This month features an interview with Leslie Larson Cooper, DVM, DACVB, author of the chapter “Housetraining 101: Do It Here, Do It Now” from Decoding Your Dog, a new book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior.
Can you tell us how you decided to become veterinary behaviorist?
As a dairyman’s daughter, I entered veterinary school with the idea that I would be going into a mixed large and small animal practice. During my junior year, I had the opportunity to do a summer clinic session on the behavior service. Since I felt that I knew more about the body language of a cow that was about to kick than that of a dog about to bite, I thought this would ‘bring me up to speed.’ It surprised me when I got hooked on behavior, especially considering the detective work it takes to work through a case. So, while I went into private practice, I didn’t stop seeing behavior cases and trying to learn more about the subject.
What steps should pet owners take to prepare for housetraining before they even bring home their puppy?
- Learn what is happening or has happened already at the breeder. What surface does the puppy associate with elimination: Paper? Pee pads? Grass? What is the current feeding/bathroom schedule? This allows you to set up a smooth transition to your home.
- When you bring the puppy home, what areas are you going to set up for toileting? What will be your food/water/play/toileting schedule? How long will the puppy need to be confined when you are away? These are things better anticipated ahead of time
- Do you have all the equipment you need? This includes a good cleaner for accidents.
What are the key differences in training a puppy or retraining an older dog that people should consider?
With an older dog, it’s more a case of discovering what has gone before than ‘training’ a new habit. Initially, when unsupervised, you might want to confine the dog to places where accidents are easily cleaned up. Pay attention to any patterns you see, and adjust schedules/environments accordingly. With puppies, one of the main concerns is time, as they really can’t go very long between potty breaks. With an older dog, time is not so much of an issue, as they are generally more physically able to ‘hold it’ for longer periods.
You talk about the myth behind punishment. Why do pet owners fail in helping housetrain their dogs when they resort to punishment?
As I mentioned in the book, humans and dogs have different ways of viewing accidents. To us, an accident is a ‘bad behavior’, something we should not do, because we ourselves were trained to use a toilet, and before that were in diapers. If we focus on the accident, we don’t do anything to set up the ‘acceptable’ habit. So the dog is left to try to figure out what we really want them to do or not do, based on very little useful information or instruction. This is not a good set-up for learning.
As the saying goes, accidents happen. How should pet owners handle the situation when they discover Princess just couldn’t wait?
Clean them up calmly, with an effective cleaner. Look at these as ‘information,’ if anything, letting you know how to change things in the future so accidents can be avoided.
You talk about confined spaces, including crates, to help with housetraining. What should pet owners consider in selecting the appropriate space or possibly a crate?
First, there is a real difference in teaching a puppy to enjoy being in a crate and expecting an older dog to tolerate close confinement. Don’t expect all dogs to enjoy this, and adjust accordingly. A pen or gate system is perfectly acceptable, as long as the space is small enough that the puppy sees it as a ‘den’ and doesn’t eliminate there (unless you provide a ‘toilet’ in those situations where this is neededl).
Why is it important to keep a log of your dog’s bathroom habits and how critical is it to establish and stick to a schedule and routine?
Noting things down in a log or spread sheet may feel a bit like overkill, but if you are having problems, this is one of the best ways to identify pattern s, which in turn allows you to modify schedules/environments or look for other causes. If you have a puppy that takes to house training easily, then you may be able to be more flexible when it comes to schedules and log sheets. Certainly in the initial stages of house training for puppies, a more rigid schedule can remind us that the puppy does need to eat and eliminate more frequently than our last, more mature, dog.
What particular aides would you suggest in helping pet owners train their dogs to let them know it’s time for a bathroom break?
First, see what’s already there. What body language or behavior patterns does this dog use when it is about to eliminate? Often one or more of these patterns can be identified, reinforced, paired with a command then reinforced, and so on, until you have a reliable signal. For example, some dogs paw at the door to go out. If you don’t want scratches on your screen, you might redirect this already present signal to a bell or hitting a commercial ‘door bell’ for dogs. Consistent reinforcement (‘I get to go out and pee!’) often settles in to a consistent signal.
You note that other issues may be at work if your dog lapses or simply can’t be housetrained. What medical and behavioral issues may cause a dog to have accidents despite the best housetraining methods?
Anything causing diarrhea or an increased amount of urine production would signal a medical issue and should be investigated. Behavioral issues are more of a mixed bag, including urine marking, separation anxiety, old scent attraction, and submissive or excitement-related urination. I’ve even had a few cases where the dog was scared, and just ‘lost it.’
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Many dogs have been successfully housetrained, in a variety of environments, so there may be many paths to success. If owners are finding things difficult, there is help out there.
The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or Goodnewsforpets.com for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.