Inappropriate elimination by dogs is an extremely common problem and a tough one to live with if not resolved. All too many dogs are surrendered to shelters because of this usually treatable condition. Here are a few pointers to help owners navigate the stormy seas of house soiling.
There are three reasons why dogs eliminate inappropriately in the home:
- Medical reasons
- House training issues
Medical problems – must always be ruled out first. There are so many possible medical causes of elimination, it is hard to address them in limited space but here are a few of the more common ones:
1. Urinary tract infections – diagnosed by simple urine tests
2. Kidney disease – causing increased urine output and thirst (polydipsia/polyuria [PUPD]) – diagnosed by blood and urine tests
3. Diabetes – either sugar diabetes or diabetes insipidus – again causing PUPD – diagnosed but blood and urine tests
4. Cushing’s disease – leading to PUPD – diagnosed by blood tests
5. Congenital problems – “plumbing issues” – diagnosed by clinical signs and imaging (specialized x-ray techniques)
6. Hormonal deficiency in females – so-called “post spay” incontinence – dog leaks urine while resting or sleeping
7. Canine cognitive dysfunction (canine Alzheimer’s disease) – always in an older formerly house trained dog by ruling out other medical causes and clinical signs of disorientation, altered social interactions and sleep disturbances in addition to house soiling.
8. Diarrhea – caused by gastroenteritis or other intestinal issue – assessed by fecal analysis and/or endoscopy
House Training Issues
Once medical causes are ruled out, the next step is to consider whether the problem represents a failure/breakdown of house training or a “urine marking” problem. The distinction between these two is not always obvious but in general house training issues involve urination or defecation on flat surfaces – like rugs – and urine marking involves the deposition of urine in strategic locations – like vertical surfaces and most often performed by males.
To address house soiling, it is important to engage three measures simultaneously – those are 1. Teaching the dog where to eliminate (outside) 2. Preventing elimination in the home and 3. Proper clean-up
- Teaching the right way – dogs with this problem cannot simply be turned out in the yard and be expected to know what to do. Some get it right – but others don’t understand that outdoors is the exclusive location for elimination. These dogs will go out to romp around in the yard and then return to eliminate indoors. They’re like babies who have never been “potty trained.” To resolve this issue here’s what must be done:
- Take the dog out on leash several times a day to selected locations and encourage elimination by keeping the dog focused on the task at hand and saying a phrase like “hurry up.” Times to go outside should include first thing in the morning, 20-30 minutes after eating his “breakfast,” mid-morning, lunchtime, afternoon, early evening, and last thing at night. Timing one or more of these outdoor trips to coincide with the dog switching from one activity to another (e.g. from snoozing to awake, from chewing to stopping chewing, from playing to “game over”) is helpful as these are key times for the call of nature to sound.
- If the trip outdoors is successful, the dog should be lavishly praised and rewarded with a delicious food treat for a job well done. Rewarding him once he’s back in the house is too late. Following a successful outdoor excursion, the dog should be allowed limited freedom inside the house, preferably within eyesight. Owners may have to gate off problem areas like a dining room and may want to gate off the upstairs, if they have one. If the dog is seen to be circling and sniffing, he should immediately be taken out again as these are warning signs that he is thinking about eliminating. If you are too late and “catch him in the act” – do not punish him or he will think you psychotic and will never “go” in front of you again, which is what you need him to do when you take him outside. To arrest a hearty stream of urine or a defecation attempt, a loud noise can be made by banging a pot or thumping a surface. This is not a punishment but merely a distractor – a noise to shut down sphincters – following which you walk up to him smiling, put him on leash, and take him outside to finish up.
- Preventing “Accidents”
If the trip outside is unproductive, the dog should be kept in a smallish area for 15 minutes before taking him outside again. A crate could be used for a dog that is not “crate phobic (crate training), the dog could be confined behind a kiddy gate in a recess off the kitchen, or even tied to your belt (“umbilical cord training”). The idea is that, by nature, dogs tend not to “go” where they stand: They have a natural aversion for standing in their own waste and consequently will “hold it” until an opportunity presents itself. The outside on leash/confined to crate/outside cycle may have to be repeated a few times before the dog finally avails himself of the only opportunity that you provide him with – and that is outside.
- Proper Clean-up
Dogs’ sense of smell is so acute that is imperative to remove all traces of lingering odors, not just to the satisfaction of the owner but to the detection of the dog. Trace odors can attract a dog back to the same spot like a heat-seeking missile to a source of heat. There are 3 basic type of clean-up products: enzymatic (e.g. Natures Miracle), bacterial (Anti-icky Poo, A.I.P.) and chemical (Zero Odor). Because the first two take a while to work as the enzymes or bacteria do their work, and because they effectiveness is exponential (progressively approaching but never reaching completion), I by far prefer the chemical approach provided by Zero Odor. Its effects are immediate and complete. To make sure all previous soiled areas are treated, a black light can be used for detection. It makes urine stains fluoresce in the dark so that all can be caught and treated. Treating soiled areas should be continued on an ongoing basis until the program above has fully kicked in. This could take anything from a week to a month, depending on how intently the program is instituted.
- Urine Marking
This thorny issue is primarily the province of the unneutered dog, especially unneutered males. Neutering will abolish the problem in about two thirds of dogs, but not all. Neutered males – and rarely neutered females – can urine-mark, too. The cause is usually stress and marking is the dog’s territorial response to it. For example, the arrival of a new bay in the home – if not properly handled – can rudely displace a dog from its pedestal of magnanimous approbation. The result, urine marking coincident with the baby’s arrival. The same can happen if a dog perceives a territorial challenge from another dog or if a neighborhood bitch comes into heat. Treatment is to address the underlying cause of the anxiety but that is not always easy to do. In some cases medication is necessary to put out the fire of continued urine marking but this necessarily must only be done under the guidance of a veterinarian. The bottom line is that no dog should be lose its home because of this condition or any other inappropriate elimination issue as all are eminently treatable.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.