Case Histories January 2015 Issue

Solving Your Dog's Behavior Problem Crisis

A dog’s confusion, a couple’s desperation, and a trainer’s intervention lead to a nice resolution.

One of the most irritating – and common – phone calls I receive in my capacity as a professional dog trainer is when dog owners urgently ask me to help solve their dog’s behavior problem immediately – even though, as it often turns out, the problem has actually existed for years. Sometimes, it’s even phrased as, “If we can’t get this fixed now, we’re getting rid of the dog; we just can’t take it anymore.”

But it’s important that I not allow my irritation to show, because frequently, despite the fact that the problem took months or even years to develop, the people really are on the verge of giving up on the dog. Sometimes, whatever has been going on with the dog has tipped the scales significantly enough to prompt the client to ask for help right then and there. I want to harness that motivation! I want to seize that moment and get everyone working together on a solution, finally.

poodle sitting calmly

photo © Pproman |

Silly’s owners were extremely frustrated with their lack of success in housetraining the 4-year-old dog, and they had just about reached the point of rehoming her, due to that frustration. Fortunately, before they gave up, they asked for professional help from a positive trainer, who transformed their frustration into motivation to change their approach and tactics. And, voila! Silly is now reliably housetrained, and they are all much happier.

I received such a call on a Saturday afternoon from an exasperated woman whose 4-year-old miniature Poodle had a housetraining issue. The dog had never been successfully housetrained, she said, and now she and her husband were desperate.

They wanted this problem solved now, immediately. “You have to help us!” On learning how long the problem had existed, I asked what compelled them to seek help at this time.  “It’s gross,” she said. “It has to stop.”

People don’t generally book a behavior consultation because they suddenly consider their dog’s behavior gross after tolerating it for four years. I prodded a bit more. “Well, nothing’s worked. We must be doing something wrong!” Aha! It made me very happy that she hadn’t put the blame on the dog and that she appeared to recognize that there was something she and her husband should be doing differently. I figured I would get more details when I got there, and I booked them for that evening. Yes, it was a Saturday evening, but I kept thinking of all the fabulous training and practice opportunities they would get the very next day, Sunday, when they were both home all day. The timing was perfect.

I kept in mind that addressing a long-existing housetraining issue can be tricky, and it’s stressful for everyone involved, for a number of reasons, including:

- The humans are at the end of their rope (even though they’ve let it go on for several years).

- The dog is stressed because everyone seems to be so angry with her all the time.

- The humans are about to learn that the problem won’t be fixed overnight, and that they’ll have to significantly change their routine in order to make any progress.

- The dog is about to have the only toilet facilities she’s ever known, taken away from her . . . just try to imagine how confusing that must be, for anyone!

Logical Developments of Canine Behavior Problems

At the clients’ house, I was greeted at the door by a very enthusiastic, friendly little female poodle named “Silly.” I learned that the couple mostly worked on opposing shifts, and, to make matters more complicated, their schedules were unpredictable and irregular. This meant that a routine was difficult for them to stick to, and also explained why it was important that we meet “right now,” as it was one of the rare times they were both at home.

We quickly ruled out any medical issues as a potential cause for Silly’s “accidents,” as she had very recently  received a clean bill of health from her veterinarian at an annual health visit.

My attention was drawn to a couple of training “puppy” pads on the floor – one in the kitchen and another in the bathroom. I asked if Silly had ever been trained to use the pads; the answer was “Yes, sometimes she uses them.” Sometimes means that the answer was actually no; she had never been trained specifically to use the pads – she just managed to hit them sometimes when she eliminated in the spots in the house that she preferred for elimination.

I asked if they had ever attempted to train her to relieve herself outside. They said, “Not really, but sometimes if we’re outside, she’ll go potty there and she knows we’re happy about it.” Again, I surmised that no formal training had actually taken place.

I also learned that the husband had, on several occasions and on the advice of several well-meaning friends, resorted to spanking Silly if she was caught in the act of relieving herself in a location other than on the pad. He had also “rubbed her nose in it” if a mess was discovered after the fact. As a result, Silly now only relieved herself in a corner of the basement when no humans were around, or in the living room during the night when everyone was asleep.

The owners also mentioned that Silly was free-fed, and while she used to nibble throughout the day, she now ate and drank only after the owners had gone to bed. They said she often emptied her water bowl completely during this time.

The Behavior Modification Plan

We began by removing the training pads and establishing scheduled feeding times, in order to promote regular digestion and elimination.

We also devised a plan that would allow Silly the opportunity to go outside every 30 minutes for the next several days, always accompanied by someone who could reward her immediately if she relieved herself outside. This plan might prove difficult for some owners, but I learned that the owners’ next-door neighbors (in a duplex) were actually the husband’s parents, fond of Silly, retired, and readily available. I quickly recruited them to help handle this task.

Silly is not crate-trained and is not comfortable being confined, so we established a large area in the kitchen that could be closed off, where she could be left alone for short periods between visits from the parents. When the owners were home, she was to be either actively supervised or tethered to them at all times. They were to continue the frequent visits outside, with the intention of gradually stretching the time between outdoor trips as Silly became more successful with her outdoor potty breaks.

I explained to Silly’s owners that punishing her, whether in the act of eliminating in the house or upon finding evidence of a previous “accident” indoors, would discourage Silly from eliminating in front of them. In order to help Silly feel comfortable eliminating – outside! – the owners agreed to stop punishing her for any “mistakes” that she made.

Immediate Progress

During my visit, I took several opportunities to step into the backyard with Silly on a long leash and was lucky enough to be able to reward her – not once, but twice! – for relieving herself outside. When asked if they were up for the task of doing this all day on Sunday, with the aim of creating opportunities to reward Silly outside, both owners were extremely enthusiastic.

After one week, with the help of the parents and the urgent commitment of the owners, Silly had slipped up only once during the day when left alone for longer than planned and not confined to the kitchen area. And now that she was routinely praised and rewarded for eliminating outdoors, she also began scratching at the back door when she wanted to go outside!

The couple is now optimistic that their problem will finally be resolved. Best of all, the relationship between themselves and their darling little dog – a relationship that had been damaged by the punishment and mutual distrust – is well on its way to being repaired.

Crises as Opportunities

President John F. Kennedy once noted that when written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one that represents danger and one that represents opportunity. Perhaps that’s what Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel had in mind when he was more recently quoted as saying that one should “never let a serious crisis go to waste,” because  “it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Even life-threatening crises, such as when an owner considers surrendering or even euthanizing his dog due to serious behavior problems, can be seen as an opportunity for a trainer  – or even just a friend with a better dog education or more dog experience –  to help encourage and redirect the owner toward a smarter and more positive solution.

Not all conversations that begin with “You need to fix this right now!” grow into easy success stories like this one, and yet I can’t help but think that my having responded immediately, while the iron was hot, had a lot to do with fueling – and reinforcing! – the couple’s determination to address their problem in a new and better way.

Nancy Tucker, CPDT-KA, is a full-time trainer, behavior consultant, and seminar presenter in Quebec, Canada.  She has written numerous articles on dog behavior for Quebec publications focusing on life with the imperfect family dog. 

Comments (5)

It can be a bit frustrating when we deal with dog behavior because it often requires a complex management and a considerable amount of patience to make sure everything about the behavioral problem is properly addressed. Thanks to this article as it provides a sound advice and plan on how to effectively deal with the problem. In addition, I found another article that highlights the importance of addressing such problems. Sharing it to pet parents out there:

Posted by: Jane Smith | September 2, 2016 12:43 PM    Report this comment

I am the director and sole foster for Full House Full Hearts Dog Rescue that I started in February after several years of fostering for others. On April 5th, my rescue received a dog named Sadie with 5 puppies. Sadie was living on an abandoned property outside of Charlotte NC with a pack of dogs. They used a falling down garage as shelter. I believe Sadie was probably born there. She was probably barely one if that old and pregnant when a rescue group decided to try to get them all into rescues. A transporter talked me into the pregnant Sadie but when they went to the property to get her, they discovered she had just given birth. They took her and the six living of the seven pups she gave birth to, to a temporary foster home. I don't think anyone handled Sadie much there. While there, two more of her puppies died. When Sadie and the remaining 5 pups arrived at my rescue, it was obvious that most of the pups had birth defects and major issues. I tried to help them but lost 3 more. The other two seemed normal and thrived and have been adopted into loving forever homes.
The problem is I am having major issues with Sadie. She randomly likes/doesn't like different dogs and people. She has bitten 3 people, drawing blood. One is my adult son who she dove at his back from behind him and bit him in the lower back, puncturing the skin drawing blood and leaving an area that bruised the size of a small dinner plate. This was two weekends ago after she has lived in the same house with him since she came here. The other two people are two of his friends who are here all the time who all of our dogs and fosters have loved and who are nothing but friendly to dogs and she "sneaks" up behind them until she is close enough and dives in and bites the backs of their legs or arms and has drawn blood. Due to the fact that these guys are all "family", no charges have been pressed. However I have to be constantly vigilant of where she is when people come over or come to meet dogs/puppies. She is fine with some people, runs from others, barks at some and lunges at some. The hard part is that her reaction to the same person is never the same twice. With me she is wonderful. She has slept in my bed and is cuddly and loving. But she is so untrustworthy around anyone else.
Now she has decided to pester and bite at a dog just under a year old who has been here as long as she has and who she has always played nicely with. This dog is starting to be afraid to go outside and is starting to have "accidents" inside just to not go out. She was biting at two 5 month old puppies who returned from getting spayed also the other day. And when she bites, it's business. Most of the resident dogs don't like her, have put her in her place and she avoids them.
I have contacted Animal Care Sanctuary in E. Smithfield, PA who take problem dogs and turn them around and they want nothing to do with her. I contacted the original rescuer a while back and he said he would "check around" to find someone to take her and never got back to me. I certainly can't afford a behaviorist for her and between working fulltime, doing rescue and preparing for near future knee replacement surgery, I just can't deal with her. Any suggestions are welcome. Unfortunately I am nearing the end of the list of possibilities of places for her to go. I've never met a dog I couldn't get through to but she is just not very cooperative and is random in her responses to anyone and everyone. I am looking to transfer her to another rescue or someone. I really don't want her back, no matter how rehabilitated she is. I'm sorry to sound so harsh but there is too much negativity toward her here from people who are here all the time and the resident and foster dogs. Please let me know if you can help or suggest someone else for me to turn to.

Posted by: Diane @ Full House | July 26, 2015 12:44 PM    Report this comment

We have a wonderful Cocker Spaniel 14 week old puppy. He only real problem we have with her is when she plays, she get aggressive! (not mean, but playful, hard!) My arms look like a battle zone! I've tried holding her mouth shut,until she relax's, but when I release her, she starts in again! I just don't want her to hurt any little kids. I hope you have a solution for me. I'm at my wits end. Thank You. mygeo

Posted by: mygeo | May 9, 2015 10:52 AM    Report this comment

Great article, part of the issue we see with owners is that they want exactly what you say, an immediate fix. However, we remind them that the issue cannot be resolved in 1 hour, instead, dog lessons are a LOT like piano lessons or flute or a musical instrument. If they can remember a lesson from their childhood, they had 30 minutes to show what they practiced all week, then 30 more minutes for new items to work on. So the full hour consisted of showing what they had worked on the past week and then 30 minutes learning something new. Dog Training is really the same, spend 30 minutes working on showing what you have done, then 30 minutes on showing what you will do until the next session. No magic pixie dust is ever delivered or consumed during the 1 hour period.

Posted by: happyhounddogresorts | March 25, 2015 3:07 PM    Report this comment

Good article and it works well !! However, I am beside myself with my little rescue poodle. She is very smart, affectionate, loves tracking and nose work. She was potty trained to go outdoors by her first dog parents. Having poodles under 9 lb. and red tailed hawks convinced me to have a special doggie potty in the house.
I have never had a problem potty training my poodles indoors, including my little rescue girl, until I had a behaviorist come to the house to stop an aggression problem between my oldest male and my little rescue girl. Since then my rescue girl marks and I do not seem to be able to stop her marking. What can I possibly do to stop her? She knows where to go, but will not stop marking for more than a week. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by: Dog lady | March 17, 2015 9:41 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In