House Breaking vs. Separation Anxiety

I’ve met with a few clients lately who contacted Four Paws and You Dog Training to find out about how to stop their dog from soiling in the home. When I met with them and inquired a bit about each dog’s background, I soon found out some, not all, had some incomplete house breaking and others had some level of separation anxiety.  

How to tell the difference? House breaking or house training is training the dog to go outside for all elimination. Ideally, the handler will teach the dog (puppy or an adult dog) to go to a door, sit and wait for the door to open and be released from sitting with a cue of ok (or whatever release word the handler chooses). As soon as the dog eliminated, the handler would give copious amounts of praise which in turn positively reinforces the dog to use the outside as his bathroom. Over time and with consistency, the dog will be conditioned to go to the door when he needs to use the bathroom. This behavior will then tell the handler, “oh, its time for potty” and let the dog outside. 

Incomplete house breaking is when the frequency of having house soiling accidents doesn’t diminish and the dog isn’t reinforced for using the bathroom outside (handler isn’t watching and giving praise, the dog doesn’t eliminate at all and he has the run of the house when he comes back inside). In addition, since dogs have such a keen sense of smell and when previous urine wasn’t completely cleaned up, the dog knows where he urinated before and therefore will continue going back to the same spot to urinate again. House soiling can be recifited by strict behavior management plan and watching for the dog to eliminate outside. Sometimes its effective (so long no anxious behaviors develop) to keep the dog confined in a crate or in a room with the door shut when the handler has to leave for whatever reason which will teach the dog not to use the bathroom in his space and wait until he has the opportunity to go to the bathroom outside. 

Newly adopted dogs may have some initial house soiling issues even if they were completely house broken before moving in. Some dogs who move into a new home are a bit confused about the change in their routines and new neighborhood. They may seem reluctant in the beginning in eliminating where you’re wanting them to go and their may be some accidents along the way. I have first hand knowledge with Bernie. Bernie’s temperament is more thoughtful and reserved. When we brought Bernie home for the first time, we didn’t know Bernie’s signs for using the bathroom. We were a bit dumbfounded when he would get up and just pee. We didn’t recognize there was a few moments before he ‘just peed’ when he would stare at us by the door. It took us a moment in connecting his subtle jestures in wanting us to take him out. Bernie also didn’t pee on walks in the beginning. He was more hesitant in leaving his mark around the block. Bernie was the most comfortable in going to the EXACT same spot each time to urinate. It wasn’t for a couple of weeks later when he would be interested in the walks and feel comfortable peeing in other areas around the neighborhood. I learned a thing or two from Berns which I pass along to clients when they request guidance on house training, bring your dog to the same spot every time he pees and give lots of praise! It works like a charm.

Now for a bit on separation anxiety. For starters, I’m not a behaviorist, I’m a dog trainer. The differences I can get into in another post, but my education is in understanding and training an animal, particularly dogs in performing certain tasks as in obedience cues. I have knowledge in and can implement behavior management plans for specific issues such as house training. For more severe behavior problems like aggression, I often refer clients to vets so they can get a medical perspective, such as a behaviorist or a vet on treating such behaviors or to another trainer who has more extensive background in such areas as aggression. For me, separation anxiety is a mixed bag. I have both personal and professional experience working with dogs who are actively showing separation anxiety. I often suggest to a client for a vet consult on a dog’s separation anxiety if there are such behaviors as mutilation and or signs the dog is having what a human would describe as a panic attack. The symptoms in dogs is very simliar to what people experience with panic attacks. In the canine world, separation anxiety is often described as a dog pacing after the handler leaves, digging or scratching at a door or window in an effort to escape, urinating or defecating, drooling to name a few. Most of these behaviors begin within the first 15 to 20 minutes after the handler leaves, but signs can be seen even before the door closes and the dog is left alone. (For additional reading on separation anxiety check out: ASPCA Info on Canine Separation Anxiety).

A few of my clients shared with me some experiences of their dogs showing various degrees of separation anxiety. Like humans who suffer with anxiety, the symptoms can range from tolerable to inhibiting for daily activity. One client in particular adopted a dog who didn’t know life was ok when his handlers left. Trixie is a 3 year old lab mix. She spent some time in various foster care homes and coincidentally, the families didn’t leave Trixie or their dog’s alone much. They all had someone who was around. Trixie starts showing her anxiety when her family starts getting ready to leave for an undetermined amount of time. She will follow them around, whine and pace after they zip up their jackts. The behavior escalates soon after their departure or perceived departure (they tried pretending to leave and observe her behavior) and the issues remain the same, she whines, scratches at the door and then in most circumstances, Trixie urinates and defecates. Sometimes the urination is so bad its as though its sprayed around the room. Some dogs do well without any interventions, but some dogs who are often highly sensitive and higher energy, like Trixie sometimes tend to develop some level of separation anxiety. It could be a result of moving from different environments which all have different routines, it could be related to more of the working breeds who tend to be attached to one or two people. It may be they need a job to do and they feel ‘lost’ when their family is gone. Maybe there is a need for reestablishing the order of the household (rules, boundaries, who is ‘top’ dog so to speak, but not in the old skool way of who is alpha or dominate, but rather in who is in the primary caretaker role). It could be a multitude of issues happening all at once, but every dog is different and should be evaluated that way. Whatever the case, in situations such as this its important for a strict behavior management plan and possibly a vet consult.

After my visit with Trixie and her family, I reflected on my early years with Jack. Jack had some separation anxiety when we first adopted him. He panicked when we crated him, but he destroyed stuff in a fit when we would leave him unconfined for any length of time.  He would bark incessantly and at one time or another he would defecate inside while we were gone. He was completely house broken, he never had an accident when we were home. We thought exercise would be sufficient. We would run with him for an hour or two, but when we would leave after we got back, the same behaviors. He was 1 1/2 years old then and now he’s 5 and I can say he’s way more settled. There are a variety of factors which contributed, he’s older, I became a dog trainer, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on a daily basis working with him on basic obedience to behavior modification (reduce the reaction towards other dogs on walks, outside our home as some examples). I have a pretty structured routine for them which helped establish consistency. We run almost every day, I work in some play or agility with them and they always work for food and treats. I’ve found separation anxiety can ebb and flow, meaning, some days are better than others, but the more you stick to a plan and find out what works, you’ll see results. Results probably won’t happen in a day, but over time, you’ll see your dog have less panic and more calm in his life.

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