Dog Behavior Problems: House Soiling

Why is my dog soiling the house?

A dog might urinate or defecate inside the house for several reasons. In almost all cases, with a little detective work, the cause can be determined. Once the reason or reasons are clear, an appropriate and effective treatment strategy can be designed.

There are four main causes for house soiling.

  1. Incomplete house training or house training lapse: Your dog might not be fully house trained. She may be able to eliminate outside but does not understand that she sometimes needs to wait for outdoor access. If your dog has either continuously or intermittently soiled indoors from the time she was adopted, then she is likely not fully house trained. In some cases, even a healthy, well-trained dog can have a full bladder and experience a true urgency to eliminate.
  2. Underlying medical condition: There are many medical conditions that can change a dog’s urinary or digestive health, thus producing an urgency to eliminate. Changes in the brain can cause forgetfulness with a loss of learned behaviors. Whether your dog’s house soiling has been persistent or started suddenly, it is important to bring her to your veterinarian for an examination.
  3. Underlying behavioral illness: Behavioral illnesses related to fear, anxiety, or frustration can cause house soiling. Dogs that experience fear or anxiety are often unable to learn the concept of eliminating outdoors, particularly if there is something outside the house that frightens them. If indoor elimination is a new behavior for your dog, it is also important to consider whether there have been any recent changes in your dog’s environment or schedule that might have triggered fear, anxiety, or frustration.
  4. Communication or marking behavior: It can be normal for a dog to mark their territory. Intact dogs are most at risk as they use urine and/or feces to signal their sexual status. Marking can also occur in dogs experiencing anxiety or frustration, such as when there are stressful social interactions within the home. It is important to determine your dog's motivation for marking – a veterinary behaviorist can help.

What medical conditions could cause my dog to house soil?

A wide range of illnesses can affect a dog’s house training. Here are some examples.

  1. Diseases or medications that cause dogs to drink more water and then urinate larger quantities of urine. For example:
    • Kidney or liver disease
    • Infection
    • Diabetes mellitus
    • Diabetes insipidus
    • Cushings disease
    • Corticosteroids (prednisone)
  2. Conditions that cause an increase in the frequency or quantity of stool. For example:
    • Inflammatory bowel disease
    • Food hypersensitivity
    • Maldigestion/malabsorption
    • Intestinal parasites
    • High-fiber diet
  3. Conditions that cause discomfort during urination or defecation. For example:
    • Cystitis
    • Urinary calculi (stones)
    • Colonitis
    • Orthopedic or neurologic pain
  4. Central nervous system abnormalities or disease:
    • Brain inflammation or infection
    • Senior onset cognitive decline
  5. Infection or inflammation
  6. Inadequate sphincter control (urinary or fecal incontinence)

How is incomplete house training or house-training lapse treated?

Start at the beginning, as though your dog were a young puppy, and supervise carefully. Be sure your dog has adequate opportunities to go outside to her appropriate elimination location. It is helpful to have a designated area for elimination, and, when she is brought outside, to guide her to that area before playing with her.

It is essential that you supervise her until she has eliminated. If she does not eliminate outside, then bring her back inside, but keep her in sight and be ready to take her out again in a few minutes.

If you miss your chance and your dog starts to posture to eliminate, you may be able to distract your dog with a novel sound and then hurry her outside to her appropriate elimination spot. Do not try to frighten or scold your dog.

If you miss your chance and your dog has already eliminated, do not interact with your dog - just clean up quietly, ideally with her out of the room. Do not scold or otherwise punish your dog - she will become confused and possibly frightened. She may even look “guilty,” but that guilty look just means she is worried. A sensitive dog may be too frightened to ever eliminate in front of a person.

Alternatively, if you are certain she is comfortable and there is no urgency, it can be helpful to keep your dog on a leash beside you, or to train her to rest on her settle mat, until you are ready to take her out again. This training can help her learn that sometimes there is a need to wait a little while before accessing the bathroom.

A healthy adult dog can usually hold urine for about 3–4 hours if they are not active. Active dogs often need to urinate more often than that. Be sure that your veterinarian has checked your dog and confirmed that there is no medical factor creating urgency.

"If you plan to leave your dog longer than she is able to hold her urine and stool comfortably, then it is best to have a pet sitter come to give her relief or to train her to use a potty pad."

For times that you cannot supervise, it is best to confine your dog in an area that won’t be damaged if she does soil. That could be a gated room or even a comfortable crate. If you plan to leave your dog longer than she is able to hold her urine and stool comfortably, then it is best to have a pet sitter come to give her relief or to train her to use a potty pad.

Try to learn your dog’s defecation pattern. Most dogs defecate 1–3 times daily, and most often defecate shortly after eating a meal. Once you know your dog’s physiologic tendencies, you can plan outings that satisfy your dog’s needs. Dogs can adjust to your schedule with practice and consistent training. However, if your schedule is typically random, then your dog will need to learn to wait patiently until you are ready to let her outside.

It may be helpful to keep a journal to track your dog’s diet and elimination behaviors. That way, you can easily detect which interventions lead to improvement. Also, you may discover a pattern that reveals an underlying medical or behavioral illness that can be addressed.

Why does my dog still eliminate indoors even though her medical conditions have been resolved?

Dogs experience relief when they eliminate. That is why young puppies are so easily conditioned to eliminate on a specific substrate such as a potty pad or in a specific location such as the backyard. Similarly, dogs that have been ill can become conditioned to eliminate on a new substrate such as your carpet or in a new location such as a quiet room. If that happens, begin house training from the start, as described in the previous section. Be sure to supervise your dog carefully and provide plenty of access to the outside. Depending on her health status, your dog may continue to need more frequent access to an appropriate elimination area.

How can I treat house soiling related to a behavioral illness?

If your dog’s house soiling persists, and she has been given a clean bill of health by your veterinarian, then it is best to consult with a veterinary behaviorist for a behavioral assessment. Behavioral conditions that cause fear, anxiety, or frustration may contribute to house soiling. For example, if your dog is frightened of certain noises, she may prefer to eliminate in a place where she will not encounter that trigger. Treatment will include desensitization to reduce her fear. Meanwhile, you may be able to create a sheltered outside bathroom area or train her to use an indoor potty station.

Other potential behavioral conditions that can lead to house soiling include distress related to being left alone and frustration related to potential intruders (territorial behavior). If your dog soils mainly in your absence, set up a spycam. You can then determine the underlying reason for the behavior based on your dog’s posture when she eliminates.

As discussed above, it is important that you do not punish your dog if you come home to urine or feces on the floor. Just clean quietly and, once the reason for the behavior is determined, you can begin appropriate treatment.

How can I treat house soiling related to marking?

Marking is a normal communication behavior. It is most seen in intact (unneutered) juvenile and adult dogs. An indoor mark is created to send a message. Supervision is an important tool for the prevention and management of marking. Male dogs typically lift a leg to mark high on a vertical surface. Female dogs may squat or may also shift their body into a slight leg lift. If you notice your dog posturing to mark indoors, you may be able to use a novel noise to interrupt the behavior. Do not attempt to frighten your dog, just interrupt, and then supervise to be sure that the emotion that triggered the behavior has passed.

"Underlying anxiety, frustration, and social conflict need to be addressed in order to reduce marking behavior."

Since marking can reflect underlying social tension, especially between two household dogs, it is important to consider your dog’s behavior during social interactions. Underlying anxiety, frustration, and social conflict need to be addressed in order to reduce marking behavior.

Belly bands are commercially available and, though not typically considered to be an effective behavior treatment, they are useful for protecting valuable property that could be damaged by urine. Most dogs continue to assume the marking posture even with the band attached. Thus, even if your dog is wearing a band, it is still important to supervise and interrupt your dog when he postures to mark. Belly bands are not effective for training. If you do use a belly band, check at least twice daily to be sure it is clean and dry, or your dog will be uncomfortable and could develop a serious skin infection.

Why does my dog urinate when he greets people?

Greetings are highly emotional times for dogs. Some dogs are slightly uneasy and exhibit a range of appeasing postures, sometimes called submissive postures, during greetings. They may turn their body into a U shape, lower their body into a crouch, lift their lips into a grin, and/or pull their ears back. They may also urinate. This is often called “submissive urination”.

Other dogs are very excited about meeting people. They may leap into the air or spin in circles. They may also urinate. This is referred to as “excitement-related urination”.

Neither submissive nor excitement-related urination is done “deliberately”. The dog has little or no conscious control of the behavior. Treatment involves addressing the emotion related to the social interaction.

Submissive and excitement-related urination are most common in very young, socially inexperienced dogs. To prevent the behavior from occurring or escalating, it is important to manage the greeting. Advise people that they should be calm and quiet when greeting your dog. They should use a calm, neutral voice when talking to your dog. Boisterous greetings and outstretched arms can be overwhelming and can trigger emotional conflict or fear. Have people limit their contact to short, one-handed pets.

Instead of allowing your dog to immediately approach a person, stand quietly a few steps away for a few minutes. Give your dog a few treats. Then, give the new person a treat and let your dog approach them for some treats. If your dog knows how to sit, the person can ask for a sit but only if your dog is calm and focused on the food. Then, call your dog back, treat, and repeat. After a few repetitions, your dog will begin to approach people and sit quietly, waiting for a treat.

When guests arrive, invite them to come in and sit in their chairs for a few minutes while you keep your dog on leash at the other side of the room. Feed your dog treats and help her settle. When she is calm, she may be released to visit the guest. As in the previous example, your guest may give your dog treats for sitting calmly.

What is canine cognitive dysfunction?

As dogs age, they develop changes in their brain and can experience a gradual decline in their cognitive function. Hallmarks of cognitive decline include disorientation and a loss of previously learned behaviors. Some dogs are not able to find their way to the door, while others forget to signal their need to eliminate. Dogs may go outdoors and forget to eliminate, only to eliminate shortly after they re-enter the house. It is important to be patient with your senior dog. You may be able to create a safe, comfortable, easily cleaned confinement area with piddle pads or washable matting.

Age-related cognitive changes cannot be reversed, your veterinarian can prescribe treatments to support brain health.

What is the best way to clean urine or fecal deposits?

Dogs are often attracted to previously soiled spots. To eliminate as much of the odor as possible, it is best to use a commercially available product that contain enzymes to degrade the urine or feces. An example is Urine Away™.