Pet Care

House Training Your Adult Dog

Hound mix looks up at person wearing green sweatshirt

Some adolescent or adult dogs (over six months of age) urinate or defecate inside the house. House soiling can occur in any location of a home, but sometimes pet parents will notice that their dog soils more in certain locations. The location can indicate the cause. For instance, soiling might occur only in infrequently used rooms or on a specific kind of surface, or only on furniture and areas that smell strongly of a person or other animal, such as beds and sofas. Soiling might also occur only under certain conditions and, like location, these conditions can help indicate the problem. Some dogs might urinate only during greetings, petting, play or reprimands, and some dogs house soil only when they’re alone and their pet parents can’t observe them, or only when they haven’t had frequent enough opportunities to relieve themselves outside. A dog might house soil if she’s previously learned to eliminate on papers or in a litter box and her pet parent removes the papers or box.

Note: If your dog soils indoors or at inappropriate times, it’s important to visit her veterinarian to rule out medical causes before doing anything else.

Rule Out Medical Problems First

If your dog soils indoors or at inappropriate times, it’s important to visit her veterinarian to rule out medical causes before doing anything else. Some common medical reasons for inappropriate urination and defecation follow.

Gastrointestinal Upset

If your dog was house trained but now defecates loose stools or diarrhea in your house, she may have gastrointestinal upset.

Change in Diet

If you’ve recently changed the amount or type of food you give your dog, she may develop a house-soiling problem. Often, after a diet change, a dog will defecate loose stools or diarrhea. She might also need to eliminate more frequently or on a different schedule than before the change.

Incontinence Caused by Medical Problems

Some dogs’ house soiling is caused by incontinence, a medical condition in which a dog “leaks” or voids her bladder. Dogs with incontinence problems often seem unaware that they’ve soiled. Sometimes they void urine while asleep. A number of medical issues—including a urinary tract infection (UTI), a weak sphincter, hormone-related problems after spay surgery, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, neurological problems and abnormalities of the genitalia—can cause urinary incontinence. Before attempting to resolve your dog’s house-soiling problems through training, please see your dog’s veterinarian to rule out medical issues.

Medications

There are a number of medications that can cause frequent urination and house soiling. If your dog takes any medications, please contact his veterinarian to find out whether or not they might contribute to her house-soiling problems.

Age-Related Incontinence/Cognitive Dysfunction

Some older dogs (usually at least nine years of age) who were once reliably housetrained start house soiling as they age because of arthritic conditions, weakness, loss of physical control, impaired cerebral function or loss of voluntary bladder control. These dogs might leak small amounts of urine or completely void the contents of their bladders.

Behavioral Reasons for House Soiling

Lack of House Training

If a dog has always soiled in the home, has lived outside or in a kennel, or has an unknown history, it’s likely that she simply has never been house trained.

Incomplete House Training

Many dogs have been incompletely house trained. An incompletely house trained dog might occasionally soil in house, soil if she’s not given frequent enough opportunities to eliminate outside, soil only when left alone in the home for long periods, soil first thing in the morning or during the night, or soil if there’s a change in her family’s daily routine that alters her access to the outdoors. Some incompletely house trained dogs soil anywhere in the home while others soil only in infrequently used rooms. Many sneak out of their pet parents’ sight to soil in other rooms. Sometimes an incompletely house trained dog simply doesn’t know how to communicate to her pet parents that she needs to go outside.

Breakdown in House Training

Some dogs appear to be house trained, but after a time they start to occasionally soil inside.

A Surface Preference

If a dog only soils inside on a specific surface, such as carpeting, cement or newspaper, she may have developed a surface preference for elimination. This sometimes happens when a dog is housed for a period of time in a place where she’s forced to eliminate on a particular surface, such as paper laid down in a pen, a blanket in a crate, the concrete floor of a shelter run or the bottom of a hospital cage.

Anxiety

A dog might be reliably housetrained until a major change happens in her household, such as the addition of a disliked individual or the permanent departure of a favored family member. Dogs who soil because of anxiety tend to eliminate on furniture, beds or sofas—areas that smell strongly of particular people or other animals. Sometimes a dog will become the target of another household animal’s aggression, which might cause anxiety and limit the dog’s access to places to eliminate.

Anxiety-induced house soiling may be impossible to distinguish from anxiety-induced urine marking unless an anxious dog defecates as well as urinates in the home.

Fear of Going Outside

Some dogs are afraid to go outside, so they eliminate indoors. These dogs might only defecate inside, since defecation requires a more vulnerable position than urination.

Dislike of Cold or Rainy Conditions

Some dogs hate to go outside when it’s cold, snowing or raining, so they soil indoors when the weather is bad.

Urine Marking

Some dogs urinate in the house because they’re scent marking. Dogs scent mark for a variety of reasons, including to claim territory, to identify themselves to other dogs and let them know they’ve been there, and in response to frustration, stress or an anxiety-provoking situation. A dog scent marks by urinating small amounts on vertical surfaces. Most male dogs and some female dogs who scent mark raise a leg to urinate. If you suspect that your dog is urine marking, please see our article, Urine Marking in Dogs.

Separation Anxiety

If your dog only soils when left alone in your home, even for short periods of time, she may have separation anxiety. If this is the case, you may notice that she appears nervous or upset right before you leave her by herself or after you’ve left (if you can observe her while she’s alone). For more information, please see our article, Separation Anxiety.

Submissive/Excitement Urination

Your dog may have a submissive or excitement urination problem if she only urinates during greetings, play, physical contact, scolding or punishment. If this is the case, you may notice her displaying submissive postures during interactions. She may cringe or cower, roll over on her belly, duck her head, avert her eyes, flatten her ears or all of the above. For more information, please see our article, Submissive Urination.

What to Do About the Problem

Treatment for Lack of House Training, Incomplete House Training or a Breakdown in House Training

If given a choice, dogs prefer to eliminate away from areas where they eat, sleep and play. You can accomplish house training by rewarding your dog for going where you want her to go (the yard, for example) and by preventing her from going in unacceptable places (inside the house). Crating and confinement should be kept to a minimum, but some amount is usually necessary to help your dog to learn to “hold it.”

House training takes time and effort in the short-term but gives you the long-term benefit of a dog who can be a part of your family. Realize that adult dogs adopted from shelters, rescues and kennels are often not house trained. If your dog came from one of these settings, she might need refresher training, or she might need to start from square one. No matter what your dog’s history, it’s best to adopt as many of the following recommendations as you can, as soon as you can. The longer your dog is allowed to soil in her living area (your home), the harder it will be to teach her to eliminate outside.

Useful Tips

  • Keep your dog on a consistent daily feeding schedule and remove food between meals.
  • Take your dog outside on a consistent and frequent schedule. All dogs should have the opportunity to go out first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and before being confined or left alone. Fully house-trained adult dogs should have the chance to eliminate outside at least four times a day.
  • Know where your dog is at all times. Watch for early signs that she needs to eliminate so that you can anticipate and prevent accidents from happening. These signs might include pacing, whining, circling, sniffing or leaving the room. If you see any of these, take your dog outside as quickly as possible. Not all dogs learn to let their caretakers know that they need to go outside by barking or scratching at the door. Some will just pace a bit and then eliminate inside. If letting you know that she needs to go out seems to be a challenge for your dog, consider installing a dog door. You can also try to teach your dog to ask to go out. For more information, please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Ask to Go Out.
  • If you can’t watch your dog, you must confine her to a crate, put her in a small room with the door or a baby gate closed, or tie her to you with a leash that’s approximately six feet long. (For help with crate training, please see our article, Weekend Crate Training.) If you confine your dog in a crate or small room, the area needs to be just large enough for her to lie down comfortably. Dogs don’t like to soil where they sleep and rest. If the area is too large, your dog might learn to soil in one corner and rest elsewhere. Gradually, over days or weeks, give your dog more freedom. Right after she eliminates outside, give her some free time in the house (about 15 to 20 minutes to start). If all goes well, gradually increase the amount of time your dog spends out of her confinement area.
  • Accompany your dog outside and reward her whenever she eliminates outdoors with praise and treats, play or a walk. It’s best to take your dog to the same place each time you let her outside because the smell can prompt her to eliminate where she’s eliminated before. Keep in mind that some dogs tend to eliminate right when they go outside, but others need to move around and explore for a bit first.
  • If you catch your dog in the act of urinating inside the house, clap loudly, just enough to startle but not scare your dog. (Avoid yelling or punishing your dog. It’s not necessary, and if you do, she might decide that eliminating in your presence is a bad idea and start to sneak away from you to urinate in other rooms.) If startled, your dog should stop in mid-stream. Immediately and quickly lead or carry her outside. If you take your dog by the collar to run her outside, do so gently and encourage her to come with you the whole way. Allow your dog to finish eliminating outside, and then reward her with happy praise and a treat or two. If you don’t catch your dog in the act but find an accident afterward, do nothing to her. She can’t connect any kind of punishment with something she did hours or even minutes ago. If your dog seems upset or scared by your clapping, just clap a little softer the next time you catch her in the act.
  • Clean accidents with an enzymatic cleanser designed for cleaning pet urine. You can find one at most major pet stores and some grocery stores. This will minimize odors that might attract your dog back to the same spots to eliminate again.
  • If you’re unable to get your dog outside quickly enough, possibly because of mobility problems (yours or your dog’s), or if you live in a high-rise apartment, consider training your dog to eliminate on paper or in a dog litter box.

Paper Training

Paper training your dog is not recommended unless there is a specific reason to do so. For instance, you might want to paper train your dog if you live in a high-rise apartment and your dog can’t “hold it” until you get her outside, or if you have an untrained dog and you have mobility problems, or if you have a dog who refuses to eliminate outside. If you do choose to paper train your puppy or dog, keep in mind that paper training leads to a period of confusion should you attempt to switch to outdoors. A paper-trained dog learns that it’s acceptable to relieve herself in the home, and she might develop a preference for eliminating on a specific surface, such as newspaper, house-training pads or adult diapers. So if you ever plan on having your dog eliminate outdoors, it’s best to teach her to do that from day one.

Training a puppy or dog to use a papered area in your home is accomplished in much the same way as training her to go outside. Confine your puppy or dog for a period of time, and then take her on a leash to the paper or pads. Wait until she goes. Praise and reward her with treats for going in the right place. At the same time, treat accidents anywhere but on the paper just as you would if you were training your dog to eliminate outside. Clap to startle your dog if you catch her in the act, carry her or take her by the collar to lead her, and run to the paper so that she can finish in the appropriate place. Restrict your dog’s access to a small area of your home so that you can always monitor her whereabouts. Her tendency to return to the papered area will increase if you gradually increase her access to new areas of your house. Until your dog is house trained, if you are unable to keep an eye on her, confine her to a crate or a small area where she will not eliminate.

Some dogs are a bit careless about keeping within the boundaries of the paper. Make sure papers are replaced frequently so that your dog is not forced to move off the paper to avoid getting her feet soiled. You can help your dog understand where you want her to eliminate if you can somehow outline the space visually. Low garden fencing can be set up to surround the potty area with an opening for your dog to move through. Another option is to provide your dog with a commercially available indoor bathroom, such as the Patio Park (www.patiopark.com). This product holds a two-by-four-foot section of grass, which is kept alive by a self-irrigation system. A white picket fence surrounds the grass, with a yellow fire hydrant in front. The sod needs to be sprayed regularly with odor neutralizer and replaced monthly. A less attractive but highly effective alternative is to place a plastic tarp on your balcony and cover the tarp with grass sod. (In order to try this option, you must have an enclosed, secure balcony to ensure the safety of your dog.) The benefit of using sod inside is that your dog will develop a preference for eliminating on grass, so she should be equally comfortable going outdoors.

Treatment for House Soiling Due to a Surface Preference

A dog will usually prefer to eliminate on whatever surface she used as a six- to ten-week-old puppy. For most dogs, this will be normal outdoor terrain, such as grass or dirt. City dogs might be equally or more comfortable going on pavement. Dogs who grew up in less typical environments, like laboratories, kennels and shelters with indoor runs, might be highly resistant to eliminating on grass or dirt.

In addition to following the instructions for house training, you can combine your dog’s preferred elimination surface with your desired surface. For instance, if your dog prefers to eliminate on concrete and you want her to go on grass instead, place a temporary slab of concrete in the area where you want to teach her to go. After a day or two, scatter a thin covering of grass clippings on the concrete. Make sure she will still go on the concrete. (If she won’t, you might need to use less grass at first.) Over the course of several days, gradually increase the amount of grass covering the concrete. Once the concrete is well covered and your dog is still eliminating on it, remove the concrete slab. You can take this general approach with a variety of surface preferences, including paper and carpet.

Treatment for House Soiling Due to Fear of Going Outside

A country dog who moves to an urban environment or a dog who has never been outdoors—say, one who was raised in an indoor kennel or laboratory, or one who was trained to go on paper inside and was never taken outside—can sometimes feel so overwhelmed that she will not eliminate outside. Some dogs will urinate but not defecate, probably because defecating puts a dog in a more vulnerable position.

In addition to our recommendations for general house training, you can try the following suggestions:

  • You might need to let your dog become comfortable outside before you can expect success with house training. Take your dog to a quiet area outdoors and spend time there. Drive to a quiet park or establish an area in your yard for elimination. If you are using your yard, it may help to invite a friend’s dog over to hang out with you (assuming that your dog enjoys that dog’s company). Sometimes the sight and smell of another dog eliminating will prompt a reluctant dog to go. Alternatively, you can try depositing urine from another dog in the area where you’d like your dog to eliminate. The odor alone might prompt your dog to eliminate.
  • If you have a balcony or deck but no yard, put down a plastic tarp and cover it with grass sod. This might just be a short-term step until your dog gets used to her new environment. (To try this option, you must have an enclosed, secure balcony to ensure the safety of your dog.)

Treatment for House Soiling Related to Bad Weather

There are a few dogs who are perfectly house trained—except when the weather is bad and they don’t want to go outside. These dogs are often tiny, like the toy breeds, or have short, thin coats, like some of the sight hounds. Another factor that can wreak havoc with house training is the city sidewalk in winter. People use salt to melt the snow, but most dogs feel a burning sensation on their feet when they walk through salt. If your dog learns that her feet hurt every time she goes outside to eliminate, she may become resistant to going outside.

In addition to our recommendations for general house training, you can try the following suggestions:

  • Minimize the unpleasantness of bad weather by dressing your dog appropriately. You can find well-designed winter coats and raingear for dogs, as well as boots to protect their feet from salt and snow. If your dog seems reluctant to wear boots, you can try a special cream or salve that will protect her feet from salt, such as Musher’s Secret.
  • Build an overhang for your yard to protect your dog from the elements.
  • If you have a covered balcony or deck, put down a plastic tarp and cover the tarp with grass sod. (In order to try this option, you must have an enclosed, secure balcony to ensure the safety of your dog.)

Treatment for Anxiety-Induced House Soiling

While it’s quite rare, some dogs who were once reliably housetrained seem to lose their training after a major change occurs in the household, such as the addition of a disliked individual or the departure or death of a favored family member or pet. In such cases, the dog tends to eliminate on furniture, beds and clothing—objects that smell strongly of the person or other animal. Anxiety-induced house soiling can be hard to distinguish from anxiety-induced urine marking unless an anxious dog also defecates in the home. Another anxiety-inducing scenario involves bullying or aggression from another animal in the home. If a dog fears another household pet, she may be unable to move around freely and feel forced to soil in the home.

In addition to our recommendations for general house training, you can try the following suggestions:

  • If possible, restrict your dog’s access to previously soiled areas. You can do this by closing doors, using baby gates, moving furniture, etc.
  • Try to deal with conflicts between family pets. If one of the pets is new, you can reintroduce them. If you need help with reintroduction, or if your pets have been together for some time but stop getting along, please seek consultation with a qualified professional. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB), or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) with specialized training and experience treating this kind of problem.
  • If your dog seems upset by the addition of a new person to your household, try to deal with conflicts between your dog and the new resident. Have the new person give your dog things she really enjoys, such as food, treats, chew things, toys, walks, play and car rides. If the problem continues, seek consultation with a qualified professional. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB), or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) with specialized training and experience treating this kind of problem.
  • If you have a male dog, have him wear a jock strap or “bellyband” (also known as a male dog wrap) so that he can soil without damaging your home. You can order a bellyband from a pet supply company.
  • If your dog regularly eliminates on objects like beds, furniture and clothing, place treats under and around those objects. If she eliminates in predictable areas, place treats in those areas. The areas or objects might become a signal for food rather than triggers for elimination.
  • Clean all accidents with an enzymatic cleaner to minimize odors that might attract your dog to eliminate in the same spots again.
  • Try to make urine-marked areas unpleasant to discourage your dog from returning there to eliminate. For example, use double-sided sticky tape, vinyl carpet runner turned upside-down to expose the knobby “feet,” or other types of harmless but unpleasant booby traps. Be advised, however, that your dog might simply find another place to soil indoors.
  • Try a synthetic hormone diffuser (DAP™, Dog Appeasement Pheromone). It might have a calming effect on some dogs.
  • Consult with your veterinarian about trying medication in addition to behavior training. Scientific studies show that the use of anti-anxiety medications can reduce dogs’ anxiety. Do not, however, give your dog any kind of medication without first consulting a veterinarian.

What NOT to Do

  • Do not rub your dog’s nose in her waste.
  • Do not scold your dog for eliminating indoors. Instead, if you catch her in the act, make a noise to startle her and stop her from urinating or defecating. Then immediately show your dog what you want her to do by running with her outside, waiting until she goes, and then immediately rewarding her.
  • Do not physically punish your dog for accidents. Do not hit her with newspaper, spank her or jerk her collar. Realize that if your dog has an accident in the house, you failed to adequately supervise her, you didn’t take her outside frequently enough, or you ignored or were unaware of her signals that she needed to go outside. Punishment might frighten your dog and could even worsen her house training problems.
  • Do not confine your dog to a small area for hours each day without taking other steps to correct the problem.
  • Do not crate your dog if she soils in the crate. This will just teach the bad habit of soiling the sleeping area and will make it even harder to house train your dog.
  • If your dog enjoys being outside, don’t bring her inside right after she eliminates or she might learn to “hold it” so that she can stay outside longer. Wait for her to eliminate and then go for a fun walk or briefly play with her before taking her back indoors.
  • Do not clean accidents with an ammonia-based cleanser. Urine contains ammonia. Cleaning with ammonia might attract your dog back to the same spots to urinate again.