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Inappropriate Elimination in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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About 10 to 20 percent of all behavior problems in dogs fall into the category of "inappropriate elimination." This term refers to the unseemly practice of dogs either urinating or defecating (or both) on the floor or furniture inside the owner's house.

Puppies less than nine weeks old are too young to know any better, but for adult dogs there's often no excuse. Some offenders were never properly housebroken in the first place and that's usually the owners fault. Others were housebroken but, for some reason, have suddenly started having accidents inside the house again after years of appropriate behavior.

The first step is to find out why your dog is having accidents inside the home. Dogs do not naturally soil their dens, so why the home? Homes have doors, preventing many dogs from leaving at will to eliminate properly, and homes are much larger than the average den so the dog can soil many feet away from his normal living area. Thus a confined dog that is "caught short" can often find a low-traffic, out-of-the-way place inside to do his business. A problem like this obviously needs attention but before rushing headlong into behavioral treatments for house soiling, find out whether there is a medical reason underlying your dog's behavior and address that first, if necessary.

Medical Causes of House-soiling

Medical conditions that increase thirst and urination, or in which the bladder or gastrointestinal tract are irritated, may contribute to the house-soiling problems in dogs. The list of such problems is lengthy, but a few of the more common conditions include:

  • Bladder infections or stones
  • Diabetes
  • Cushing's disease
  • Cognitive dysfunction in older dogs
  • Gastroenteritis, intestinal parasites, and pancreatic problems.

    It is important to have your veterinarian perform a thorough physical examination to rule out underlying medical conditions as a cause of inappropriate elimination behavior. This is particularly relevant if your dog has had a sudden breakdown of house training.

    Urine and Fecal Marking Behavior

    Dogs, like many other species, use urine and feces as a method of communication – a mark that signals possessions and territoriality. Marking typically involves the deposition of small amounts of urine in strategic locations around the house. Unneutered male dogs are champion urine markers, usually by leg lifting, but some neutered males and even females mark their territory with urine, too.

    Neutering male dogs corrects this problem in about 60 percent of cases, but many dogs persist in marking for months or years after the surgery. Bitches that urine-mark do so for similar reasons: Unneutered bitches may show an increase in the frequency of urine-marking around the time of estrus.

    The behavioral approach to treating territorial urine-marking in neutered males and females involves:

    a) increasing owners' leadership status and

    b) thoroughly cleaning urine-marked sites with an odor neutralizer. If these measure fail to address the problem, treatment with medication may be the only solution.

    Submissive Urination

    Dogs that exhibit this type of behavior typically squat or roll over and urinate as they greet their owners or strangers at the door. The behavior is really a gesture of appeasement.

    The problem is often temporary, occurring mainly during puppyhood and mostly occurring during the first year of the dog's life. Submissive urination occurs most commonly in certain breeds (e.g. cocker spaniels) and is more common in females.

    If you can't wait until your pup has matured beyond the super-submissive stage, avoid making dominant gestures toward her. For example, when you greet your pup, don't look at, talk to or touch her. Give her a wide berth until you are seated, then allow her to approach at her own speed.

    A reverse dominance program can be employed, too, to build your dog's confidence. Do not use any harsh or confrontational training methods. Rather encourage your dog to do what you want using positive reinforcement. Allow her to eat without having to work for the food, pet her without her having to obey a command first, and to have a variety of toys available for her at all times. Finally, you might consider playing games that allow her to think she has won.

    Separation Anxiety

    Does your dog urinate and defecate ONLY when you are away from home? If so, in all likelihood, anxiety is triggering the behavior. Dogs with separation anxiety typically have a dysfunctional history, follow their owners around the home, look distressed when about to be left alone, whine or bark immediately after their owner leaves, fail to eat in their owners' absence, and greet them exuberantly when they return home.

    Psychological problems like submissive urination and separation anxiety should be addressed separately and not treated as a simple house-soiling problem.

    Treatment for House Soiling

    If your dog is confused about the "proper" place to perform his duties, a retraining program is usually all that is required. Success can be achieved in a matter of days, certainly less than one week. It is best to start when you will be around for a while (over a weekend) so that you can give the training your undivided attention.

    First, put the dog on a regular schedule of feeding and exercise, but provide water at all times. The basis of the retraining program is to direct the dog to a selected toilet area outside the house and, at the same time, to prevent inappropriate elimination within the home.

    You can do this by escorting your dog from the house on lead to the chosen bathroom area and keeping him moving (walking up and down) while using certain cue words such as "Hurry up," or "Do your duty." This should take place in one selected area only so that the dog learns, visually and by sense of smell, the significance of the selected area. Provide regular "bathroom" excursions: 1) First thing in the morning 2) around noon 3) late afternoon 4) in the evening 5) after a meals, after playing or when your dog wakes up from a long rest.

    If the operation is a success and your pup eliminates outside as desired, praise him and offer him a treat. And don't take him back inside immediately. Play with him for a few minutes. Spend some quality time with him.

    If a mission is unsuccessful after five minutes or so, bring your dog back into the house and confine him to a specific area, like a crate or gated area, to prevent any in-home accidents. Fifteen minutes later take your dog out again - to the same spot in the yard - and again encourage him to urinate or defecate using the method described above. Repeat this process until it meets with success.

    If the program is working well, and your dog quickly learns that there is a bathroom outside, he should still not be allowed unlimited access to the house until deemed truly trustworthy. Watch him closely at first and if he starts to sniff the ground and circle suspiciously as if about to soil in the house, make a loud noise to distract him and then take him outside to the proper place. Then you can praise him for going in the designated area.

    Under no circumstances should your pet be punished for soiling in the house ... ever.

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