Whoever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks definitely wasn’t talking about house training Man’s Best Friend, because even senior dogs can be trained to become mild-mannered pets that eliminate outdoors and mind their manners indoors while their owners are away.
Often, when a dog is adopted from a shelter or other rescue, new owners are under the assumption that the dog will be house trained if it is an adult—which in the canine world is over six months of age. Sometimes, this is the case, but more often than not, the adult dog will need to be retrained to a certain extent to ensure that he will not have accidents indoors in his new home. The good news is that adult dogs have the physical capacity to go longer periods of time in between potty breaks—unlike puppies that must be let outside every 30 minutes during those first few months.
If you have an adult dog (or are considering adopting one) that is not housebroken, read on. This article will help guide you in the right direction of how to house train a dog by first helping you rule out any medical problems that may be causing the accidents, along with the most common behavioral problems that cause dogs to eliminate indoors.
Finally, this article will discuss destructive behavior and how to remedy the situation. Remember that even if the potty training “window” during puppy hood is missed, there are many steps you can take to help your adult dog transition into a house trained pup.
Rule out a medical problem
Before you jump straight into disciplining or training your dog if he is having accidents indoors, be sure to visit your vet for a complete physical to make sure the problem isn’t a health issue. This could especially be the case for rescued dogs whose history is unknown, and even more so for puppy mill dogs that likely have hereditary diseases and genetic defects. Your veterinarian will probably ask you several questions to determine if the issue is behavioral or medical in nature. But first, take notice of your dog’s accidents. Does he urinate or defecate inside (or both)?
If your dog is urinating inside, your vet may want to rule out a urinary tract infection (commonly referred to as a UTI). This infection of the bladder is more common in females than males, though any dog can be affected. Your vet will probably run tests on a sample of your pet’s urine, and if it is positive, may prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection up.
Other common medical reasons for pets urinating indoors include kidney disease and diabetes, though older dogs may suffer from incontinence that is simply due to age. If your dog has recently starting urinating indoors and was previously house trained, it is imperative to visit your regular veterinarian to rule out a more severe problem, because urinary incontinence may just be a side effect of a more severe diagnosis. If you’d like to know more, we have a great article you should check out about incontinence in dogs.
If, however, your dog is defecating indoors, first consider his diet. Has his food been changed recently? What about any new medications (or change in dosing of a regular prescription)? Perhaps your dog has simply gotten into the trash or something outdoors that did not agree with his stomach and his GI tract is reacting. A telltale sign will be the waste itself (diarrhea or loose stools).
Your vet may also want to run a test on your dog’s waste, so be sure to bring in sample so you can rule out intestinal parasites like roundworm. Other medical reasons for dogs soiling the floor can include dementia, fecal incontinence (caused by spinal cord injury or tumors), ingesting of a foreign body, or a food allergy. If you believe your dog’s problem is medical in nature, keep an account of his eating and drinking habits to share with your vet.
In the majority of house training accidents, the issue is behavioral in nature. However, don’t call it quits yet! If you can successfully identify the problem, then you are one step closer to knowing how to house train an adult dog. Below are some common behavioral issues that can result in accidents and tips on how to fix the problem:
Problem #1 — Anxiety
Dogs that are anxious are very likely to have accidents indoors. Anxious dogs may also pace, lick, pant, whine, bark excessively, and be destructive. Dogs can have anxiety for many reasons, including separation anxiety, fear of certain noises, and change in general.
In order to help your canine companion overcome his fear that is so severe it is causing him to eliminate indoors, first you need to identify the trigger. With separation anxiety, dogs typically behave fine when they are around their human companions but panic the moment car keys are in hand and you head out the door.
For anxiety regarding change, consider recent variations in your household such as a move, a new addition to your family (animal or human), or perhaps a new job with different working hours. Fear of noise is easily identifiable: does your dog start to shake the moment fireworks go off outside or at the first clap of thunder during a storm?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, and your dog eliminates in the house in response to these stimuli, it is very likely that you have an anxious dog. There are many solutions to help anxious dogs including desensitization training exercises, specialty clothing like Thunder shirts, and even services like doggy massage and acupuncture. In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help your dog overcome his fear.
Problem #2 — Jealousy
If your pup has never had an accident indoors until you brought home a new baby or a new puppy, then you can almost be certain that your dog is green with envy and is acting out to get your attention. If you dog has starting eliminating indoors—particularly on furniture or bedding that has your scent on it—than pet experts agree that Fido is feeling a little threatened.
Dogs are pack animals by nature, and anytime they feel their “place” is in jeopardy they may try and get your attention by behaving in a way that they know will get them attention—whether that attention is good or bad. For this reason, it is important to steer clear or negative reinforcement (yelling at your dog or keeping him in a crate for long periods of time) because this will likely make the problem worse. Instead, reassure your dog that he is still part of the family: make an effort to keep a daily routine and make time for daily walks and special attention.
Problem #3 — Submissive urination
Since dogs are pack animals, canines often display certain behaviors towards other dogs or people that they find intimidating. These gestures can include putting their tail in between their legs, pinning the ears back, and when a dog is trying to convey submission to a more authoritative dog (or human), he may urinate.
This isn’t necessarily a house training issue because dog behavior experts agree that it is an involuntary reaction and can’t really be controlled. This issue is usually resolved with time, but it is imperative to steer clear of punishment; in fact, ignoring the act is the best possible reaction because dogs can even urinate when they feel excited (in response to being petted or having a leash put on for a walk).
The best things owners can do is to remain calm and have a quiet, relaxed attitude around their dog; the goal is for the dog to sense their owner’s calm energy and follow suit.
Problem #4 — Marking
Male dogs (and sometimes female dogs) will lift their leg and urinate on objects to leave their scent behind. On a walk outside and around the fire hydrant, this isn’t a problem, but when Fido starts hiking his leg indoors, the issue needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Since unneutered dogs are twice as likely to mark indoors as dogs that are “fixed,” your first order of business should be to make an appointment at the vet to get your pooch neutered.
If, however, your dog continues to mark furniture even after he is altered, consider purchasing a belly band, which is a sort of doggy diaper that prevents male dogs from marking objects. This fabric addition need not be permanent: place it around his groin area when he is indoors and remove it once outside. Most dogs get the idea in a week or two. Also keep in mind that dogs like to mark new or unfamiliar objects, so be wary when you bring new items (and even new people!) into your home.
Problem #5 — Inclement weather
Some dogs simply do not like to go outside in inclement weather, and the result usually means that your dog doesn’t eliminate before you leave for work. Small dogs especially seem hesitant to go out in extreme cold, but even large dogs may cower at the back door during a rainstorm. If possible, consider adding a covered area in your backyard for your dog to use. A large umbrella may be even do the trick. There are also a variety of pet products online that range from rain jackets to rain boots to dress your pooch for the weather.
Specific of certain breeds
Toy breeds are perhaps the most notorious for “difficult to house train.” There are a number of reasons, one being that owners are often unaware that the dog has eliminated on the carpet: the dog—and therefore the puddle—is so small sometimes it is not even noticed. For this reason, toy breeds can be difficult to train. Another pitfall of toy breeds is the tendency for owners to pick them up and carry them everywhere.
While some dogs (especially puppies) sometimes need to be “taxied” outdoors to the appropriate area so that an accident doesn’t happen on the way out the door, toy dogs that have become accustomed to being carried everywhere never learn to give the prompts to go outside in the first place. Owners of toy breeds must be intentional about letting their dog learn to give cues that he needs to go outside.
Along with toy dogs, there are a few specific breeds that are notorious for being difficult to house train (while others seem to get the hang of it right out of the whelping box). Dogs that have been listed as difficult to house train include scent and sight hounds (that often get distracted by their excellent sense of smell), terriers, Mastiffs, Chow Chows, and any dog that has a stubborn temperament. The general rule is, the more intelligent the dog, the easier he will be to train (in all areas—not just house training).
Dogs that rank in the top 10 on the IQ scale according to the American Kennel Club include:
- Border Collie
- German Shepherd
- Golden Retriever
- Doberman Pinscher
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Labrador Retriever
- Australian Cattle Dog
That’s not to say that dogs that aren’t necessarily “smart” or purebred dogs can’t be house trained. On the contrary, many mixed breed dogs from animal shelters are popular choices for service animals and companion dogs. The most important thing to keep in mind is not the breed of your adult dog, but the fact that dogs that are generally well trained are easier to house train, so work with your dog on basic commands such as “sit,” “stay,” and “heel.” Use positive reinforcement and try watching dog training videos online to learn the most popular and successful methods.
Dogs that have never been potty trained
If your adult dog is adopted and has an unknown history, or has spent his life in an outdoor area, then you may need to start from scratch with potty training. House training an adult dog is very similar to training a puppy, with the extra benefit that adult dogs have larger bladders and are more mature both physically and emotionally.
First, invest in a quality dog crate that is large enough for your dog to lie down in, but not necessarily big enough for him to use one side of it to eliminate in. In the beginning, when you are not actively watching or playing with your dog, keep him in the crate. Take him outside on a leash to the same designated area several times a day and wait patiently for him to do his business. Praise him enthusiastically when he eliminates and perhaps offer a treat. You can use a verbal cue such as “do your business” in a calm voice if you wish.
Once back indoors, monitor you dog at all times to ensure he doesn’t have an accident. Many pet parents will even attach a leash to their dog to ensure that Fido doesn’t wander off to another room and eliminate there. The moment you can no longer keep an eye on him, put him back in the crate. The key is to avoid having your dog eliminate in the house at all, because the smell will serve as a mental prompt for your dog to eliminate there again.
It’s a good idea to have a quality carpet cleaner on hand; be sure to purchase a brand with an enzymatic formula that will discourage your dog from soiling the same area.
Consistency is the best way to house train a dog, whether puppy or adult. So have a regular routine of feedings and trips outside. Also be sure your dog has the opportunity to go outside first thing in the morning, after meals, and right before bed. Once your adult dog has gotten used to eliminating outdoors, you can start to give him more freedom inside. If accidents occur, don’t use negative reinforcement; simply go back a step and allow less freedom or add an extra trip outside throughout the day. If you’d like to learn how to effectively train your dog to eliminate outside, take a look at our article on potty training your puppy.
Teaching your dog to ask to go outside
Many pet parents like the idea that their dog can “ask” to go outside. Since our furry friends don’t have thumbs, opening the door themselves can be quite the problem, so you can train your dog to ring a bell by the door when he needs to eliminate. First, start by training your dog to touch his nose to the bell while you are holding it when you say “touch.”
Reward your dog with a treat when he complies, and after doing this exercise several times a day for many days in a row, you can eventually hang the bells on the door and give the same command of “touch” before you open the door to go outside. Eventually your dog will come to understand that he needs to touch the bell in order for you to open the door. Again, consistency is key, so be sure that your dog rings the bell every time.
Dogs that are destructive
House training involves more than just potty training, of course. It doesn’t really matter if Fido can hold his bladder all day if when you come home he has chewed through the sheetrock and eaten a dozen pairs of shoes. Like potty training accidents, dogs are often destructive due to behavioral problems.
Anxiety and boredom top the charts of reasons experts think that dogs chew furniture, eat shoes, and destroy houseplants.
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to ensure that your dog will mind his manners when he is home alone:
- Purchase a Kong or other puzzle-type toy. Often used in shelters to help dogs with over stimulation, these activity toys keep your dog’s mind occupied and will reward your pup with a treat after he has worked hard for it. We have a great list of other puzzle toys you could invest in in our article on the best interactive dog toys.
- Hire a dog sitter. Dogs are social creatures and can become depressed if left alone for 10 hours a day several days a week. A trustworthy pet sitter can come by your home and take your dog on a walk or simply spend 15-20 minutes giving him attention.
- Think about buying a small camera to install in your home. You can control it with an app on your phone so you can stream your dog’s behaviors online while you’re away. While you won’t actually be able to correct your dog, a camera would offer some insight into your dog’s behavior: does he engage in destructive behaviors the moment your car pulls out of the driveway, or does he wait several hours? If you can narrow down the behavior into separation anxiety or boredom, then you can work on a solution.
- Use a bitter spray. If your dog has a preference for chewing certain objects (like the windowsill), you can use a deterrent like a specially formulated bitter spray. The all-natural ingredients are harmless but foul tasting to your dog.
Experts agree that for many dogs, destructive behavior is a byproduct of pent-up energy.
Dogs need daily walks to thrive, and a fenced in backyard unfortunately doesn’t count. Make it a priority to exercise your dog daily.
What to do when everything else fails?
Some dogs are tough cases and are not easily house trained. Dogs that come from abusive or neglectful homes in particular seem to be challenged with house training more so than dogs from happier backgrounds. However, this should not be deterrent to adopting an adult dog; some puppies prove just as difficult to housebreak. Give an adult dog a second chance at life by giving the above methods several months of committed effort, but then consider enlisting the help of a professional.
There are many professional dog trainers and even animal behaviorists that can help diagnose your dog’s problem and help you figure out a solution together, including hands-on training and step-by-step instructions for desensitization activities.
Above all else, remember that physically disciplining your dog or yelling at him accomplishes nothing except to set your further back in your pursuit. Every dog is unique and his history, temperament, and breed will all play a role in his ability to be house trained. The most important thing to remember is to remain calm, devote the necessary time to train your dog, and always be loving.