Case Study: The Formerly Housetrained Dog

You move into a new home and suddenly, your dog forgets that he should do his business outside. Learn why housetraining may break down when you move, how to figure out what may be causing the problem, and what to do about it. 

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #165

Case Study: The Formerly Housetrained Dog


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Dog Trainer podcast listener Melanie recently wrote me about her 3-year-old Chihuahua, Marley, whom she housetrained in puppyhood. She said:

“Every morning since we moved to a new house a couple of weeks ago, I have woken up to pee and poop by the front door. Marley is outside with us most of the day and I go out with him before we go to bed. He seems to be freaked out about doing his business outside.  He poops outside maybe every other day.

We did also get a new kitty, and I wonder whether Marley thinks that since the kitten gets to pee and poop in the house, he now can too. Or could it be that my granddaughter hasn’t been staying over as often lately? Marley sometimes lies in her room, on her clothes, whining for hours. Maybe it’s everything – the new kitten, the new house, the litter box, and his little girl not here as much?  

I haven't really gotten after him for it, except for the stern look I give him while I'm cleaning it up and telling him that he can't do that! Can you help?” 

I get a fair bit of mail about housetraining breakdowns, and Melanie’s situation sounds pretty typical. Let’s cut out the easy part first. Whatever the reason for Marley’s overnight indoor toilet breaks, they’re not happening because he got the idea from the new cat. If the existence of cats’ litter boxes gave dogs the idea that they could eliminate indoors, I don’t know how anybody who has a cat would ever be able to housetrain a puppy. Also, if the litter box was the source of Marley’s inspiration, wouldn’t you expect that he’d use the litter box too? But no. 

If your dog’s housetraining falls apart, look for sources of stress that you can minimize or fix.

That’s not to say the kitten isn’t a factor. Melanie doesn’t say how much experience Marley has with cats; it’s possible that he finds his new housemate worrisome or even scary. If that’s so, then the kitten is a source of stress, and stress can contribute to a housetraining breakdown. However, Marley seems to have at least three other stressors in his life right now, and my guess is that they probably affect him more than the kitten does.

Stressor #1: Moving

Anyone who has ever moved knows how stressful it is, starting from the point where we decide to move, looking for a new place, going through a credit check or applying for a loan, packing, hiring movers…well, that list is already long enough to make most of us grit our teeth. Admittedly your dog isn’t doing the legwork, but if you get somewhat tense and testy in the process, you better believe he picks up on it. And in the end, what happens? He’s deposited in a new living situation that probably comes as a complete surprise to him. 

Stressor #2: The Unspecified Outdoor Freakout

Melanie says that Marley “seems to be freaked out about doing his business outside,” and that he only eliminates outdoors about every other day. Specific details are golden. What body language does Melanie see in Marley that makes him look freaked out? Where and when does she see that body language? What is different about the outdoor space in their new home, assuming Marley was at ease outdoors at the former home? Is there loud traffic? A barking dog in the yard next door? Is the surface of the yard different somehow? For example, a dog who’s accustomed to eliminating on turf may not eliminate readily on gravel or pavement. 

If Melanie can come up with some suspects for the cause or causes of Marley’s Mysterious Freakout, she may be able to change them, avoid them, or help him feel more comfortable with them. For example, suppose a delivery takes place next door every morning at eleven, and the beep-beep-beep of the truck backing up frightens Marley. Melanie might consider leaving Marley indoors at that time. 

Stressor #3: Change in Household Members

Melanie says that her granddaughter stays overnight less often in the new place than she used to. Usually I would expect a tiny dog like a Chihuahua to feel less stressed in the absence of a small child, because children are often unintentionally rough with dogs and their movements are erratic and unpredictable. But Marley seems to have an exceptional relationship with Melanie’s granddaughter – Melanie calls her “his little girl” and says that Marley will spend hours lying on her clothes and whining. 

“Separation anxiety” can be a muddled term, sometimes referring to a dog’s panic when left alone, sometimes to great distress caused by the absence of one particular person. Whether Marley can be said to have full-blown separation anxiety around Melanie’s granddaughter, I can’t say on the basis of the information I have. It’s certainly possible, for instance, that Marley loves attention and has learned to get it by vocalizing while he lies on the little girl’s clothes. But I’m betting his behavior reflects discomfort that’s in some way connected with either her absence in particular, or with other household members’ emotions around that absence. 

Other Possible Factors

The household move would be stressful in itself, but also it might have brought some changes in Marley’s daily routine – in the timing of his toilet breaks or meals, for instance. Even if those changes are perfectly pleasant for him, they could in turn change the timing of his bowel movements or of when his bladder is most full. 

Another possibility is that although Marley was housetrained in the old place, he never generalized his housetraining to other indoor spaces. This isn’t at all uncommon – I’ve often had friends and clients mention that seemingly housetrained dogs eliminated indoors in a new apartment or while visiting someone else’s home. 

Some dogs are never really housetrained to begin with. A tiny dog can get in the habit of peeing in an out-of-the-way corner so that his guardian rarely or never notices it. In a new home, those “mistakes” get spotted, partly because the dog no longer has that same remote toilet spot and partly because humans are also more aware of their surroundings in a less familiar place. 

Marley’s three, too young for medical problems to be high on the list of reasons for housetraining breakdown, but they’re worth ruling out. Finally, the longest of long shots is that something that regularly takes place overnight is causing his behavior, maybe literally scaring the pee and poop right out of him. Remember, long shot.

I think Marley is probably eliminating indoors because stress and the change in routine have changed his timing so he just can’t help it. The evidence is that he eliminates near the door, as close to outside as he can get.

How to Solve the Problem

Even though Marley is probably housetrained, Melanie’s best bet is Housetraining 101. A predictable routine with frequent outings should help him return to a pee and poop schedule that doesn’t include overnights. Melanie could also change the timing of Marley’s supper, or even get up in the middle of the night to give him a toilet break. She can set the alarm half an hour later every night, until Marley is back to a first-thing-in-the-morning schedule. 

Melanie says she’s been giving Marley stern looks while she cleans up. Stop those stern looks, Melanie! Marley may just learn that peeing and pooping are best done out of sight. As I’ve said before, that’s the fast route to the behind-the-couch dog toilet. 

Finally, Melanie should do whatever she can to ease Marley’s stress. I suggested some possibilities to explore concerning the outdoors, and the predictability of the housetraining regimen can help overall. Remember: a predictable, pleasant routine is a huge stress reliever.  

For more tips and tricks on teaching and living with your dog, check out my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com.

I really appreciate your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!

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About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).