House Train an Older Dog
Dogs naturally want to avoid eliminating waste in their living quarters, but a dog that has not been trained or has incomplete training may have learned bad habits that must be broken. Fortunately, house training an older dog can be achieved fairly quickly if you are patient and persistent with your approach. Try to identify any obvious causes for the dog's elimination problems before you begin, and then create a routine that will help both you and your dog succeed.
Assessing the Situation
- Learn as much as you can about the dog's background. If you have recently adopted or purchased the dog, call the source and find out as much as you can about the dog's previous habits and upbringing. It is helpful to know if the dog was partially house-trained in the past. It is also helpful to know if the dog was confined for long periods of time in a particular environment (exclusively outdoors, on a concrete floor at a shelter, in a kennel, etc.) as this can cause surface preferences that you may need to overcome.
- Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. If your dog was house-trained and has just recently begun urinating or defecating in the house, or if it is a new dog that seems to have some bad habits, it is important to see your vet and rule out any medical problems before attempting a behavioral intervention. Your dog may be suffering from kidney problems, gastrointestinal distress, age-related incontinence, or some other treatable condition.
- Be sure to let the vet know about any dietary or environmental changes your dog has recently experienced, including change of food, schedule, and the addition or removal of people or animals living in the home.
- Your vet can also help you isolate and begin treating any special behavioral problems that might be causing your dog's accidents, including a fear of the outdoors, separation anxiety, etc.
- Consider where and when the dog is eliminating. Figuring out where the dog is doing its business and when can help you isolate problem situations and avoid them in the future. If your dog only pees on linoleum floors, for example, you can begin by restricting access to rooms with linoleum, or temporarily putting rugs or towels down on those surfaces to discourage the behavior while you work on teaching your dog new habits.
- Clean any areas of your home that have been soiled. It is important to thoroughly remove pet waste odors from previous accidents to break the association between indoors and waste elimination. Use an enzymatic cleaner (available at any pet store) that has been specially formulated to destroy pet waste odors. You may also need to use a handheld backlight to look for hidden messes in closets, behind doors, etc.
Going Back to Basics
- Make time to house train your dog. Many experts recommend taking several days off work to establish a consistent routine and house train your dog in one go. Most adult dogs learn more quickly than puppies, and can be successfully house trained in less than seven days.
- Establish an elimination area for your dog. It is important to teach your dog to use a specific location to eliminate waste. The location should be outdoors, not too distant from your home, and if possible, sheltered from wind and rain (for instance, under a specific tree).
- If you live in a high-rise apartment, or have mobility issues that prevent you from taking your dog outside, you may need to train your dog to use papers or a litter box.
- Escort the dog to the desired elimination area when it's time to go. Even if the dog was already partially house trained, and you were accustomed to just letting her out, it is important for the retraining process that you actually take her to the desired location, and make sure that she is using it.
- Establish a routine. Take your dog outside frequently, beginning when the dog first wakes up, and then every two hours at first. When you get to the elimination area, use your preferred command to indicate that you want the dog to eliminate waste: for example "go potty" or "do your business." Immediately after the dog urinates or defecates, give her a treat and tell her "good dog."
- Do not wait until you get inside to offer the treat, or you will fail to create the proper connection between using the desired behavior and the reward.
- Most healthy adult dogs only really need to go a few hours per day, but you want to take your dog out frequently at first to find out when those times are and avoid accidents.
- Once you figure out your dog's routine, you can schedule outings specifically around those times.
- Put your dog on a consistent feeding schedule. The more regularly your dog is fed, the more regularly she will poop. Feed your dog the amount and type of food recommended for her age and weight at regular intervals throughout the day. Most experts recommend feeding adult dogs twice per day. Consult with your vet for specific recommendations for your dog.
- Consider putting away your dog's water dish before bedtime. If your dog is peeing indoors at night, the problem might be too much water before bedtime. Check with your veterinarian to see if putting the water dish away a few hours before bedtime will be helpful. Always check with your vet before withholding water. Older dogs with subclinical kidney disease (in the very early stages) can deteriorate rapidly if water is withheld. Your vet may request a urine sample, to help determine if you dog is in this risk category.
- Don't restrict your dog's water intake if it is hot, or if your dog gets a lot of exercise.
- Pay close attention to signs that your dog needs to go. Not all dogs give obvious clues when they need to eliminate waste. Pay attention to behaviors like whining, pacing, sniffing, circling, or leaving the room to hide. If you see these behaviors, quickly take your dog outside to the elimination area.
- Stay positive, and don't punish your dog if you catch her eliminating in the house. If you catch your dog midstream, simply clap your hands loudly to startle her. Then quickly carry or escort her outside to where you do want her to go to the bathroom, and encourage her to complete her business. Then reward her when she does so successfully.
- Punishing your dog for accidents is an ineffective approach to house training, and could cause the dog anxiety and make the situation worse instead of better.
- Consider crate training or confining your dog when you cannot supervise her. If your dog is having accidents when you are not around, the best approach might be to crate train her or confine her to a small room when you must be away. Dogs do not like to soil their living quarters, and are less likely to make a mess in the house if they can't get to a preferred spot to do so.
- Maintain the formal routine for at least two weeks. You may be able to reduce the frequency of your trips outside, but the ritual of escorting your dog to the elimination site, instructing her to go, and rewarding her when she does so successfully, should be continued for at least two weeks to cement the behavior. Eventually your dog will learn to use the desired location naturally, but the longer you continue the training process, the more likely it is to stick.
- The dog's feeding and exercise schedule should remain regular all the time.
Going Beyond the Basics
- Recognize when more intervention is needed. Sometimes a dog has behavioral problems beyond a lack of training. If a week of consistent elimination training fails to help you and your dog, it is time to consider other solutions.
- Understand that older dogs often need to eliminate more often. Older dogs often just can't hold their waste as long, regardless of how well they are trained, and you may need to make accommodations to help your dog avoid accidents. Let your dog out more often when you're home, and pay attention to cues that she needs to go. In addition, consider the following options:
- If you have a secure yard, think about installing a doggie door so your dog can let herself out.
- Hire a dog walker, or make arrangements with a trusted neighbor to come over and give your dog mid-day relief breaks.
- Provide piddle pads in a set location for your dog to use if she cannot wait until you get home.
- Consult with a pet behavior specialist. If you are having trouble identifying why your dog is still eliminating in the house, a consultation with a pet behavior specialist can be extremely helpful for diagnosing and treating the problem. Ask your vet or other dog-owners in your area for a recommendation.
- Ask your vet about anxiety medication. If you suspect that your dog is eliminating in the house due to anxiety or unpreventable stress, ask your vet if anxiety medication might be right for your dog. Medication, when used in conjunction with behavioral therapy and modifications to the dog's environment, will often help
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