Housebreaking and Changes in Trained Behavior


Housebreaking and Changes in Trained Behavior

Housebreaking problems with Chihuahua puppy

Question: Dear Dr. Mike: My question today concerns my five month old Chihuahua puppy, Pattie. I've had her since Christmas and she's done pretty well in the house training department and learned quickly. I have a small doggie door and have two older toy fox terriers, Max & 99, who never relieve themselves inside. For some reason however, the puppy still defecates in the house. Not all the time but probably once a day or every other day. She does not urinate in the house any longer at all. It's frustrating because on the one hand she knows to go outside to defecate but at times she goes inside as though there's nothing wrong with it. I thought it had to do with the weather as I have discovered she doesn't like to go out when it's cold or windy or raining. She's on dry puppy food Nutro Lamb & Rice, 1/2 cup twice a day. No wet food at all. Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated. I know you have a mountain of letters to respond to concerning sick and dying animals but would appreciate your reply when you get a chance. Thanks again for your help Dr. Mike. You're great. Sara

Answer: Sara- It is possible for dogs to understand not to urinate in the house but not understand that defecating in the house is not acceptable. This is just a signal that the housebreaking process is not complete. The best approach that I know of to this problem is to set two or three days aside just for housebreaking and then to pay strict attention to the puppy until it is possible to catch her attempting to have a bowel movement in the house. Puppies need to be "caught in the act" because they don't really associate any sort of after the fact punishment with the defecation. When you catch her, make it plain that defecating in the house is unacceptable. For many dogs, a strong "NO" will be enough to get the message across. Immediately take her outside and then stay with her until she finally defecates outside. This may take a long time, which is the reason that you have to really plan time for the housebreaking process. When she starts to make motions that indicate she is going to have a bowel movement it can be helpful to say something that she might learn to think of as a suggestion or command to defecate. "Go poop" or "Do your business" or something like that. Then when she does, reinforce it as good behavior with "Good Puppy" or something like that. You have to let dogs know it is bad to go in the house and that it is good to go outside. Most dogs can learn this quickly if you manage to catch them two or three times. It really helps if that is two or three times in a row, too. If you can't manage to devote a few days strictly to housebreaking it can help to be sure that the puppy stays close to you when it is free in the house and to keep the puppy crated when you can not be there. Clipping a lightweight lead to your belt so that the puppy is never more than six feet away can be very helpful in keeping her close enough that you can catch her if she decides to have a bowel movement in the house. Mike Richards, DVM 2/27/2001

Why does my dog choose artificial grass to relive himself

Question: Can you think of a reason why a dog would prefer to relieve itself on astroturf (artificial grass), than on REAL grass? Thanks much, Vox

Answer: Dogs learn preferences for different substrates to urinate or defecate on, just like cats do. If a dog is allowed to establish a preference for artificial grass early in life (like if puppies are kept on artificial grass in their play area), they may prefer this surface for life. We have patients who prefer to use only the driveway, that seek out concrete and many patients who prefer paper, after being paper trained as puppies. This is the only reason I can think of for this sort of behavior, though. Mike Richards, DVM 1/3/2001

Housebreaking resistant

Question: I have a small energetic chihuahua/toy fox terrier mix, Fabio, that I adopted 6 years ago. He was resistant to training, had some weird habits, and was an unexpected adoption at the time. (he was VERY charming, was shown on television twice for adoption, and when i showed soem interst at a rescue shepter they pressureed me by saying they were going to put him down if I ddint take him. I tried to postpone, but they were wickedly manipulative, and i rationalized, "well, he's just a small problemmo...") Unfortunately, I was getting sick alot back then, and was extremely low energy and debilitatingly ill for a few years until just two years ago. NOW I am on ritalin and trying to get caught up, and am remodeling my home, and new floors will be put down on 85% of the main floor in two weeks. Fabio had been originally found with his brother in a house by new owners, and all their poop, etc. They had been left behind by the old owners. Now I know why! My own house has since suffered pet damage, mainly of urine. He has to mark things ad infinitum, and enough of it has gone on inside the house. At first i ddint realize...hadnt the energy to do proper housecleaning. Now i can see where floors or door entries have been damaged.We didn't get good obedience work donefrom the beginning, and I am starting now. He is finally responding well to being crated during the day, and will sit without cowering and peeing. He is now on nolatrim (phenopropanolamine HCI, 5 mgs morning and again at night). He also has a liver problem and now is on L/D, soft. (he just lost 16 teeth). We've made many changes in the past 3 weeks, because one option I have is to give him away. And I want to try everything, as a proper pet owner, before resorting to that. Let me tell you about my other pets, and about his other habits. I have a 9 year old greyhound, fixed male, an 8 year old merle collie/german shepard/beagle female spayed, (who runs the hosuehold) and one shy female cat, spayed, and just dropped off another female cat to the adopted out from a shelter. she was spraying outside her box, and sometimes pooping in other rooms. Perhaps Fabio was competing wiht her, or all of them. And me. He was the last to arrive. Although he was neutered, I often wondered if he really was, or what a terror he would have been before that, because his behaviors were NOT calmed down. we tested his testosterone a few weeks ago to see if there had been an undscended testicle and he was "fine". Everyday, he had to mount (sidesaddle) SOMEONE, but not me...usually the one cat I gave away, and he would roughhouse with the collie then get excited and rub against her... Everyday and for long periods of time he sits and sucks on the greyhound's ears and will lick his eyes, lick his mouth and teeth and even lick his hips..and you know how quiet greyhounds are...he just lays there and accepts it for the most part. then fabio will get excited and rub onto this dog's hips. HIS otehr sucking habit is his own back feet, and when scolded he automatically cowers and sucks on one foot. When i first got him, he would suck on that foot to pacify himself to sleep. he sleeps with me on the bed. He has no allergies, that we know, for the sucking of feet. I had to stop him form sucking on my fingers, one by one, up and down the hand..given any chance he will lick for 20 minutes at a time, yuck! He is high energy, nervous, and of course, sometimes it's too much, and barks to demand things. I have asked the vet about using a calming pill but was never given a yes answer. For years I have wondered what to do, in general. Poeple love him, really adore him as he is funny, charming, hilarious even! he's all white wiht buck teeth, and he has had great success making pals at nursing homes. Kids LOVE him!! he pouts He would usually NOT go out with the other dogs when I came home after work, but would need his own special invite after I had ran to the bathroom myself. I started making him go at the same time, to remind him he is a dog and I am the boss, and he ahs been very good suddenly about this. I realize now he has been dominating me. The other day I was cleaning out the kitchen to prepare for the floors and had a large plastic bag of garbage. I moved it at one point and saw he had peed on it and the rug it was on, and I had been standing right there! All my furniture has wood legs, and covering them in plastic only seemed to invite him to mark more! (the smell of plastic may have meant "pee here" to him, as a foreign smell). I am spending almost seven thousand dollars on the floors...and may need to hire a housekeeping helper, and beyond that what can I do? I can't watch him every minute!! Should we use an animal behaviorist?

Answer: I think that you are doing the right things in trying to control Fabio's habits. It is very hard in many cases to control urine marking behaviors in dogs and I do not know of a consistently effective way to do this. It is important to remember that there are medical causes for some urinary problems and to be sure that you have eliminated kidney disease, diseases that make dogs produce more urine, such as diabetes and Cushing's disease, bladder infection, bladder stones and anatomical defects. Since you have had a work-up for testosterone excess it is very likely that your vet has already considered these possible problems and ruled them out through testing, but it is a good idea to be sure. The most effective way to control urination in the house is to know exactly where he is and what he is doing at all times. Most people can't manage that because it is totally impractical, BUT you can take steps, such as keeping him crated when you can't watch him (which you are doing) that help a lot. In addition, it can help to keep a leash on him that is attached to you, or a bell on his collar, so you know where he is as much as possible. That is also impractical for many situations but if it will work for you it might help. We have not had a lot of success with medication for urine marking behavior in dogs but there is probably a small chance that an anti-anxiety medication such as diazepam (Valium Rx) or an anti-depressant such as amitriptyline (Elavil Rx) or fluoxetine (Prozac Rx) might help. If you have the opportunity in your area to see a board certified veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behaviorist it would definitely be a good idea to seek their help. I really do think you are on the right track with the things you are doing so far and with the progress you have made it seems likely that you could gain nearly complete control of this situation, but probably not absolutely complete control. These are strong urges. If getting good control is good enough, you are already a good part of the way there. Mike Richards, DVM 3/30/2000

Housebreaking older, rescued puppy

Q: I have just rescued a 5 month old German Shepherd puppy. Since she is not housebroken I am proceeding as is normally suggested with crate training. She has been with me two days now and has exhibited no aversion to her own waste. She does not mind soiling her crate, nor does she mind sitting in the urine afterwards. I had her on a short lead yesterday and she squatted right next to me, urinated, then laid down in the puddle she left. I have no idea how to proceed since she doesn't seem to have the natural instincts I generally rely on in housebreaking a dog. Other items of interest which may be coincidental are: she is coprophagic, she has a very wobbly walk which may be displaysia (I'm having her x-rayed very soon), she has never defecated inappropriately, she is drinking 1+ liters of water a day which seems excessive. She is allowed 1 hour of vigorous exercise with other dogs after each meal, is fed twice each day, is allowed free access to water and is otherwise crated or confined (this with the intention of promoting good elimination habits). Any suggestions you may have would be greatly appreciated.

A: Lisa- I think that you are probably crating her for too long a time period. A puppy of this age should be able to make it through the night without urinating or defecating. It is not likely that she can go more than a few hours during the day when she is awake, however. Leaving her in the crate for long periods during the day makes it likely that she will eventually urinate or defecate in the crate. After awhile she becomes used to this event and not bothered by it. At that point, crate training loses most, or all, of its value. It sounds like she may have been crated or confined excessively prior to you acquiring her and there is probably no point in continuing that practice since she already ignores her own feces and urine. You are probably going to have to try some other technique in training this puppy. It may help a great deal to take the puppy outside alone until she has a bowel movement or urinates. Try to stick to a relatively consistent place for this to happen so it becomes a habit. You are right in allowing her a good workout with the other dogs but it may be necessary to put housebreaking time into the formula. Keeping track of her in the house is essential to housebreaking in this sort of circumstance. If you just need to keep track of her putting a bell on her collar might help. Attaching her lead to your belt can work well, too -- it makes it hard for her to sneak away briefly to urinate or defecate. Telling her no just loudly enough to startle her will probably be sufficient to let her know you expect her not to go in the house. Following her around outside to ensure that she gets praised for going outdoors is essential, too. You have to let her know what is "right" and what is "wrong" if you expect her to know. It is hard when a dog comes with bad habits. It is not impossible to correct those habits, though. Spending as much time as you can on housebreaking her now could save a lot of time in cleaning up messes in the future. If you are lucky enough to have a veterinary behaviorist in your area this may be a good case to try out his or her services for. While I get lots of behavioral questions in my practice and try to give the best advice I can, I am not a behaviorist! Mike Richards, DVM

Housebreaking and behavior problems

Q: Dr., My first question has to do with my 4 month old collie. (I also have a 14 month old collie which is my second question). The pup, Duchess, will go two weeks telling us she has to go out but then she will just go in the house. I don't understand why. She doesn't act like she did anything wrong. In fact she will squat and go in front of us. Then she is good for a week or two. We had a urine test done and it came up negative. She is on Eukanuba Lamb and Rice for Puppies. She has held it all night since we got her at 9 weeks of age. My other collie, Brandi, made her last mess in the house ten days after we got her at age 8 weeks. Any ideas? Second question; Brandi was bought one month after we had lost our second collie in ten weeks. We only had those two. So she was fussed over a great deal by my wife and me. She wasn't spoiled, she had to follow the same rules as the other dogs had to in the past. But she did receive a lot of attention. She was yard trained and wouldn't go into the road. Even on a leash she would have a hard time going into the road with us. Should would stay in the back yard when she was alone, even if there were kids in the yard 2 houses down. She loves kids, will sit and watch and cry. We got the pup and she loves her since the start, they play constantly (at times driving us crazy). But the other night when she was put out she wondered away. She was found 3 blocks down the road. Now we have been residing the house so for a few weeks her and the pup haven't been getting the same amount of attention plus the pup does receive more because of training. Could she have just done this because of this? She hasn't tried it since but she hasn't been given the chance. Will a dog even think this way? Brandi is a very sensitive dog. If she is told anything in a voice that sounds remotely like your upset (normal voice level) she acts like you yelled at her for hours. She drops her head and ears and goes of to her crate. She will stay there for most of the day unless something is said to her. Any ideas? Thank You, Robert

A: Robert- Many puppies will have occasional lapses during housebreaking. One cause is misunderstood signals between the puppy and owner. If your puppy is attempting in some manner to alert you that she needs to go out and the message isn't getting through, that could lead to an accident in the house. Sometimes, the puppy hasn't figured out that a signal is necessary to alert you to let her out. Dogs can be taught all sorts of ways to let you know, such as scratching at the door (probably not a good one to encourage) or sitting by the door or anything else that works for you and the puppy. It can help to pay attention to the puppy and making an effort to figure out if there some signal the puppy is using. My wife is uncanny in her ability to figure out what the dogs want by their actions but I miss the signals until she explains them to me. It also is very important to go out with the puppy and follow her around or walk her on a leash until she does urinate or defecate outside and then praise her. This is the part of the training that is fun for the puppy and teaches her that outside on the grass is where you prefer she go to urinate and defecate. It sounds like Duchess understands the basics of house training. Some dogs just take a little longer to fully understand what is expected of them. Don't get discouraged. You don't really say how old Brandi is. That could be very important. There are many things that happen as dogs age, including visual changes, hearing loss, and even occasionally senility. Hypothyroidism is supposed to be able to produce memory lapses and confusion in humans and may do the same in dogs. She may have been frightened by something since this was a one time event. I really think that the first step would be to have her examined by your vet to make sure that there is not a physical cause of the behavior that is readily apparent. If a physical exam checks out normally then behavioral changes become more likely. Sometimes a new addition to a household does cause problems in dogs with very good manners prior to the arrival of the new puppy. Letting loose a little is fun and the puppy, being untrained, can have a bad influence on a well mannered dog. It can take a lot of extra effort to get the puppy trained and the older dog's training reinforced at the same time. There is a lot of debate about whether or not dogs can be spiteful, jealous, etc. While I assume that they probably have the emotional feelings to at least some degree I doubt they really have the ability to plan a spiteful response. For now, this is an impossible question to answer definitively but the general opinion among experts is that they do not have these abilities. Hope this helps some. Mike Richards, DVM

Sudden change in urinary habits

Q: I have a nine-year old rat terrier mutt. He's been pretty well housebroken his whole life. A year ago I got a 2 year old chinese crested. For the first six months my rat terrier was very depressed (stayed in bed, cried, the whole nine yards!). All this despite us carefully introducing the new dog, paying attention to the terrier, feeding the terrier first, etc. However, the chinese crested does have some alpha behavior (sleeps at the top of the bed, jumps on our laps first, etc.) Now the terrier has started urinating in the house on the furniture (my husband and my chairs). What should we do? We walk him quite often, have a fenced yard and let him out to play but he only wants in the house. Any suggestions? Thanks!

A: PLT- I thought I might be able to find information in one of the behavior books on a similar situation but have been unable to do so. The standard advice in all cases of sudden changes in urinary behavior is to have a physical exam done to rule out a medical problem. If no discernible physical cause is found then it the problem can be considered to be behavioral. You didn't mention whether your dog was neutered or whether the new dog was male or female but I suspect male from your letter for some reason. Anyway - if your older dog is not neutered it may help, especially if there is benign prostate enlargement. If the younger dog is female I think I'd be more suspicious of a health problem but only because there is slightly less competition between the sexes, usually. If this does seem like a behavioral problem it may be hard to sort out the most likely psychological "trigger" without the help of a behaviorist. One thing you mention is the hierarchy -- it is entirely possible that the younger dog may have a dominant personality and that you are confusing both dogs by attempting to shore up the older dog's "alpha" status. As unfair as it sounds, it is often better in the long run to figure out which dog would be the top dog if they were left alone and to support that dog's status -- even if it the younger one and even if it seems unfair by human standards. Dogs like order and keeping an unnatural order is stressful to both of them. Of course, you have to be pretty sure which dog to encourage to be the alpha dog and that is where the help of a behaviorist can be invaluable. If it seems that the older dog is or wants to be the top dog, you are doing the right things to encourage that status except that you need to be consistent and try to discourage all the signs of higher status that the younger dog enjoys currently. That can be hard for people to do, too. We have this strange desire for "fairness" that is very artificial in many animal social situations. Carefully cleaning the areas that have been soiled with an enzymatic cleanser is helpful. Blocking access to any areas that are consistently urinated upon helps a lot, too. After the memory of the activity has died down (perhaps a month or two) it may be possible to reintroduce the dog to the area without incident. Working on catching the dog in the act of urinating on the furniture helps. I assume your husband usually notices when he is the object of inappropriate urinary behavior and will quickly stop the behavior. Working on reinforcing your dominance helps -- just teach your dog a few commands and set aside time to work through them -- sit, stay, down, etc. If he remembers your the boss he is less likely to feel as if he should mark the territory in your house. It would be worth asking your vet if there is a behaviorist in your area if this behavior continues. I am not a behaviorist and I suspect they would have better and more specific advice. Mike Richards, DVM

Change in housebreaking behavior

Q: We have an approximately two-year old mixed breed (sheltie and beagle) that we got from the humane society in Feb. She is a very sweet dog, and was apparently house-trained by her previous owner. She has been remarkably good about letting us know when she needs to go out, and had had no accidents in the house until the last couple of weeks. In this time, she has urinated on the floor almost every morning before we take her out. Nothing about the routine has changed, except she has decided it is okay to go before we get out of bed. Any suggestions about how to return her to her previous behavior? This is very frustrating. John

A: John- When there is a change in housebreaking behavior it is best to have your vet examine your dog to be sure there is not a medical cause. If none is found, most dogs will respond to retraining using the same techniques used to train puppies. Mike Richards, DVM

Housebroken dog now urinating in house

Q: We have an almost 5-year old male Sheltie, He was neutered at 9 months. For the past 5 months, he has chosen to urinate in the house (on a particular rug area in the dining/living room). He doesn't do this every time nature calls, as he has free access to the backyard (via dog door). These (I call random) occasions, do not seem to be only "excitement" instances. He has urinated once with the door bell ringing and once with the vacuum cleaner running. All other times, to me appear from laziness. I have never caught in the actual act, however my boyfriend (we live together) had once...Cody took a pee stance right in front him, while watching TV in the rumpus room. He doesn't show signs of being ill. Anytime, I find that he has peed, and bring him to the spot, or just call his name (in a regular tone of voice) Cody will show me all the signs that he knows he has been bad. So he knows he's done wrong. Other things to add. His chosen water dish to drink from is the one clipped to his kennel door. His water intake seems to have increased as I can fill it several times a day, and very often from releasing him in the morning (he sleeps in the kennel, with door shut), the dish that had been filled the night before is empty, I'll fill it, and he will drink all or most of it immediately. I've recently started to escort him outside, whether or not I have signs of him wanting to urinate, to try to re-establish the fact that outside is where he should go, and commend him for it. We succeeded once in the last three days, all other times he just looks at me. Some insight on this would be greatly appreciated. I talked to the breeder, and she said not to rule out kidney stones. We have not taken him to his vet. The vet told me he thinks I should try retraining him.

A: I think that you need to alert your vet to the fact that you are seeing an increase in drinking and urinating. This should be sufficient reason for your vet to take this situation a little more seriously. When an older dog who has been well trained in the past begins to urinate in the house it is always a good idea to have a physical exam done to make sure that there is not a physical cause for the problem. When the change in urinary habits is accompanied by an increase in drinking and urinating, a lab work up should be done. Diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus, kidney failure, hyperadrenocorticism, hypothyroidism and several other conditions can lead to an increase in drinking and urinating -- and sometimes this is sufficient to make a previously well housebroken dog urinate in the house. Bladder infections (cystitis) and bladder stones can lead to an increase in the urge to urinate to the point that accidents occur in the house, as well. This is a fairly common cause of dogs that seem to be urinating "spitefully" --- often dogs with these problems will feel the urge to urinate so strongly that they will urinate even with the their owner present in the room. Just as an aside, there is no benefit at all to trying to show a dog what it has done "wrong". Dogs know when you are mad at them. They are like children - you don't have to say much for them to get the message because they study your reactions all day to get a clue as to how to react to you. Therefore, they are going to be nervous or will react with the signs people associate with guilt when they detect your mood. But they aren't able to figure out why you are mad unless you catch them while they are doing something that annoys you and are corrected immediately. Don't waste your time and confuse your dog by attempting to drag him back to the site of an accident and discipline him. He just won't get it. Please take him to your vet. Make sure your vet hears and reacts to the information that there has been an increase in drinking and urination. Pay for the labwork to find out if there is a problem. Even if there isn't - it is a good idea to have a baseline set of lab values for a pet as it ages. Good luck with this. Mike Richards, DVM

Last edited 01/30/05


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...