropriate intervals. While pups prefer not to lie in their own waste material, they will if they have no other choice, thus making confinement less effective.

Supervision

If allowed to proceed without close supervision, puppies will choose whatever place feels right to eliminate on. In order to prevent this natural instinct from dominating  the process, it is imperative for you to closely supervise your dog at all times. The pup should NEVER, EVER be out of sight of a responsible person when loose in the home. If strict supervision is not possible for whatever reason, place the pup in the crate or an appropriate confined space; otherwise use one of the following methods to achieve good supervision:

  • Close doors to keep the puppy in the same room as the person supervising
  • Put up baby gates to restrict the puppy’s access to the house
  • Use the umbilical cord technique where the puppy is tethered to you by attaching a leash from the puppy to your waist. This technique ensures that the puppy stays within your view.

While monitoring the puppy, if you notice signs that she needs to go, quickly lead her to the desired location. You may notice the puppy sniffing the ground, circling a spot, moving towards the door where you go outside, or just behaving in an anxious manner. If you happen to find urine or stool in the house, there is no need to use any form of punishment. Punishment, even verbal correction, will merely result in the puppy learning to eliminate in secret in order to avoid being punished. In addition, punishment after the fact results in confusion and anxiety for the pup since the act has no relation to the elimination that occurred earlier. I also believe in the use of a rolled up newspaper at these times….used to hit yourself on the head for not watching your puppy closely enough!

Scheduling

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Like anything in a puppy’s life, consistency is critical to get a change in a behavior. That goes for housetraining as well. The first point to keep in mind is that a puppy’s urge to eliminate is often tied to eating and drinking. In general, a puppy will have an increased urge to urinate after drinking and a similar urgency to defecate after eating. This does not mean that what they drink immediately is urinated out or their food immediately turns to stool. The body has a natural reflex to void accumulated waste material in response to consumption of liquids and food. You can use this to help with training. I typically recommend feeding puppies three times per day and removing the food AND water bowls within 20 to 30 minutes. Once the pup is finished eating and drinking, immediately take her out to the desired elimination spot. In this way, she can anticipate having three clear opportunities to eliminate.

It should be routine to also allow the puppy an opportunity to eliminate before leaving her home alone and when you return. In addition, repeat that when waking in the morning and before going to bed at night, or after vigourous play  and sudden stops in activity.

Reinforcing Elimination

The challenge is being patient. Reinforcement only works when you deliver the reward (praise and food work best) immediately after your pup eliminates. Therefore, you have to wait with her so you can deliver the reward immediately. This usually means having the puppy on a leash so that you can keep her near you and get her to the spot you want her to go in. By having her consistently eliminating at this one spot, this location will acquire a bathroom quality for the puppy and will increase the likelihood of her using this spot long term. Reward appropriate elimination behavior by using praise, food treats, and access to free exercise (allowing your pup to play in the yard) immediately AFTER she goes.

Finally, do not allow your puppy to have free access to the house if she has not eliminated in the proper place. If she doesn’t go in the desired location within a few minutes, return to the house with the puppy on leash or in her cage, and then repeat the process until she goes.

Cleanse Soiled Areas

Be certain to cleanse areas already soiled so that your puppy does not develop an attraction to the location. Agents that have enzymatic activity to remove odors work best.

Other Causes of Housetraining Failure

There are other reasons for a new puppy to have accidents in the home besides difficulty with housetraining. This is why your first move when you have a puppy with housetraining issues is to contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will be able to rule out problems such as urinary tract infections, urinary bladder stones, congenital abnormalities, diabetes and other hormonal abnormalities.

A common behavioral cause of elimination problems in puppies is separation anxiety, in which anxiety associated with being separated from the owner can cause the puppy to have accidents when alone. Other symptoms of separation anxiety include destructive behavior, vocalization (howling and barking) and excessive drooling.

Key Points

  • See your veterinarian to rule out medical causes of elimination problems
  • Choose an appropriate method of confinement for when you cannot supervise your puppy
  • Choose an appropriate method of supervising your puppy
  • Relocate puppy to proper location if you notice her beginning to eliminate
  • Do not punish accidents
  • Reward proper elimination immediately afterwards using praise, treats and play 
  • Be certain to cleanse soiled areas in order to remove any lingering odors which may serve to attract the puppy back to the area.