ABSTRACT: In this, the first of two articles on first aid advice for the owner concerned with the house soiling dog, we consider the type of enquiries that nursing staff may need to make on initial contact, enabling them to give constructive advice. Because many dogs have never been taught to hold urine or faeces for more than a couple of hours, they are not really fully toilet trained, leading to problems when owners need to leave them for longer periods. Other dogs simply misunderstand the difference between inside and outside the home. Timely advice may prevent such dogs from being re-homed.

House-soiling is distressing for families and the their responses can cause considerable distress for the dog. Despite this, many clients are too embarrassed to ask for help, or have put up with the problem for so long that they feel that nothing can be done to improve the situation.

Families bear the cost of replacing flooring and furnishings, or simply the depression accompanying the daily toil of cleaning up the mess; and in extreme cases, house-soiling may lead to breakdowns in owner-pet relationships and to inter-human relationship problems as partners become pressurised to relinquish their pets.

Timely intervention from nursing staff – including asking questions about house training during routine presentations at the surgery – can mean the difference between a pet remaining in a home, or being re-homed.

First things first

If there is an underlying medical reason for a behaviour problem, trying to stop it using environmental management and/or behaviour modification alone can delay necessary medical treatment, which is clearly detrimental to the animal’s welfare. Medical causes should, therefore, be ruled out before embarking upon any form of behavioural therapy. However, when the medical problem has been resolved, there are likely to have been learning opportunities during the house-soiling problem that will need further behavioural intervention to resolve.

The first part of any discussion on house soiling issues involving urination should be to explain how to collect a urine sample and deliver it for a dip test. If the problem involves faeces, enquiries should be made about texture and any change in diet or toileting pattern – if necessary,. owners should be persuaded to present their pet for examination.

So what's the problem?

That’s a difficult question, so it may be a good idea to make that clear to an owner from the start.

If the problem has been going on for some time, unless the owners are ‘saints’, they are likely to have occasionally responded to finding soiled areas in a manner that will make their return home, or entry into rooms, both inconsistent and frightening for their bemused pet. These pets have not soiled the home through choice – so they are unlikely to connect their owner’s unusual behaviour with the soiling event. Consequently, both owners and pets will become anxious about returns to the home.

Owners should be advised to remain calm and normal in their greeting, gently encouraging their dog into another area – preferably the garden, in case they need to toilet – where they can do something relaxing or fun while the owner quietly fumes as they clean up! Under no circumstances should the dog be punished, be firmly or loudly spoken to, or ‘shown’ the mess.

Become a detective

There are so many possible reasons for house soiling, so it really helps to gather as much information as possible. Start with a query about when the problem started and the history of its development. Also, try to get the family to set up a video camera so that they can determine exactly when the soiling occurs and how the dog is behaving at the time.

It may help if they can show this film to you, as you may spot behaviours associated with the need to toilet or anxiety, that the family are so used to seeing that they don’t notice them.

Incomplete toilet training

If soiling is occurring at the end of an excessively long period (more than eight hours, for example) of owner absence, then it is reasonable to suggest that owners make arrangements for someone to visit the dog in the middle of the period, allowing it to stretch its legs in the garden and to toilet.

If the dog has been allowed to toilet shortly before the owners leave, yet soils the home during the latter half of a reasonable period of absence (within six hours, for instance) then the dog may have been incompletely toilet trained. This may also be the case if the dog toilets in front of owners – even after just entering the house after exercise.

Dogs develop a substrate preference for toileting from five weeks of age, and this becomes increasingly strong as they get older. Puppies can be quite entrenched in this preference for location and substrate by 12 weeks of age.

If a puppy has spent a prolonged period with a breeder who uses kennels or flooring similar to that in the home, it may be difficult for the dog to become used to grass or an outside environment. The same can be said for older dogs that have spent time in kennels.

Puppies should be encouraged to go to – and spend time at – the chosen latrine site as soon as they enter the home. Temporary indoor latrines do not really help. For the same reason, covering a floor in newspaper and gradually reducing the area to near the back door may not work; and leaving a door open for a dog to go into a garden may stop it learning the difference between the two spaces, so that when the door closes in colder weather the pet is not toilet trained.

Getting it right from the start

The ideal substrate for toileting is grass; but as many people live in flats, those with balconies may wish to create a large, low-sided seed tray of grass that can be used. Latrine sites can be enhanced by wringing out soaked up urine from previous ‘mistakes’ (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Bitch urinating in spot previously 'marked' as a latrine site

Puppies are sensitive to the discomfort experienced as their bladder and bowel fills, experiencing an urge for frequent emptying. If a door has been constantly open, the puppy may not have learnt to gradually hold urine or faeces for increasing amounts of time, and it may never have learnt to ignore the regular signalling to toilet.

Family members should all understand that toileting doesn’t just happen following waking and eating, but also at times of excitement or fear – after playing or on the arrival of visitors, for instance. Families should be ready to take young dogs out to their latrine immediately following such events – and to be patient.

Crate training

As dogs rarely choose to toilet close to their sleeping area, crate training can assist a dog to learn to extend the period that it retains urine or faeces. The dog must b
e trained to be relaxed in the crate, only gradually getting to a stage when the door can be locked – otherwise it may become fearful of containment and may hurt itself. Once the crate is accepted, the period of time spent in it can be gradually increased.

Water and an entertaining, chewable toy should be left in the crate, and if, initially, the puppy continues to soil the non-bedded area, it may be helpful to place the bed at the front of the crate so that the dog doesn’t walk through soiled areas to greet the owners!

Adolescents and adult dogs

Repeated house-soiling incidents can leave odours that are impossible to clean – in grouting, carpets, under lino, in wooden floors and furniture. Families may need to be prepared to remove these items, toilet train the dog and then replace with fresh items. Make sure that clients aren’t using cleaning procedures that further entrench the latrine habit – so avoid disinfectants and bleach.

Older dogs are not impossible to house train, but it will take some intensive effort from the family. Owners should use a lightweight lead – at least twice the normal length – to form a long umbilical cord that remains attached to a family member for a minimum of a 48-hour period. The family can take turns at being attached.

At predictable times, or when the dog circles or sniffs the floor, it should be taken outside to a desirable latrine site and allowed time to settle and toilet. If after 15 minutes it hasn’t performed, then it can return to the house, but owners should observe it for signs – such as turning or sniffing the floor – that should initiate a quiet, gentle but rapid transition outside!

Once the dog has toileted, it should be quietly, but immediately, rewarded. Forty- eight hours of consistently getting it right’ and receiving reinforcement for doing so, can make a huge difference.

Older dogs and incontinence

Older dogs are in particular danger of euthanasia for a lack of house training. Those with joint pain, obesity or muscle wastage, may experience incontinence whilst struggling to get up from resting places – pain management may help, but otherwise owners can make life easier for themselves by choosing easily-replaced bedding material, and placing beds close to an outside door.

Some soiling accidents close to doors may be the consequence of the dog’s becoming confused about which doors to approach and which side of the door will open. Such cases will benefit from treatment to assist cognition, and reinforcement for using the correct doors. Owners can make these doors more obvious by placing an item over them, for example, a contrasting coloured towel.

Just a bit of fun

Some dogs, particularly those that enjoy sniffing and investigating their environment, may quickly learn that completing toilet behaviour leads to a return to the house; so they delay toileting. Owners erroneously assume that the dog does not wish to toilet and take the dog into the home, where it toilets in front of them.

Giving such dogs time to toilet and then initiating a ‘fun’ activity can encourage the dog to speed up toileting to enable the initiation of a game.


Although many dogs are quite brazen in their toileting behaviour, toileting is almost impossible while an animal is anxious. Try to dissuade owners from using methods that cause the dog to become anxious – pebble cans, sprays and so on. This will only worsen the problem and make a timid dog more likely to find a quieter latrine site in the home. If all else fails, make sure that owners stop punishing the dog and trying to rub its nose in the mess.

In the next article on this subject we will consider house-soiling problems with an anxiety basis. 


Claire Hargrave BSC MSC PGCE CCAB

Claire is a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist and a Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors who has worked in veterinary practice in numerous capacities for over 30 years.

Claire runs a specialist referral practice for companion animal behaviour cases and is located in South West Wales. www.petbehaviourwales.co.uk

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2012.00153.X or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 146-148

Further reading

BOWEN. J and HEATH. S. (2005) Behaviour problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine 1st or 2nd Editions. BSAVA Gloucester.

• VOL 27 • April 2012 • Veterinary Nursing Journal