Housebreaking a particularly stubborn dog
February 9, 2023 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Current foster dog is around a year and a half old and was surrendered by an owner that was somewhere between neglectful and abusive and was completely untrained including housebreaking. He will reliably go when taken outside but will not ask to go out.

I've had him since mid-November. He had big problems with snapping and barking that I've mostly been able to address but the housebreaking continues to be a big issue.

He is already fixed and has no known medical issues that would cause problems.

He is crate trained (and actually likes it - he'll voluntarily go hang out in it when he's not in the mood to be social). He gets overstimulated at points and reverts back to the snapping and barking but if he goes into timeout in the crate simmers down, so he spends some time in it every few hours. Regardless of whether he's been crated for timeout or just normal sleeping patterns, as soon as he gets released from the crate, we go outside. He will pee 99% of the time when we do so and poop most of the time. He is very habitual and has favorite spots for each outside (with the pee spot being right outside the door). Take him there, tell him to go, and he will. He's a one and done pee dog so he doesn't need an extended walk to be empty.

However, he will not ask to go outside when he needs to go otherwise and will dart off and relieve himself around the house. He has his favorite spots inside but if confined to a single room will happily go wherever, other than his crate. If I take him out and I know he needs to go and doesn't (like the morning) he gets crated again and taken out 15-30 minutes later again.

I strongly suspect that part of the problem is that he's afraid of being outside near the house (and that it may have been because of abusive behavior regarding it from the initial owners). He literally starts shaking at points from being outside (and it's 70 degrees, so not from cold). He had to be dragged or carried out a few times. He's doing better with that - he'll now come to me when I have the leash in hand rather than running away and hiding. He'll go down the stairs and out the door with some hesitation but no force required any more. But he still won't ask to go out.

It's not an complete fear of being outside. The further we get from the house on walks, most of the time, the more relaxed his body posture is. He doesn't hate the house itself, because as soon as he thinks there's an opportunity to go home, he's straining at the leash to get there. And he loves going to the park that we have to drive to get to.

I do not have a fenced yard so I can't just let him hang out outside and hope he gets used to it.

I do not want to use puppy pads - most of his issues are poop related rather than pee and in any case he is so compulsively habitual I don't want to do anything to cement that peeing inside is OK. He has enough other bad habits that I'm working on untraining already.

He has a regular schedule, but that doesn't entirely help. His second round of pee and poop can be as early as an hour after the last one and I just don't have the ability to take him out every hour (and again, it's mostly poop issues - he tends to go 4 times a day, regardless of feeding schedule, so taking him for a 5-10 minute walk every hour in hopes of hitting his cycle really isn't feasible).

He gets the same verbal command for each action and is praised when he goes while outside but while he's normally treat motivated, it doesn't work in this case because of the desire to get back inside. As soon as he pees, he'll immediately try to go home without paying attention to the offered treat. If he gets taken to the poop spot, as soon as he goes, he'll immediately try to go home. If he's being walked with another dog who needs a little more time, as soon as we start heading back to the house, he'll be straining at the leash. Even primo treats don't seem to register in his brain during those times.

He is a 55lbs mutt so doesn't have small dog bladder or bowel problems. He easily holds it 8 hours overnight.

Messes inside are immediately cleaned up (hopefully this is obvious) and I use enzyme cleaners when there is pee.

In the almost three months I've had him, there's only been two positive signs. Once I saw him starting to squat, briefly scolded him and got him outside immediately (where he did go), and once when he seemed to start to squat and seemed to catch himself and stopped. And again, was immediately taken outside and went.

But it's been several weeks since those two things.

If you happen to have had a similar dog and think that something specific that you did helped, I'm all ears. If I can't get him to start asking to go out, it will greatly reduce the chances of anyone adopting him and eventually he'll run out of time.
posted by Candleman to Pets & Animals (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
- Certain diets generate more poop and other diets generate less poop.
- Taking the dog out to pee every hour really is what I had to do with my rescue dog. It didn't last forever.
posted by aniola at 12:02 PM on February 9

What may help is to get back to basics; have him stay in his crate with his leash on, and every 20 minutes or so, take him outside to his pee spot, wait a few minutes and if he pees, reward him with the best treats like hots dogs. No free run of the house. If he doesn't pee after 5 minutes, back into the crate he goes, rinse and repeat. Most dogs figure this out within a few days and of course be sure all spots in the home are thoroughly cleaned.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:04 PM on February 9 [6 favorites]

Are you emotionally attached to this doggo yet? Because it sounds like he might do much better in a different foster environment, like a quiet area with access to nature. Another foster dog could thrive with you. Straining at the leash (hopefully he's in a harness, not a collar...) to go home as soon as he's done his business points to high anxiety, and that's bad for his (still-developing) brain. Anxious dogs bark, and bite, and do not learn well. Helping his adoptability is a worthy cause, but being in this stressful environment could actually be doing more harm than good in that regard.

Sorry about the direct words. If I'm wrong, disregard.

For the housetraining, it sounds like he's almost there. A few things that can help:

- Move your dog's bed and feeding spot around the house so he is used to eating and sleeping in all the rooms you want him in. Keep the others completely closed off for now. Dogs naturally move away from their feeding and sleeping spot to eliminate, but if his bed is in the living room and he eats in the kitchen, the guest bedroom is fair game as a bathroom.

- Don't take him out all the time during the day, but do take him for longer walks. It's quite common for dogs to poop twice on one walk, especially in the morning. If you're only walking to the poop spot and back, he's not moving his digestive tract enough to empty his bowels. Walk him for at least twenty minutes and don't worry about specific spots. Try a realistic schedule like walks at 9am, 1pm, 5pm, and a pee break at 10pm for now. You can later switch to walks at 10am, 4pm, and 10pm. Obviously, adjust as needed for your schedule - but don't make the common mistake of assuming that because your dog can hold it for eight hours at night, he shouldn't need very frequent walks during the day. Mammals create an anzyme during nighttime that reduces urine production.

- For a few days, keep doggo attached to your waist on a leash whenever you two are awake. At night, keep him in the room with you, door closed. Just keep him close and pay attention. You'll start picking up on his signs. Maybe he circles before he needs to go. Maybe he sniffs the ground. Maybe he tries to leave the room you're in. Picking up on his cues is a prerequisite to him asking to be let out. He doesn't know how to communicate with you yet.

- Scolding him for using the bathroom gives him the idea that it's not safe to eliminate around you. That's counterproductive. You want him trusting you and you do not at all want him to go hide behind the couch to poop. Dogs that are really scared of eliminating around their humans are also difficult to housetrain because they will stop (fully) emptying their bladder outside. Because outside, the human is close! What if they get angry again?!

- Remember that this dog is still very young. Larger breeds are not mature until they're around three. Being fixed, he's likely on the younger side because he hasn't gone through puberty. Being a one-and-done pee dog means he's not marking...basically, he's a very young guy. He needs a bunch of patience still.

- Use deodorizing enzyme cleaner from the pet store on all spots he uses or has liked to use in the past. You said you use enzymatic cleaner on pee only?

- Does he need more enrichment, maybe? Or more sleep?
posted by toucan at 12:48 PM on February 9 [8 favorites]

re: trust - this is huge! my rescue was also very scared to go outside (though fortunately she didn't pee or poop inside aside from a few isolated incidents). it took a long time of relationship-building to get her feeling safe with us - and treats outside didn't really help change her feeling (because who can be food motivated when you're terrified?). here's what helped: routines. finding safe places (we'd spend some time in an apartment courtyard, away from the busy street). copious treating when she was ready for it. not pushing her boundaries. not dragging, carrying, or forcing her. turning back when she got scared. and just learning to communicate with her. it took probably close to a year, and she'll still get scared sometimes (plus she'll regularly have a "walk" that is just what I call a squirt-and-turn), but it's a big change from before. now, her tail is up, she's happily sniffing, she meets dogs without getting fight-or-flight, and she's way less reactive with strangers. she's even friends with the crossing guard.

this is mostly about going outside together, not about peeing/pooping inside, but it sounds like that's definitely a component!
posted by entropone at 12:58 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: it sounds like he might do much better in a different foster environment, like a quiet area with access to nature.

None of the other fosterers will take him because of his other issues, which while bad I'm seeing steady progress on. I've tried getting anyone else to take him and failed. My house is in about as quiet an area as it gets without being in the country.
posted by Candleman at 1:36 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

There's a couple prongs you need to work on here.

First is watching for his tells. You may need to leash him to you or your chair any time he's not in his crate or freshly-voided, so you see him the second he starts looking for the place to go. (It's pretty easy if you just study his body language and keep a sharp eye out. I had one dog with delayed housebreaking because of abuse and neglect and now 15 years later I still know when all dogs in line of sight are about to go. Once you turn on your radar, apparently you don't ever turn it off.)

The second is making going through the door to the scary outside the warmest fuzziest happiest experience. To prepare, hang a jingle bell or cowbell or whatever, a windchime, something that'll make noise (but put tape or a baffle on it if it's too startling at first), from the doorbell so that it hangs about collar-height to the dog. Now:

For two days: Take him TO the door, treat before opening, outside to the base of the steps or whatever spot is where you're both fully "out the door", treat. Do this for known potty times, and also randomly during the day.

Third day: now the routine is TO the door and you touch the bell, treat, outside, treat. Two more days and then try to get HIM to touch the bell with his snoot* - it doesn't have to make a noise yet, just start with a touch and immediately a Good Boy and treat, then outside and treat. Put a dab of PB on the bell if you have to, but keep going until he starts to figure out "I should probably touch this for a treat" and also "we open the door when the bell dings"...therefore...dinging the bell opens the door...and going out the door is where we potty! Connection made.

Keep making a joyous** GOOD BOY deal with treats when he eliminates outside, every time.

You should eventually start getting him initiating jingles when he wants out. Maybe not every time, keep treating and rewarding, but eventually he's going to figure out that doing it that way with the dings and all the GOOD BOYS is way preferable to just shitting in the next room and constantly being tied to you. You can start letting him roam when you know he's about to need to go, so you can deliberately catch his tell where he starts to look for a place to go, and call him with a treat to the door and go out.

For the verbal component, I would save the potty talk for outside actually going, and use a different phrase - "go outside" or "ring the bell" if you think he might end up being a dog that gets excited every time you vaguely mention outside. If your name is Bell or similar, pick a different pretty specific phrase.

* Some dogs are snooty dogs, and some dogs are paw dogs. Assume snoot unless you notice he's especially interactive with his feet - pawing at toys, moving/touching food and water bowls, pawing at you or eagerly hand-shaking. If he seems inclined to ding the bell with a foot, you can drop it lower or use a counter bell (as in "ding-ding, order's up!") for him to touch on the floor.

** Since he's reactive, you may not be doing the big excited-voice hooray good dog thing, but I encourage you to be as over the top as you think he'll be okay with, but also dogs are incredibly sensitive to your emotional vibe. FEEL as gleeful as you can muster up when you are praising him, feel SO PROUD. When we taught one of our dogs to come to the mini-fridge for eye drops, which she hated, we would think about birthday cake evoke the feeling of cake delight. She wouldn't go if we did it grumpily or sleepily.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:40 PM on February 9 [9 favorites]

One of my dogs signals when she needs to go out, the other doesn't. Both are housetrained. I'd focus on preventing accidents (i.e., keep him crated or tethered to you so he can't run off and poop in another room, scheduled walks as well as shorter outdoor potty breaks throughout the day). This is what worked with my dog that doesn't signal when he needs to go. He got accustomed to only doing his business outdoors, and seems to have internalized that the house isn't for pooping or peeing in. He goes out when my other dog signals, or otherwise every 4-7 hours. It hasn't been a problem that he doesn't signal.
posted by theotherdurassister at 3:15 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I just got a feeling that if this dog has ANOTHER dog to show him the way, he'll learn how to be housebroken.
posted by kschang at 6:42 PM on February 9

Came to say what Toucan said far better and more comprehensively than I would have - especially this:

Picking up on his cues is a prerequisite to him asking to be let out
posted by esoteric things at 7:01 PM on February 9

We have a nearly one year old that I would not consider housebroken. You have to keep eyes on them at all times. I am a fan of punishing when they do wrong, but I am outvoted. They know who's pee/poop it is.

But, frequent going out, praise when then do their business outside, and an extra dog helps.

Good luck, they are all the best dogs, even when they are not.
posted by Windopaene at 7:34 PM on February 9

It seems to me that his resistance to being outside is the real problem and that might benefit from some work completely separate to the pee/poop stuff. I would try lots of work and rewards to progressively get him used to being outside without so much anxiety:

(all of these things would need to be done after he has recently peed/pooped outside)
- work on him going to the door when you call him (but don't go outside - just call him back to the door and reward him. Do this 2 or 3 times every time you come in from a potty break)
- if you find that he's gone near the door on his own, give him a treat

Once you feel like he's got that down (maybe 5-7 days of work), start moving towards outside. So, again, only after he's had a potty break, call him to the door, praise him when he comes and then open the door and give him a treat. After a few days of that, do it all again but this time have him step outside with you for the treat and then go right back in and close the door. Then open again, go outside, give him a treat.

Keep working on getting him to enjoy going outside a bit and then once he's good with that, keep up the praise for each step (going to the door, stepping outside, walking a few feet from the house) and reward him for any pee or poop. The fact that he does it reliably is great but if he gets rewards every time he does it outside then I think something might click with him there.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:53 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

Okay, if he's afraid of "going outside", is there a way, say, provide a "hidden corner" or something where he may feel safe, doesn't quite feel like outside for him, but is not inside the house?
posted by kschang at 10:31 AM on February 10

I would treat him as if he is not housetrained. Connected to you by leash, or in his crate, and outside at least every hour. High-value Reward and praise for elimination. I would show disapproval for accidents, and use the enzyme cleaner on poop, too. You want to remove the opportunity for error while really reinforcing success.

Also, teach him a sign for going out. A bell works well. Break it way down. Introduce the bell, and give rewards and praise for him letting you put his paw on it. Help him use it every time you go out.

Reduce his range in the house, no access to any space he doesn't need.

Thanks for fostering him.
posted by theora55 at 9:21 AM on February 11

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