Potty Training a Shelter Dog
A couple of months ago I adopted a 6 month old ball of puppy energy. My dog of 12 years had passed away 3 months earlier and it was a bit of a shock to suddenly have a puppy on my hands. One of the things I loved about her was her enthusiasm for life, which I assumed would translate to an equal enthusiasm for trouble.
It turned out that with the right amount of exercise and playtime the puppy, dubbed Lillian Mae, was exceptionally well behaved. She didn't tear things up, she went to the bathroom outside, and (to the detriment of my waking up on time) she slept like a rock through the night and well in to the morning.
But then, out of the blue, she began to treat her crate like a litter box.
At first I thought it was a one time occurrence, but it started happening more and more frequently. Even if I only left the room for 30 minutes. Then it began happening even when I was in the room - she decided she needed to pee, walked into the crate, did her business, and casually strolled back out. That was the must infuriating part. The casual strolling.
I struggled with this problem a lot because it clearly was not a matter of her ability to hold her bladder - she would sleep up to 10 hours through the night with no problems. When I took her outside she always did her business in a timely manner. She never peed in my own personal space - it was only inside the crate.
Despite letting Lily outside before I Ieft and as soon as I returned 1-2 hours later, the problem was not abating. When I caught her in the act I threw in some verbal scolding and immediately escorted her outside to pee in the proper location. Nothing seemed to get through to her.
This is a good place to clarify that Lily was in no way anxious about me leaving, nor is she afraid of the crate. I made a point early on to play games with her that directly involved a positive association with the crate. She uses it as a safe place to hide when she encounters something she is unsure of (floor mops are apparently quite frightening) and enters it willingly and often.
I came to the conclusion that the behavior was a learned behavior, picked up from her stay at the shelter. She learned to associate a cages with being inside for long periods of time - periods of time too long to even bother with holding her bladder.
I discovered other pet owners were facing similar issues with their shelter dogs, though no one seemed to have a concrete solution. Through the internet I researched basic potty training techniques. Most sources gave the same solution - put your puppy in its crate and it will not pee. Any further training suggestions were based on the theory that the kennel is the place to put your puppy when you do not want it to make a mess. So in other words all of the many dog owners whose dogs have, for whatever reason, decided that their crate is also a good place for peeing, are out of luck. .
And I thought I was out of luck. I thought I was going to be stuck with a perpetually peeing dog. I tried every obscure solution I could. I washed her urine-soaked bedding with vinegar to get rid of the smell, I took away her bedding all together, I gave her one of my own shirts so that she would have my smell near her (which she promptly peed on- thanks dog!), I scolded her every time I came home to an accident and rewarded her every time I came home to a clean crate, I gave her toys in her crate, I took her toys away, I put a sweater on her to make her feel more secure. Nothing worked. Tensions were high, and if I came home to pee soaked towels one more time I was going to have a mini breakdown and probably make a few empty threats to the dog about her return to the pound.
At this point I decided to try the obvious solution - I began giving Lillian a "high value" treat (deli meat is perfect for this) every time she peed outside, followed by a lot of petting and praise (usually accompanied by a few judgmental looks from passersby invoked by my exclamations of "Good PEE, Lily! Good pee!").
My dog is no dunce, so after a few walks she began to pretend pee - that is, squat in the pee position without actually peeing 3 or 4 times a walk, just to get a treat. I rewarded this too. A pretend pee outside is better than a real pee inside, after all.
In addition, I turned peeing in to a command instead of just a bodily urge. I took her to a specific place in the yard, and every time she began to pee I stated "Go potty, Lily." Now I can simply walk outside and say "Go potty" and she will promptly squat to pee. Which is wonderful when it is cold outside and you just want to get back in.
I would like to point out that the exact wording of the phrase to induce peeing is a particularly important choice. For instance, if you have small children and ask them "Do you need to GO POTTY?" on a regular basis, there is a high chance that your now well potty-trained shelter dog will promptly "Go potty" on your hardwood floor and by the time you have cleaned up the mess, your small child will have done the same. So choose your phrase wisely, and then be sure to use it only at the right times.
Before I implemented these changes in Lillian's routine, peeing in the crate and peeing outdoors had been rewarded equally - with the feeling of relief after releasing the contents of her bladder. Once a command was associated with the act of peeing, and then a treat used to reward that specific act, the benefits to peeing outside became much greater than the benefits of peeing in the crate.
Eventually the immediate benefit of a treat turned into a habit and a knowledge of the correct way to behave. Lily did not pee in her crate for an entire week after the initial treat. I forgot to bring a treat outside a few times and for two days we were back to square one. She quickly jumped back on board though, and she has not had an accident inside since. After 2 weeks accident free I cut back the treats to basic dog treats, and after three weeks I cut out treats entirely.
The solution was almost obnoxiously simple, yet it was immediately effective. I know I am not the only one who has dealt with this, and I hope this article will shed some light on the situation for someone else. There is nothing like the benefit of enjoying your pup without the excess fluid.
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