If your house-trained dog starts having accidents, there are two measures to take. The first is medical and the second is behavioral. Both are covered below.
If your adult potty-trained dog has started to house-soil again, Dr. Madison advised waiting 72 hours before taking her to a vet, unless the pee has a foul odor, looks cloudy, or contains blood. Dr. Walton noted that a change in your dog’s stools—such as in texture, color, or consistency—would also be a reason not to delay a visit to the vet. As would a change in bathroom habits combined with weight loss, increased thirst, or other signs of illness such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or loss of appetite.
When I talked with local vets, Dr. Madison listed urinary infections and diabetes as two common medical reasons for a trained dog to house-soil. Dr. Walton concurred, and expanded the list: Excessive peeing could indicate bladder stones or bladder cancer, Cushing’s disease, or cognitive dysfunction; pooping indoors might indicate gastrointestinal tract disease.
Vet Street provides this complete list of reasons for a dog’s change in bathroom habits:
- Side effects of medications: Some drugs can cause dogs to need to relieve themselves more often, thereby resulting in accidents.
- Hormone incontinence: Older female dogs that have been spayed might become incontinent due to a lack of estrogen, which helps maintain muscle tone of the urethral sphincter.
- Age-related diseases: Older dogs may develop kidney disease, cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or other conditions that cause them to relieve themselves more often or become incontinent.
- Other health problems: Infections, tumors, spinal cord injuries, or bladder problems can cause incontinence in dogs of any age. Moreover, diseases such as diabetes cause dogs to drink more, which of course makes them pee more, and can result in more accidents.
How will a vet evaluate your dog? PetMD explains that a vet will perform a thorough physical exam on your dog which will include a complete blood profile and a urinalysis. Fecal (stool) tests may also be ordered. In addition, a vet might order x-ray and ultrasound images.
Another medical reason for house-soiling is specific to older dogs: senior incontinence. I’ll cover this in my third and final article in this series.
Some behavioral changes that could effect a dog to start pottying inside would be any change to the home or family, sudden fear or anxiety from any number of things, or it may just be acting out due to not getting what it wants. —Dr. Erica Madison, Vintage Heights
Anxiety, lack of consistent schedule, being crated or kept indoors too long (owners have long work hours), and lack of exercise are all behavioral reasons for a dog to potty inside. —Dr. Amy Walton, Pet Care Center of Lincoln
Some more common behavioral causes for house-soiling include: submissive urination, excitement, fear, separation anxiety, change in routine, and marking. The sooner the behavior is addressed and resolved, the less the likelihood you’ll need an intensive treatment program. Determining the specific reason for the dog’s misbehavior is the first step.
Submissive Urination: Does your dog pee when you come home or when he meets new people? Chances are he suffers from submissive urination and has little control over his bladder. Even if your dog licks your face and wags his tail, your dog can also urinate because he believes this is a way to show submission. Other signs of submission include avoidance of eye contact, ears back, retraction of lips, and cowering. Submissive urination is most prevalent in puppies and young female dogs. It happens when a person approaches, reaches out, or stands over a dog. To help your dog overcome submissive urination, Pets—The Nest recommends kneeling at your dog’s level when you greet him, avoiding eye contact, and never touching him on the head or ears. You might also throw a few treats in front of him when he greets you.
Excitement: Does your dog pee when being greeted, receiving affection, or from otherwise being excited? Just like with submissive urination, he’ll have little control over his bladder. In fact, excitement urination most often occurs among young dogs, and usually resolves on its own as a dog matures. To help the process, Dr. Sophia Yin suggests reducing his excitement. When family and friends come to visit, instead of instantly petting and playing with your dog, they should ignore him until he has calmed down. Even then, pet with slow and even strokes and speak softly and soothingly. If at this point your dog still urinates, he should again be ignored until he is once again placid.
Fear: Does the sound of loud noises from traffic, construction, or storms cause your dog to refuse to relieve himself outside? Conditions outside are making your dog anxious and unable to use the bathroom and the unfortunate result could be that he’ll later have an accident in the house. If the noise is temporary, VetStreet suggests taking your dog somewhere else such as for a walk or to doggy daycare. If the noise is consistent, use this opportunity to use distractions and rewards to condition him to not react negatively, and in time he should learn to accept noises as a normal part of life. Alternatively, try creating a relaxing environment in the house with the use of music and puzzle feeders.
Changes in Routine: Have there been any recent changes in your family’s life? Changes such as a birth or death, a family member moving out or into the home, or divorce can cause distress in a dog. As can the remodeling of your house or a deviation in the family’s daily routine. In his anxiety, your dog may become nervous and have accidents in the house. During the transition period your dog may struggle to cope and so you should allow your dog time to adjust.
Separation Anxiety: Does your dog act distressed and relieve himself when left alone? Your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. He isn’t being bad out of spite or revenge, but because he’s missing you. Separation anxiety is a behavior that might require the assistance of a veterinarian or a behavior specialist, and it can take weeks or even months to change. Below is a summary of a program the MSCPA has used to treat separation anxiety. For more details, visit its website.
- Confidence building: Have at least one or two five-minute training sessions every day where you work on basic commands and/or tricks. Daily training sessions will help to build your dog’s confidence and reduce anxiety.
- Comfort Place and Attention: Provide a place for your dog to go when you leave where she feels safe and secure. Teach him to go to that place and reward him when he does.
- Independence Training: Reduce the anxiety your dog feels when you leave by not allowing your dog to follow you everywhere. Discourage your dog from following you around the house by making him stay in one room while you are in another.
- Low-Key Departures and Arrivals: Do not have long good-byes or greetings. Keep them calm, controlled, and short.
- Habituate to departure cues: Make a list of things that you do when preparing to leave. Perform these tasks several times a day without leaving the house.
Marking: Is your dog urinating on vertical surfaces? Chances are he’s marking his territory. Marking is a normal territorial behavior, whereby a dog stakes his claim on property. Dogs mark for numerous reasons including male hormonal influences, the introduction of a baby or new dog, renovations to the house or a move into a new house, and general stress. PetMD advises that you spay/neuter your dog as soon as it’s old enough. Senior Tail Waggers notes that consistent correction will often reduce the problem over time. StoptheDog concurs and suggests basic obedience training.
If a dog potties inside due to anxiety-related reasons, renew training, increase exercise, and consider anxiety medication. Note about medications: they don’t fix the problem. They simply bring the dog to a level that they’ll be receptive to training and not in a panic. Proper, consistent training is key. —Dr. Amy Walton, Pet Care Center of Lincoln
Regardless of which behavior is causing your dog to house-soil, Dr. Madison says that if all else fails you may have retrain him all over again. “Put the dog on a leash as soon as it comes in and walk through the house and then go right back outside. Usually there are too many distractions outside and they forget why they are outside, so they come in the house, take a deep breath, and pee.”
Your dog is not having accidents to punish you. First, determine the cause is medical. If it’s not, then they may simply lack the proper training, or they’re stressed. In either case, they need your help. With time and patience, your home can once again be a clean and cheerful one.
The above article is based on research, personal experience, and consultation with vets. My deepest gratitude goes to Dr. Madison and Dr. Walton for their expert advice.