Gracie the Golden Retriever became housetrained quickly when she was adopted as a puppy two years ago. But recently Gracie has started peeing indoors. Sometimes she does it when she’s home alone; other times she does it right in front of her family. Basically, she just stops whatever she’s doing (playing with a toy, reclining in a sun patch on the carpet, or wandering about), squats, and pees. Although her family is alarmed, they know that punishing Gracie will make things worse, so they have refrained from that.
To make sure Gracie hadn’t developed a urinary tract infection or some other medical condition that could have caused a housetraining lapse, her family took her to the vet for a checkup. Happily, Gracie is in perfect health.
Nothing about her daily activities has changed, except one thing: she switched daycare facilities last month.
Why is Gracie peeing indoors? Let's ask our three questions to find out.
What is the dog's body language? (List what the dog looks and sounds like.) From what they’ve been able to see, Gracie’s body looks relaxed: she moves around freely, doesn’t whimper or bark, has a neutral tail, soft ears, and worry-free face.
What is going on? (Describe the context.) Gracie doesn’t have any health problems, she pees indoors whether she’s alone or not, and she switched daycare facilities.
Now we put the information together:
There are a number of reasons why dogs have housetraining problems. Most often, these dogs simply aren’t completely housetrained. That is, their owners have not reinforced outside elimination and prevented (with a crate, for instance) any mistakes inside. Sometimes, however, they have a medical condition that causes a weak bladder, or they are urinating because they are afraid.
The vet ruled out any medical conditions, so we’re left with training and fear as possible explanations. We can look at Gracie’s body language to determine if she is scared.
If Gracie were scared, we likely would not see her at all. She would hide away to do her business, perhaps in the basement, or she would be urinating out of panic when she’s left alone. If we did see her, we might see her hunched over, licking her lips or flicking her tongue, glancing away, with worry lines on her face, and ears flattened back, and she might pace around uncomfortably.
We’re not seeing any of that. Instead, Gracie looks relaxed.
Of course, we can only see Gracie when someone is home with her, so to completely rule out fear, we’d need to use a camera to get video of her when she’s alone. But the fact that Gracie is peeing indoors even when people are with her, and she doesn’t look distressed then, suggests that fear is probably not the cause.
Gracie switched daycare facilities. It turns out that the old daycare place used to take dogs on walks to go to the bathroom, but the new one has the dogs roam free all day and go to the bathroom on the rubber flooring inside — they have staff on hand to clean things up right away.
What's the answer?
As we discuss in How Dogs Learn, one way dogs learn is to do what works for them and stop doing what doesn’t.
Initially Gracie was housetrained using a crate to keep her from having accidents indoors. Her owners also rewarded her with delicious pieces of roast chicken when she relieved herself outdoors. In no time at all Gracie figured out that going to the bathroom outdoors meant wonderful tasty things on top of a feeling of relief, and so she developed a strong preference for pottying outdoors.
But everything changed when Gracie switched daycare centers. Not only did she not get much outdoor time, but she and all the other dogs were given free rein to relieve themselves indoors. Once Gracie learned in daycare that urinating inside provides the same reinforcement (that is, the relief of an empty bladder) as urinating outside, it was only a matter of time before she tried the same behavior at home.
Luckily, this is a very easy fix. It’s back to basics for this family to teach Gracie to pee outdoors. Just as Gracie learned housetraining before, she can do so again. A few more days in the crate, along with delicious treats for relieving herself outside, will likely get her back to the nicely-housetrained dog she used to be. And she can easily learn that while it’s okay to urinate inside in one space, it’s not okay in all spaces.