One thing that can be very hard to know for a dog with no past is whether or not they are house-trained. When we foster or adopt a dog in France, there are some indicators of whether or not you might expect a dog to be house-trained, but they are by no means a failsafe. House-training is definitely a cultural issue, and many dogs other than hunt breeds live outside in France. It’s not uncommon to find large breeds like St Bernards or Pyrenees mountain dogs who’ve lived in a yard and never been inside. Neither is it uncommon for working breeds like collies or mainland European shepherds like beauceron or malinois. That said, not every trim and tidy toy poodle has mastered the art of outdoor toileting and you may also find some pedigree dogs who’ve been used in breeding have been kept in outside kennels too. Toilet issues can come with any new arrival.
There is, however, a simple thing that may help. An unusual but fairly reliable test is whether or not the dog can play with a ball or toy. Dogs who have been taught about toys are often dogs who’ve been a ‘family’ dog and they’re often more reliably house-trained than others. A dog who knows what fridges have in them is almost certain to have lived in a home.
The very best way to create good house-training routines for foster dogs or new adoptions is to create the right circumstances to begin with. Dogs are usually habitual about their toileting and will go where they reliably go. This makes it a lot easier if you have other dogs, as they’ve left lots of clues as to where to go and where not to. If you have other dogs, it’s worthwhile leaving the outdoor cleaning up for three or four days to leave plenty of clues for your new arrival. Spend 30 minutes outside with a long lead (5 or 10m) on your dog and let them over-mark where your own dogs have already gone. Be mindful that some dogs prefer an unmarked spot though, and give them plenty of other opportunities to empty bladders properly. However, don’t be too meticulous with cleaning up for the first few days: nothing says “this is not a toilet” like a human immediately cleaning up after you.
Keeping your new dog on a long lead inside as you do a tour can also help. Spending another 30 minutes wandering around investigating will not only allow your new dog to smell that toileting is not done inside, but also if you start to see a squat or a tail go up or a cocked leg, you can move the dog towards the door. Bum down, tail up is a sure sign they’re thinking about it, especially if they’ve spent a little time investigating the smell in one spot. Look for that very interested floor sniffing at a slow pace, then any circling or beginnings of a squat and usher the dog outside.
If you have fostered or adopted any hounds, gundogs or working dogs, you may want to work on the assumption that they are probably not house-trained. Once an indoor spot is marked, it’s the beginnings of a very hard habit to break. Even with special enzyme soaps and sprays, it can be difficult to eradicate the scent, and scent is the number 1 clue for a dog to go where they’ve always gone. This is why one of my dogs always chooses to go when we get to the neighbour’s lawn-edge. She is such a creature of habit that 9 times out of 10 she will go right there, much to my embarrassment and pooper-scooping.
The second clue for a dog is substrate. Dogs quickly build up preferences for the kind of surfaces they like to go on from an early age and then go on surfaces they’ve always gone on. Another of my dogs always chooses to go on grass: he will never go on stones, concrete or tarmac. One thing to factor in is that when working out ‘new’ things to pee on or new places to go, looking for a surface that holds a smell is a big TOILET sign for a dog. Rugs and carpets are likely to get the attention of females or males who squat, and vertical fabric surfaces like sofas and curtains will often get the attention of females or males who cock a leg. Indoor soil areas and plants might be targeted by dogs who have a preference for peeing on natural substrate and who’ve never lived in a house with house-plants before. Don’t assume, by the way, that if you lift the rugs, your new female foster won’t pee vertically – there are a good number who do.
Understanding that peeing and pooping is not random for dogs is the key to helping them know where to go to the toilet. Marking territory and leaving pee-mail for other animals (including us) is a vital part of a dog’s behavioural repertoire so pay attention around areas with lots of fabric or porous surfaces and watch for any tell-tale pee or poop signs.
If you’ve spent plenty of time outside before coming in, you can also reward your new dog for going to the toilet outside, so that they start to associate outside peeing with good things happening. Be mindful though that you can create a monster: dogs who always want to go outside for a tiny pee and don’t void their bladders, or dogs who hold on because they know that peeing means the end of their outside fun time.
It goes without saying that you should never punish a dog for not knowing the rules. Imagine if we fined every single French person who peed in the street? Prior learning has a lot to do with what we think the rules are. Who knew that in Japan, you never wear your house slippers to go to the toilet and you should put special bathroom slippers on? If our poor cultural habits were punished, we’d end up confused and uncertain, anxious and uncomfortable. Reward what you want more of and ignore the other things. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard for poor toilet training when there are accidents is to take a rolled-up newspaper and give yourself three sharp smacks over the head with it, reminding yourself to be a more considerate host next time. Show the dog where you want them to go – I’m not suggesting that you pee there yourself! – but use other animals to help as good role models – and reward them when they do the right thing rather than punishing them when they don’t. You only have to reward a limited number of places – on a walk, in the garden – but you’d have to punish an infinite number of poor choices. That makes it a lot easier for dogs to pick up good habits. Also, punishments just lead dogs to go to the toilet when you’re not around so that they escape the punishment at that time. It’s much harder to deal with poor toilet-training if the dog is choosing to learn bad habits when you’re not around.
If you suspect that you’ve fostered or adopted a dog who has never lived inside at all, it’s worthwhile keeping them on a double-ended lead with one bit attached to you and one attached to the dog’s collar. This may be a pain but you needn’t do it more than 48 hours or so. You can choose vigilance, just as you would with a puppy, but it’s invariably the moments when the dog is unsupervised when they choose to go. I had a little terrier here in foster a few years ago, and she chose the moment I dashed out to the toilet myself. Another little Yorkie had undiagnosed prostate issues and he would mark surfaces all the time if he was free, so he was either in a playpen, on the lead attached to me or outside.
There are physical and emotional problems that can also make it seem as if your new dog is not house-trained when it’s something different altogether. Any number of veterinary issues from epilepsy and cystitis to vestibular disease and degenerative myelopathy can cause a dog to lose control. If you don’t see them happen, you may only be left with the physical evidence. If you also notice your foster pup or new adoption drinking more than normal, that can also give you an indication. However, ‘normal’ is very hard to judge with a new dog, and stress affects how much dogs drink too. Many older dogs may ‘dribble’ in their sleep (and sometimes it’s more like a river than a trickle!) This is more common with females, especially those who’ve been sterilised. If you’ve got a dog who has some house-training and you know well, any changes at all are worth speaking to a vet. Old age may cause certain problems as well, and when medications don’t help if you’re past the point of no return, dog nappies save you washing everything they’ve sat on.
When you’ve ruled out medical issues, if your dog is just showing poor house-training when you are not there, it is worth setting up a video and filming what goes on. Most laptops have a camera and will record for a couple of hours. What you are looking for are signs of anxiety or boredom. Many dogs who suffer from separation anxiety will urinate or defecate when their owner is absent. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system which tells the body to void the bladder and bowels and prepare to run. Although your dog isn’t in the wild being chased down by lions, separation-related issues are common in dogs and the physiological response is the same when faced with uncertain absence compared to running away from a lion: your body doesn’t care what caused the stress.
Stress also affects our new arrivals even if we think we are doing them a huge favour and taking them out of a stressful kennel. Chronic stress, like that associated with a change of environment, loss of an owner or a period in kennels, can also put dogs on a hair-trigger. Chronic stress often leads to stress eating and stress drinking (what, you thought your glass of wine and family pack of crisps after a saga of a day was only a human thing?!) and this means needing the toilet more. Changes to routine and diet can also have an effect on toilet habits, so it’s not unusual for a dog to have an accident or two the first night. If you are faced with a dog who is peeing on greeting guests or family members, do all greetings outside and save the fussing and petting.
Another thing that affects toilet training is prior history. A dog who has been punished in the past for going in the house may think all humans will punish them for going in the house. One of my old boys was so upset when he had an accident when he was on corticosteroids that it was clear to see that he’d learned peeing in the house was a terrifying experience. This can lead to dogs seeking out quiet, dark corners to go when you aren’t looking though. And on the flip side, a dog who hasn’t been in other homes may well assume that toilet training is just for that one, specific place where he wasn’t to go to the toilet. Finally, a dog who has a preference for a time and a substrate may have no way of saying that his old owner took him out on a lead at 7.30am and he is used to going on tarmac. No wonder going in the garden at 6.45am means nothing to him! Watch your new dog’s behaviour and look for agitation or restlessness: it’s often a sign that the time is significant to them and something happened then, like eating or walking or toileting.
If you’re faced with an untrained adult with persistent non-medical, non-psychological bad habits, going back to an umbilical lead, going back to basics just as you would with a puppy is the best way forward. Always supervise your dog actively: eagle eyes are a minimum, an umbilical lead is a Godsend and crates for short periods can help. The moment they wake up take them out. Take them out before they eat, and after they eat. Take them out if they’ve been playing for 30 minutes. Take them out before bed. And yes, set your alarm clock and take them out in the middle of the night for a couple of weeks. If you’ve got a dog who is sleeping in the kitchen and going sometime in the night, a motion-sensitive baby monitor tied into video software can pinpoint when their bowels and bladder are saying it’s time to go. Knowing they’re on a 3am timetable can help you with setting your alarm clock for 2.30am.
And as the owner of a spaniel who had some very dirty habits, teaching your dog to tell you they want the door opened is a great tool. It may be annoying to have to get up every time my cocker spaniel scrapes at the door, but it saves puddles and tempers.
Hopefully these insights will give you some idea about why dogs have problems with house-training, as well as some solutions to tackle it.