How do I housebreak a true feral dog?
December 7, 2007 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Feral Dog Filter: How do you housebreak a true feral dog who has proven to be untrainable after 3-4 weeks of crating?

We have 4 dogs, one of which is a basenji-beagle mix who is a true feral dog. She is currently 5 years, but was not exposed to humans in any way before approximately one year. She has lived with us for the last four, since coming into captivity.

All the dogs use the doggie door, including her (for the most part). She uses the outdoors most of the time, but will go indoors from time to time, more than once or twice a month. For a long time we resigned ourselves to a home with no rugs, but having recently remodeled and refinished the original hardwoods, this situation is no longer tenable. She is not adoptable.

Crate training has been tried previously to absolutely no avail. Crate training is the only housebreaking method with which we are familiar. She will only come to us, no other humans, in certain very limited situations (eg. lying on the bed, sitting in a particular chair) otherwise she bolts away from any human contact. She is so distracted by being leashed that she will not defecate or urinate on the lead while housebreaking. She will hold it for days and let go eventually in the crate. She seemed to learn nothing from 3 weeks of crate training previously.

We've had no trouble training the other three, or several previous dogs, but this feral has us in knots. My husband is a veterinary assistant with several years experience, and even his vetshave had no input.

Any useful suggestions?
posted by shaarog to Pets & Animals (17 answers total)
Response by poster: Sorry - vet's have not vetshave
posted by shaarog at 3:42 PM on December 7, 2007

Have you considered getting her a nice dog house and making her a 100% outdoor dog? I think they have heated ones now for the winter too.
posted by whoaali at 4:06 PM on December 7, 2007

I disagree that you have a feral dog. Finding a one year old stray and then domesticating the animal for four years means you no longer have a feral animal in my opinion. Of course, this is just semantics, and doesn't help your problem. (Though you might reconsider rephrasing your question in further inquiries.)

I think you should consider ditching the doggie door in favor of a little less convenience on your part. Take the animals out (and leave them out, off lead) when you want them to evacuate, and when they are likely to need to evacuate (i.e. learn their schedules.) I think this, coupled with negative stimulus if you catch them trying to go (i.e. a strong "No!" and maybe a squirt gun) might reinforce the association between you letting them out and them using that time to go.
posted by dendrite at 4:13 PM on December 7, 2007

This is just an idea - don't know if it work but what if you made a small fenced area just outside the door of the crate with potty pads so he could go there instead of in the crate when he finally decides to go. (you might need to control the dog door so if she is inside she is in the crate/fenced area.

Another thought is to give the command to "potty" whenever you see him start to squat outside (or on the pad) and then give him a really great reward when he finishes. Hopefully this will help her figure out the right places to do her business.

I'm also thinking that it might take more than three weeks for five year old feral dog to figure out the new rules.
posted by metahawk at 4:16 PM on December 7, 2007

Are you walking the dogs? You didn't even mention walking, but I reallllly hope you are.
posted by loiseau at 4:30 PM on December 7, 2007

Response by poster: First, by "true feral" I mean specifically that the dog had absolutely no contact with human beings her first year, when those neural nets were being formed which are so neccessary in socialization. No amount of time with people thereafter can compensate for this. She is a wild dog, and will be until the day she barks her last.

When crate training each dog, obviously we have foregone the doggie door and instead taken them outside ourselves. There is no way to give positive reinforcement simply shoving them out the doggie door. There is no educative value in that.

Realllllly hope all you want, but walks aren't the solution to the problem either. No amount of positive reinforcement on the neighborhood streets has conveyed to her that inside the house isn't appropriate.

I did manage to catch her in the act week before last, for the first time in 4 years. I immediately scolded her, she headed outside. There hasn't been an incident since then. My huspand keeps a sharp eye for another opprtunity to provide negative reinforcement, and has limited access to the house for all the dogs when he isn't at home to watch them. He is hopeful that negative reinforcement will work, but we were also open to useful suggestions from this broad pool.
posted by shaarog at 5:21 PM on December 7, 2007

Out of curiosity, if you have dogs who have outdoor access via doggy door but don't walk them regularly, what harm is being done?

I'm not saying there isn't harm; I'm just curious to see it quantified.
posted by davejay at 5:31 PM on December 7, 2007

Have you considered a professional trainer? Perhaps there is something that a completely objective observer might notice that you and your husband haven't.

Sorry that this is the best I've got. I'm having a hell of a time training my beagle, and he's not feral, just an idiot.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:33 PM on December 7, 2007

What about keeping food and water out for them at regular times of the day, for increments of 20 minutes or less? Essentially, you're getting them to eat and drink their dietary requirements on a tight schedule and then timing their evacuations. Then, you would think their bathroom breaks would become very predictable and knowing your dog needs to go at 4:30pm and 11pm every day would certainly help you avoid any surprises.
posted by dendrite at 1:35 AM on December 8, 2007

davejay: Many people think that walking a dog isn't necessarily valuable as exercise alone, but instead is a psychological necessity of the animal to experience new scent phenomena as well as follow a pack leader. Remember, a dog at it's most basic is a long range, tracking, cooperative, hunting machine. Owners must provide them with stimulii to fulfill these instincts if they wish to have a well-adjusted pet.
posted by dendrite at 1:43 AM on December 8, 2007

3-4 weeks is not very much time in terms of retraining a lifetime of habit. Assuming you are using the crate correctly (i.e. that it is sized appropriately for the dog (and for a dog like this, you want the smallest crate possible that still allows the dog to stand, lie down and turn around comfortably), that the dog gets adequate exercise and does not spend an inordinate amount of time in it in a row, that you trained the dog to the crate, etc.), you may just need more time. However, since the dog messes in the crate, you have a problem you need to overcome first, since somehow this dog has learned to overcome its natural inclination to keep its den area clean.

I suspect that the answer will be a combination of leash training (get a good puppy book and train her to accept the leash) and then re-crate training. I strongly suggest that you go back and retrain everything with this dog as if she were a puppy, no more free time in the house, and no free coming and going through the doggy door, this dog clearly does not understand the principles of housetraining, and the current situation is not helping her learn them. If she's inside, she's on a leash (or at least confined to the area you're in) or in her crate, and she is taken out every 2-3 hours during waking hours. She should be on a strict feeding schedule to help manage her bowel movements. The more you allow her the freedom to mess where she shouldn't, the harder it will be to stop it, you need to set her up for success, and that means actually taking her outside and waiting with her.

I also suggest that you get some books which may help (using clicker training to help manage stress can be very helpful, so do not be put off by the fact that some books are for "aggression", since aggression and fear are very closely related), and consider enlisting the help of a professional trainer familiar with modern behaviour modification methods and/or a behaviourist.

Having said all that, there are some dogs who, for whatever reason (genetics, bad wiring, just the wrong set of early experiences, whatever) cannot ever really live well with people, and it may be the case that this dog just isn't able to learn what you want to teach her. Good luck.
posted by biscotti at 6:28 AM on December 8, 2007

Response by poster: Biscotti,

Those are all very useful suggestions, but none are new. She is well acclimated to the leash and is fed on a very tight 10m schedule twice daily, just like all the other dogs.

The problem with crate training in her case, as you have identified, is that she went in her crate, which is sized appropriately, but only after, literally, days of not urinating and defecating during her frequent and long bathroom breaks and the daily walk. After three weeks of this, since the training itself was impeded by her skittishness, crate training was abandoned. A behaviorist from UGA Vet School, a friend of one of hubby's co-workers, made the same observation. "Good luck with that!", essentially.

Hubby says that the only options really are living with the soiling, or destroying the dog. We both love her, but she is unadoptable. We took her in when the no-kill shelter she was brought to was reconsidering their policy in her case. We love her dearly, and I cannot bear to see her put down.

But I also have to keep a clean house. Thanks for all the advice, I hope hubby's new attempts at negative reinforcement will work. They seem to be successful so far. 2 weeks and no new suprises. We'll just keep watching her like a hawk.
posted by shaarog at 6:54 AM on December 8, 2007

Response by poster: Dave j,
Much more basic than Dendrite's answer about dog psychology, which is disputable (though I share the opinion) is that dogs do not generally exercise on their own. A dog with a doggie door and fenced yard will play a bit here and there, but for the most part, whether indoors or out, dogs sleep if humans don't work them. This is true even in multi-dog situations.

Walks are important for the physical well-being of the dog. This is indisputable. For psychological well-being as well, I believe.
posted by shaarog at 6:59 AM on December 8, 2007

She is so distracted by being leashed that she will not defecate or urinate on the lead while housebreaking. She will hold it for days and let go eventually in the crate.

She is well acclimated to the leash

Which is it? A dog who is actually leash trained is not the dog you describe in the first quote above. While your husband may be correct that there are no options other than living with it or euthanasia, I also suspect that your (understandable) frustration with this situation might be clouding your assessment somewhat.

And you must combine positive reinforcement with the negative reinforcement. It's fine to catch the dog in the act say "AH AH!" (or whatever) and whisk it outside, but then you must also reward the dog for doing the right thing, no matter how small it seems in comparison.

How much training do you do with this dog on an ongoing basis? Training and exercise are the key to almost all dog behavioural issues. Even five minutes of positive obedience work a day will have a good effect. Think of it as teaching your dog to understand English, and exercising its brain in the process. A well-trained dog is easier to manage in all respects, and becomes easier to teach new things to, as well as being less stressed and better able to adapt. Putting some effort toward positive-reinforcement training on an ongoing, daily basis may make this entire situation more amenable to change.
posted by biscotti at 8:05 AM on December 8, 2007

Response by poster: I meant that she is so distracted by the proximity of myself or my husband on the other end of the leash. She behaves on the leash, not tugging, not struggling, walking where led, etc. All the things you could ask of a leash trained dog. As long as the human on the other end moves slowly and deliberately. Otherwise, she rushes to the end of the leash in an effort to flee. 4 years of routine and that's been progress.

However, when attempting housebreaking, she keeps her full concentration on the human, as at any other time. This means she does not relax enough to go potty. The problem is not the lead, the problem is the human being at the end of it.

Tell me how to fix that and we'll share it with the behaviorists and maybe get famous or rich in the process.
posted by shaarog at 10:27 AM on December 8, 2007

Response by poster: On training, at this point, little to none. The first two years? Every day, looking for signs of progress. There've been precious few.

Just so we are all clear, dogs imprint the canine-human relationship in the first 6 months of puppyhood. Restrict a dog's interactions with humans completely during that time, and the dog reacts to man in the way most wild animals do, by flight. (Ok, fight is an option, but she is a beagle. Genes have their effect.)

We've been thrilled to get to the point where she allows a little physical contact in a couple of safe places she associates with food, as well as coming with the rest of the pack to the front door when they hear the leashes jingle every evening. Otherwise, cough too loud, cross legs too fast, make eye contact or say her name and she flees to the safety of the yard or the bedroom, depending on which path takes her away from you. This is an almost unique situation.

And it does get frustrating when I try to make this plain, and the responses are geared toward lazy and uninformed owners of the average rescue dog.

If I hadn't read everything I could get my hands on, consulted over time with a professor of behaviour at a prestigious vet school, worked like heck for years in trying to break her, etc. I'd try those things before essentially wasting a question on metafilter.

But there is the consolation that we actually have tried everything, apparently. There is no unorthodox approach that has eluded us only to be revealed here. That is good. We've at least done due diligence. I can't put her down, so if worse comes to worst, I'll just invest in company stock for some strong enzymatic cleaner.
posted by shaarog at 10:40 AM on December 8, 2007

One thing that is suggested, in addition to everything biscotti has mentioned is feeding off of the floor of the crate. After cleaning the crate thoroughly with an enzyme based cleaner and removing all evidence of odor, start feeding exclusively off the floor of the crate. Do this for a minimum of 3-4 weeks and use this as the sole purpose for the crate before you allow him to be in it again unsupervised. This can help reset the "crates are okay to soil" mindset.

Also, consider a lawn chair and a long line (15 -20 feet may be enough?) and make a day of it. Some chicken broth help too. And of course, enormous amounts of praise and reward.

Apologies if you've already done both, but it's never safe to take for granted what people have tried in these situations.

Finally, while there are many helpful people on metafilter, I find that it is not the best place to go for advanced dog behavior questions. (Notable exceptions excepted, of course) You may have better luck with a dog behavior/training specific board. I have had success with My Smart Puppy as it is run and moderated by dog trainers with many many years of experience and is frequented by many people in the industry as well.
posted by hindmost at 6:29 PM on December 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

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