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How to housebreak a grown-up dog
Dear Dr. Spiegel, I have a yellow "field Lab" 2 years old who has been kept outside in a pen, but never hunted. I have 3 children, the youngest soon to be 3 years old. Now, we would like the dog to come into the house, but when we let her in she has peed on the carpets; once in my daughter's bedroom and living room and once in the computer room with me right in her presence. We have plenty of bare floors. Why does she always go on the carpet, and "HOW" can we train her so she can be in the house with us this winter. Thanks. P.K. Landenberg, PA
Dear P.K., First, you ought to have your veterinarian check her out and do a urinalysis to rule out any possible underlying medical problems, such as a urinary tract infection. You can often distinguish whether the problem is medical or behavioral by the volume of urine produced and the frequency of urination. Typically medical problems will present with an increased frequency of urination; and urinary tract infections, specifically, usually present with smaller volumes of urine produced very frequently. From what you have described however, it is very likely that this is a behavioral problem, and more specifically a "substrate preference" for eliminating on carpeting. It may also be coincidence that these accidents have just happened on carpets. To determine the exact cause, I'd need to know what the surface material of her pen was (e.g., concrete vs. grass), and whether she was in the habit of eliminating within the confines of her pen. Having been penned up outside for 2 years, she has probably also learned that she can go to the bathroom wherever she may be whenever the need arises. It is also possible that she is so tickled and excited to be inside with the family that she forgets she has to go and then when it hits her, she has to go so badly that it just comes right out. Remember too, that she has never learned or had the opportunity to learn how to let you know that she has to go out. She needs to learn that a different set of rules apply to life indoors versus outdoors. So how do you do this? The goal here is very much like house training a puppy. We want her to learn that eliminating on grass is desirable and that eliminating in the house is ... you guessed it!... undesirable. Start taking her for regular walks, 2-3 per day. Dogs will typically eliminate multiple times on a walk and fully empty their bladder and colon, thus eliminating the ammunition with which she can potentially soil your carpets. As soon as she starts to eliminate on a walk, praise her quietly and softly, and then much more exuberantly when she has finished. Occasionally play with her or give her a food reward when she has finished, in addition to the praise. If she hasn't been walked much before, she may be very excited to be out walking and forget about the function of eliminating, but when you do this regularly, that will change. When she is in the house with you, you have to be able to watch her. If you cannot watch her (preparing meals, tending to the children, going to the bathroom, etc.), put her out in her pen. When she is in, periodically ask her "Do you have to go out?", and then let her out. If she goes, great! Reward her, and then let her in when she's all finished. If not, then just let her in, no rewards. She will soon learn what your phrase means and that eliminating outdoors brings great pleasure to everyone. If you have her sit at the door before you let her out or have a bell on the door that you can teach her to paw before you let her out, then she will soon learn ways of letting you know that she has to go out (e.g., by going to the door and sitting there, or by ringing the bell). While she is in and you are watching her, if she starts to squat to eliminate, or if there are things she does which let you know she is about to eliminate (like circling, sniffing, or scratching at the carpeting), in a LOUD, SHARP, Lo-Pitched Voice, Shout, "Hey!" or "No!". You want it to be as if a bomb just burst. The idea is to startle the dog and scare her as she is about to or just beginning to engage in this unwanted act. Then ask her if she wants to go out, if she follows you to the door and finishes eliminating outside... great! Praise her without other rewards at this time, and then let her in. It's important also to recognize when she is likely to have to eliminate. If she has certain times when you know she usually goes, take her out at these times. Otherwise, take her out, whenever she wakes up from naps, after she has been playing for a while, 30-45 minutes after eating, and every 2-3 hours through the day. You may also need to crate her initially at night. After about 2 weeks of no accidents, you can start gradually giving her more freedom and relaxing your watchful eye.