During the time our trainers answered calls at Call 12 recently, many of the behaviors we discussed with callers were the same common questions we help guardians address through our Behavior Helpline, which is a free service sponsored by Chem-Dry of Richmond. These behaviors can be—by our ridiculously strict human standards—fairly gross. Dogs in particular are the biggest offenders here. Whether it’s mounting your leg, rolling around on the remains of something rotten, or just casually eating some garbage, dogs tend to be free-spirited bohemians who have little time for our bourgeois notions of cleanliness and decorum. Judging from the number of calls we received about it, this devil-may-care attitude was most present in adult dogs with house-training issues. Many dogs seem to feel that relieving themselves on your favorite Oriental rug is perfectly acceptable, so long as you don’t see them do it. And that is the crux of the issue: they only do it when you’re not looking.
In the old-school, coercion or punishment-based, style of training, the “solution” to this problem is to punish the dog for eliminating indoors. The main benefit of this method is that it makes humans feel like they are in charge and doing something to “correct” the dog. The problem is that the dog often has no clue why he is being corrected. And scientifically speaking, this kind of punishment is not necessary, and can be counter-productive. Punishing your dog for eliminating in the house without first teaching him clearly where he SHOULD potty really just teaches him to fear you, and makes him desperate to find a more secluded and secret location in the house, such as the priceless Persian rug that not even your human children are allowed to walk on.
As we told the many callers who were dealing with this issue, the goal here is not to make your dog terrified of relieving him or herself indoors, but rather making the dog enthusiastic about eliminating outdoors. Practically, the goal is to set your dog up for success, rather than punishing any failures. Accidents should be prevented as much as possible, and your dog should make frequent trips outside to give her a chance to do the right thing. Whenever she does, act as excited as possible and bombard her with the best treats you can get. Your neighbors may form certain opinions of you once they see you jumping up and down with joy and vigorously praising a dog in the process of eliminating, but obviously being seen as the neighborhood weirdo is a small price to pay for having a happy, well-behaved dog.
Rewarding good behavior is the simple part. However, preventing the accidents is where it gets difficult. Here, I recommend two tools: a crate, and the umbilical method. Crating your dog while you’re away is absolutely the best way to have peace of mind that your dog is not practicing bad behavior while you’re away. For more information on crate training, see our behavior resources handout on this topic. The crate is all well and good for when you’re gone for a short time, but what about when you are at home? That’s where the umbilical method comes in. It is so called because you have your dog attached as with an umbilical cord, though in this case it’s simply a leash hooked through one of your belt loops. This way, your dog is always by your side, and can’t sneak off to do his business elsewhere. If given plenty of opportunities to go outside, and plenty of praise and treats when he relieves himself out there, your dog will soon learn that using the great outoors as a toilet is definitely the way to go. Once they realize that, you can “cut the cord.”
Housetraining for adult dogs may have been the most common call we received, but it was far from the only issue. We fielded calls about shy dogs, barky dogs, bitey cats and feline turf wars. In future posts, I will elaborate on these issues just as I did regarding housetraining here. If you just can’t wait that long, you can call our Behavior Helpline at 804-643-7722. Or, if like me you have crippling phone anxiety, you can also send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Before I finish, I’d like to offer a huge thank you to NBC12 for devoting such a large block of time to the cause of helping pets and guardians overcome behavior issues and stay together. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you agree on the vital importance of these services which allow people to maintain that bond of love, trust and devotion they have with their animals. NBC12 has certainly shown us that they understand this cause, and we look forward to our next Call 12 segment in 2017.
Alan Lankford is a training and behavior specialist at the Richmond SPCA School for Dogs. To read the biographies of our regular bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires a first and last name to be used as your screen name.