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Tips for Preventing Relieving Accidents when in Public

Updated on June 8, 2013

Data suggests that there are approximately 387,000 working service dogs in the United States and the number is growing every year. Federal and state laws allow service dogs to accompany their handler in public businesses and modes of transportation. The reason service dogs are allowed in public areas is because they are carefully socialized and trained to be quiet, clean and well-behaved. Legitimate service dog handlers work very hard to maintain their canine partner’s behavior in public areas. An out of control or disruptive dog can be denied access. In spite of careful planning and training, mistakes happen. This is the nature of working with living, breathing beings that have their own minds and physical needs. One of the most frustrating challenges that handlers face is making sure their service dog does his ‘business’ in appropriate places, prior to going into public areas. A handler will take their companion out to the designated area and they let the dog sniff around the grass for a long period but he doesn’t relieve. He may stand stoically, seeming to indicate that he doesn’t have to go. So the handler heads out to run his errands. Suddenly, without warning, perhaps 5-10 minutes into the walk, the dog suddenly relieves!

There is no doubt that relieving accidents in public areas (indoors and outdoors) are a significant source of grief and irritation for many service dog handlers. It seems particularly frustrating when the handler is very consistent with the schedule and then their dog still has the occasional accident. What is happening? How do we get them to stop!?

First, it is critical that the handler understand that defecation is an involuntary, physical act. This means that the dogs can’t help themselves and when the urge strikes them, they must eliminate. Some canines are better able to ‘hold it’ and can go many hours without strain. Others must evacuate immediately if the urge strikes, regardless of where they are. Understanding this critical point is crucial for the handler to recognize. Venting anger or severely correcting the dog when they do have an accident only teaches the dog to evacuate the next time in a more ‘covert’ manner. I have seen some service dogs that will not stop when they relieve, but keep walking, to avoid getting corrected for this involuntary behavior. A far more successful strategy is to do everything possible to get him to eliminate prior to going out for a walk.

There are several key factors that can impact a dog’s relieving habits:

  1. Regular, predictable schedule
  2. Stimulation (movement)
  3. Type of surface (grass, asphalt, dirt etc.)
  4. Feeding time and Frequency of feeding
  5. Quality of food being fed
  6. Distractions in relieving area
  7. Handlers attitude during scheduled relieving
  8. Water intake
  9. Olfactory stimulation during walking

Any one or all of these factors can increase a dog’s propensity to have regular or occasional accidents in public. Let’s address each issue one by one.

Regular, predictable schedule All dogs thrive on regular routine and schedules. Service dogs are far more likely to relieve regularly and at appropriate times if they have a consistent daily schedule and get to relieve in the same areas. Each handler and dog has a schedule that works best for them. It is critical that relieving opportunities coincide with important aspects of daily routes and feeding. In short, your canine partner should have an opportunity to relieve before and after a long walk, after feeding, first thing in the morning and before bed at night. Another important point to consider is that taking the dog out to relieve 20 times a day is not going to prevent accidents in public. It is the quality and timing of relieving opportunities, not the number of times or the amount of time a dog is given to relieve. It is important that you allow him at least 10 minutes at a time.

Stimulation (Movement) Humans stand vertical to the ground and have the advantage of gravity to assist with bowel movement and regularity. Dogs’ bowels are horizontal to the ground, making it more difficult for waste to move through the bowels in a natural manner. For this reason, physical movement is one of the BEST ways to get a canine to ‘feel the urge’ to defecate. This is also the reason dogs may not go while standing at the relieving area but immediately feel the urge once they start walking. A great strategy is to set aside 10-15 minutes prior to relieving time and give your pup an opportunity for active play…tug, chasing the ball, anything that gets them moving. Some dogs are resistant to active play. A successful strategy for this type of dog is to walk him up and down a set of stairs or from one room to another. The goal is to get him moving and active prior to relieving. This strategy helps dog to be ‘more productive’ when he actually goes out to relieve. There are some dogs that ‘naturally stimulate’ during relieving times. These pups walk around the handler in a circle and then go without prompting. Others are less active and are resistant to moving during relief time. These dogs benefit most from play sessions prior to relieving.

Type of Surface Most canines have a ‘preferred surface’ upon which they will readily relieve. Most enjoy grass, as it holds smells that stimulate relieving. Some actually don’t like grass, particularly if it is wet. Some canines relieve willingly on asphalt, others despise relieving on asphalt and will hold it rather than relieve. Some handlers live and work in environments where there is no access to grass, so they must relieve their dog on concrete or asphalt. If grass is available to you in most of your travel areas, it may be an easy solution just to allow your dog to relieve on grass or dirt surface. Another valuable strategy is to evaluate the regular relieving area you use and whether your canine partner ‘embraces’ that area. Allowing a dog to relieve on their preferred surface can prevent or minimize accidents in public. If you choose to keep him on asphalt or concrete surface when relieving, make sure the surface is clear of glass or debris and cleaned regularly. Here’s a trick to help your dog embrace a new asphalt surface: Try catching some of his urine or feces from another area and put it on the asphalt surface to stimulate relieving.

Feeding Time: There has been some noted success with eliminating accidents by changing the time of day a dog is fed. Many service dogs are fed twice a day. I recommend separate feedings and then relieving the dog within about 20 minutes after eating, if possible. This time gives all the autonomic nerve functions in the colon a chance to “enjoy the meal”, realize there is too much on board, and then signal to your dog that it is “time to relieve”. Sometimes switching the dog to a single feeding can prevent accidents. Most people prefer to single feed in the late afternoon or evening, allowing the pup all evening to digest food so they evacuate first thing in the morning. This may work but some dogs also do better being fed in the morning. In short, just making a big change in the feeding time can help resolve the problem in some dogs. Please don’t try this strategy if your dog has medical diet or has sensitivity to an empty stomach (vomiting bile). You should consult with your vet about any change in feeding routine.

Quality of Food Being Fed I recommend feeding service dogs a high quality food available at reputable pet stores. High quality foods like Royal Canin, Innova and Natural Balance contain nutrients that your dog is able to absorb and utilize for energy. Lower quality foods have bulk ‘filler’ material such as corn. Dogs don’t utilize or process corn and other cheap fillers very well and so the bulk of the food passes through their system, creating more waste. In general, higher quality foods produce less waste. There are some premium diets that have very little filler and create very little residue waste. Please consult with your vet before considering a food switch due to relieving issues.

Distractions in the Relieving Area If possible, pick a relieving area that is quiet and away from complex or populated areas. Some dogs get so distracted by watching ‘activities’ in the environment; they forget to focus on the task at hand…doing their business!

Handler Attitude during relieving times Some dogs are shy and modest. Some require quiet and concentration to do their business. Many are very reluctant to relieve if the handler is constantly chatting to them, pulling them around the relieving area or constantly reaching down to check or interact with them. Staying calm and quiet and allowing dog to relieve on long leash without interference is a simple way to help your canine partner get the job done. Most dogs will clearly indicate that they are about to ‘do the job’ by moving or circling.

Training your dog to relieve using food and/or clicker: There is a training method that may be used to teach your service dog that relieving on command will give him a BIG reward! This technique requires the most powerful positive reinforcement tool we have available---food. Many trained service dogs are ‘clicker-wise’ and the clicker is the best tool to use, but just offering food reward, without the clicker can also be successful. The training technique using the clicker is performed in the following manner.

  1. Train at a time when the dog normally defecates (early a.m. or whenever they normally go).
  2. Bring out the clicker, and food bag or food hidden in your pocket---to the relief area.
  3. Ask “Fido” to do his business by giving a command…’do your business’ or whatever command is normally used.
  4. Click the MOMENT he finishes relieving---as he’s standing from the ‘hunch position’. Timing is very important. If the click comes too soon, Fido will stop relieving, as he will hear the click and will turn get his treat. Click the very moment he starts to stand up from the hunched position. Click & treat and offer generous verbal praise.
  5. Repeat regularly until Fido learns that prompt relieving gets food reward. Then wean him off clicker and offer occasional food reward as incentive to relieve promptly and reliably.

I have had success with non-clicker trained dogs using this technique, as long as the handler offers regular and valuable food reward IMMEDIATELY after every defecation. Let’s face it, we are all motivated to make things happen if we get a BIG reward for it!

Urinating in harness: Water Intake & Marking Up till now, we have been focusing on the problem of defecation in inappropriate areas. Urinating in public areas is less common and is usually related to the amount of water a dog drinks during the day. In general, too much water intake creates the need to urinate more frequently. If your canine partner has a propensity to drink water to excess at every opportunity, he should be put on a water schedule and offered 2 c. at each offering (4-5 times a day) to avoid tanking and relieving issues. Some dogs will also urinate in certain areas because they are ‘marking’ their territory. This is a normal canine behavior and both males and females can exhibit this behavior. This is a behavior issue rather than a water intake issue and should be addressed promptly. Dogs that are marking, frequently release just a small amount of urine as they walk and may lift their leg on a bush as they do so. If you see your service dog doing this, you should stop and immediately give a “NO” command and then ask him to sit. It is important not to allow him to sniff bushes excessively while walking to minimize marking behavior. It is also important to note that some urinating in public or in house issues may be related an undiagnosed medical disorder such as a urinary tract infection. If you suspect this, please consult with your veterinarian.

Olfactory Stimulation As stated earlier, dogs that have regular opportunities to casually sniff bushes and grass while they walk in public areas are more likely to get stimulated to relieve and have accidents. A successful strategy to minimize sniffing during walks is to utilize a Gentle Leader (Head Collar), which allows handler to better ability to control the dog’s head and body movement Consistent handling and control is key.

In conclusion, preventing relieving accidents in public areas is a matter of taking the extra time to evaluate your routine, relieving environment and your canine partner’s relieving habits. Taking preventive measures to ensure you dog is ‘empty’ prior to going out for a walk is the best way to avoid the embarrassing accidents on route. Remember, your dog can’t help his relieving habits, but you can!

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