Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks
September 5, 2008 8:21 PM   Subscribe

I need help in literally teaching an old dog a new trick--to pee and poop inside the house.

So my dad owns an elderly (13 year old) pure-bred cocker spaniel, Barney. Barney's lived with my dad for about seven years. He came to Dad from my cousin already housebroken, and was trained to go stand in front of the front door when he needs to pee and poop (he scratches if no one notices him at the door).

In the past several months, Barney has developed cataracts that have severely limited his vision. In bright daylight he does okay, but once the sun sets and the lights inside the house come on, it's harder for him to find his way to the door. In addition, (a) my father is getting forgetful in his old age and frequently misses it when Barney signals that he needs to go outside, and (b) as a senior citizen doggy Barney can't quite hold his bladder the way he used to. The end result is that there's been quite a few accidents.

I've noticed than when Barney can't find his way to the front door, he tends to pee/poop at a certain spot in the kitchen. This is not the only spot in the house he pees/poops in, but it seems to be the most frequent place.

Just to be on the safe side, I did have the vet check Barney out, and he could find no medical reason for Barney to pee/poop in the house. It simply boils down to a combination of Barney not getting to the door in time, and Daddy sometimes not responding when Barney signals.

I would like to re-train Barney to a indoor litter box. I've never had to housebreak a dog before, and of course Barney's already been trained to handle his pee/poop needs a certain way. Anyone have any advice on getting Barney to adapt to a litter box? Is it even feasible to attempt re-training of a dog of his age and health?

I should point out that Barney is a rescue (my cousin's ex-husband physically abused her and Barney both), so please take that into account. In the instance of crate training, I don't think Barney has a problem with confined spaces--there's a spot between the couch in the den and a china cabinet that he loves to curl up in--but I'd hate to find out the hard way. Also, Barney is a loveable dog with a sweet disposition, but due to his abuse he can be very hostile if he feels threatened, in an almost they'll-never-take-me-alive! way. I'd like to keep any re-training as stress-free as possible.

Finally, I will add that my father and I are absolutely crazy about Barney. He has been my father's sole companion since my mother died two years ago, and a source of great comfort to Daddy. I want to do anything I can to make both Dad's and Barney's life easier.
posted by magstheaxe to Pets & Animals (9 answers total)
I think it's absolutely possible to encourage Barney to relieve himself inside, although I think for his sake (and your father's) he should continue to go outside during the day as long as he is able, and use an inside spot at night or in case of emergency.

Here is how I would tackle it: you said there's a certain spot in the kitchen that he favors. I would take advantage of that fact and lay Puppy Pee Pads or old towels in that spot. Once he gets used to peeing on a pad or towel on the floor you could transition to a more formal litter pan set-up (or just keep the towels/pads). In my experience, even with thorough cleaning, a dog's urine scent lingers to the super-sensitive nose of the dog. That's why I would recommend using the same spot he's been favoring in the kitchen, rather than switching to a new spot entirely.
posted by kate blank at 8:56 PM on September 5, 2008

What Kate Blank said. He's found a spot. Make it so you dad has easy clean-up in that spot.

If your dad doesn't want it in the kitchen, try slowly moving the litterbox/pads to another spot.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:15 PM on September 5, 2008

I'm very glad that you're seeing this as simple old age and not a discipline problem. It sounds like Barney has some great friends in you and your dad.

Does Barney have a protected area right outside the door (for example, does the door open into a fenced yard)? If so, you might consider a doggy door so Barney can get out on his own when necessary.

As Barney ages, he might not realize he needs to go outside until it's too late. My elderly dog doesn't realize she needs to poop until she has begun pooping. This means she'll suddenly head for the door but leave a trail behind her. One thing that helps is to play with her outside or near the door to encourage things to move along and help ensure that it happens outdoors.
posted by PatoPata at 9:19 PM on September 5, 2008

The other thing that can help is to get Barney on a schedule. Don't free feed him, but feed him twice a day at intervals that make sense for your dad. Set up a walking schedule (3-4 times a day). Once he's used to his schedule, your dad will find that his pee/poop times become more predicatable as well. You'll find you have fewer accidents if Barney's not having to dictate when he goes out and wait for someone to notice.
posted by twiki at 9:41 PM on September 5, 2008

Ooh, I have another idea for you guys. Is your Dad hard of hearing? If not, you might try hanging something on the door that makes a little noise that the dog could trigger. We once had hanging on our door a kind of Christmas ornament -- it was bells on a strap -- kind of like this only ours was much shorter and had about six bells, as I recall, and hung from the doorknob. Anyway, the dog totally learned to nose the bells when he wanted to go out. It was great. That might solve one kind of problem for you. Maybe you could hang some kind of noisemaker where he usually scratches.
posted by amanda at 9:44 PM on September 5, 2008

Oh, and also, dog door?
posted by amanda at 9:45 PM on September 5, 2008

Just to add to Kate's & Lesser's suggestions... I am in the middle of puppy-pad training a 10-week old. When she has an accident, I blot it a little with the pee-pad and then use that pad in the pee-pad tray. It's got her "scent" on it, so she tends to gravitate toward the pad when she has to go. With my older dog, I had to do what Lesser suggested and creep the pad tray toward where I wanted it to be. I will suggest that you use pads instead of litter- much easier to clean up. I bought a Diaper Genie for the used pads, and have developed a fold & roll technique that keeps things neat.
posted by dogmom at 9:54 PM on September 5, 2008

Thank you, everyone! These are all great suggestions.

@amanda and @PatoPanda: I am hesitant about a doggy door. Dad lives in an old (~100 years) farmhouse, and the front door has a old heavy wooden door plus a screen door. When I'm home visiting, I open the wooden door so that when Barney scratches, I can hear it--his claws going down the metal make a good loud sound. But when I'm not home, Dad closes the door, I guess to feel a little more secure in the house--he lives alone on a farm in a rural area. Barney scratching on the wooden door doesn't make near the noise. Getting a doggy door would involved replacing the current door set up, and I don't know that Dad would feel very safe that way. Plus, with the varmints in the area--skunks, raccoons, snakes, field mice, etc.--I'd hate for Dad to get up one morning and find an unwanted visitor in the house (we've had snakes get in before--it took care of our mouse problem, but beyond that....). Still, if anyone has advice about doggy door installation I'm certainly willing to look into it.

I did get some pee pads but Barney ignored them. Now I know to get his pee on them--maybe that will help!

The "bells on a strap" idea sounds very promising, too. If I get something long enough and hang it on the wood door, I bet Barney would smack it. Dad usually hears the scratching on the screen door...it's just getting him to remember to open the wooden door in the morning for Barney's sake.

Oh, and yes I guess we are great friends for Barney, if by "great friends" you mean "utterly besotted saps". We love the dog immensely, and he loves us right back. It's a wonder he's not spoiled. Barney actually looks embarrassed after he's peed on the floor, God bless his fuzzy little heart.
posted by magstheaxe at 5:14 AM on September 6, 2008

There are pet doors available that unlock only when a critter wearing a doojob on its collar approaches the door. I had a friend who got one for her cat and it seemed to work well.
posted by PatoPata at 9:42 AM on September 6, 2008

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