Withholding – more common than you may think, and it can happen in various situations

19th Jul, 2022

Written by Scotty ValadaoCanine Behaviourist

Some dogs have trouble doing their business – and it’s not necessarily because they’re constipated. This is called withholding elimination and can happen with newly adopted dogs having trouble eliminating in a new home, dogs that only eliminate at home, dogs that only eliminate when out, and dogs that just don’t want to go on different substrates. This can lead to discomfort and constipation for your dog, or the dog eliminating in the wrong place out of desperation, so it must be resolved.

But this can be a difficult toilet training problem to resolve, especially if you don’t know the reason why the dog is refusing to go to the toilet in the first place.

Let’s look first at why this behaviour tends to occur:

  • Fear. This is especially likely with dogs that come from a shelter that haven’t been taught basic toilet training and that have been shouted at or smacked for eliminating in what the owner decided was the wrong place in the previous home. Dogs such as these will often hide away to find a place to eliminate where the owner will not see them perform, and more often than not this occurs inside the home, behind a couch, inside a box or similar.

    Our rescue dog, Willow, was just like this, and following the procedure we describe below, over the period of a week, she learnt that eliminating outside was actually a good thing, although for a good period of time she always avoided doing so in an open area and preferred to eliminate behind a bush.

  • Incorrect training. Toilet training not taught properly can cause the dog to become confused as to which is the right or wrong place to eliminate, and it tends to think that all eliminating is bad.

  • Punishment. The above tends to be reinforced when a dog does eliminate in the wrong place and the owner drags the dog to the area the elimination occurred and sticks their nose in it; or the dog is reprimanded, shouted at, or punished for eliminating in what the owner believes is the wrong area. The dog isn’t being given clear direction as to what is, and what is not, acceptable.

  • Substrate. Some dogs develop a preference for a particular substrate to eliminate on, such as sand or concrete. This may happen with shelter dogs that arrived at the shelter when very young or that were born there, animals from puppy mills, or dogs that haven’t been exposed to different things. If, at the new home, the new substrate isn’t available, the dog will eliminate on whatever is available when it needs to go.

Please note that if the dog was eliminating normally previously and the withholding behaviour has just started, it could be that there’s a physical element, so do check with the vet first of all to rule out health causes. If physical, very little you do from a behaviour point of view will assist.

Cleaning up tips

If any “accidents” do occur, make sure you clean up with either 1/3 white vinegar to 2/3 water or a pet specialised product, and never use a household product as this often contains ammonia, which will make the area smell more like a toilet than ever.

Dab, don’t rub! Rubbing will just result in the smell being pushed more deeply into any carpeted areas. If any areas are heavily soiled, try dampening them and putting on a layer of bicarbonate of soda, cover with a plastic container and leave overnight, and then dab with the water/vinegar mixture or dog product. You can even put a few drops of pure citronella oil on top of the soiled area. Dogs, on average, don’t like this scent and will avoid these areas.

If there have been multiple accidents in the home previously, the best option is to really clean the whole area before starting your new toilet training regime.

If the dog does have an accident during training, clean immediately without making any fuss or chastising the dog… and then roll up a newspaper and hit yourself over the head for not supervising!

The dog is never, ever, reprimanded for inappropriate elimination.

(Note: always do a patch test on the surface somewhere out of sight first to ensure that the cleaning solution doesn’t damage the surface.)

What to do – the basics

  • No matter what the reason for the withholding is, what’s crucial is to start at the beginning again, as if working with a young puppy. Here are some pointers to help to change the behaviour. We’ve added in a few pointers at the bottom for dogs that only eliminate when on walks and those that will only eliminate when at home. If in doubt, consult a certified animal behaviourist for help.

  • Observe. See what the dog’s normal elimination patterns are, as this will help you to be successful. On average, a dog will need to relieve themselves at least three to five times per day. Each and every dog is different, and age and quantity and type of food will impact, but if you watch carefully, you’ll quickly get a good idea of the approximate times elimination is going to occur.

  • Supervise. Ensure that the dog is 100% supervised when inside the home, and when taken outside to the toilet, it’s always on lead – they shouldn’t be allowed outside unsupervised at this time. Why? You want to take advantage of every chance you get to change the behaviour. If playing ball or similar, engage in this activity after the dog has eliminated and been duly rewarded (the fun will be an extra reinforcer), and then back inside.

  • Be alert. The second you see any signs that the dog does need to eliminate, such as sniffing, walking in circles, barking, or scratching at the door, put on the lead and take them out to the garden.

  • Make it fun. Take the dog out while using a happy tone of voice, showing them this a happy, exciting event, and have high-value treats near the door to go outside, and, as above, put the lead on before going out.

  • Find a cue. It’s always a good idea to have a specific cue – a word indicating toilet time; if you were using one previously and the dog was having accidents, then change to another cue, as the one used previously wasn’t working. Personally, I prefer “hurry ups” – “let’s go hurry ups”. This cue came about having adopted a young five-month-old GSD who needed to go out during the night in the middle of a very cold winter – something that will never be repeated!

  • Try again. If your dog doesn’t eliminate after about three to five minutes of being outside and sniffing around, then, still on lead, take him back inside, keep on supervising, and then take the dog out again about 10 to 15 minutes later, unless he shows you that he really wants to go out to eliminate. We want our dogs to learn that going for “hurry ups” means that it’s to be done quickly and isn’t time for a walk around the garden. Use the above procedure every time.

Using specific areas for elimination

Dogs can be taught to eliminate in certain areas of the garden, so if you decide to go this route, choose where you want the dog to eliminate and take him to that area immediately. Holding the lead loose, let the dog sniff around, and the very second the dog eliminates, say “good hurry ups” in a happy tone of voice, and doubly reinforce this wonderful behaviour by offering a high-value treat.

They’re being rewarded in three ways: one, it’s able to eliminate; two, it receives your praise; three, it gets a high-value treat for eliminating!

Let the dog sniff and smell a bit more if it wants to, and then go back inside the house.

You can make your garden smell even more like a toilet to a dog, especially if you decide on using only one area as above. Ask a friend to “save” their own dog’s stools and put it in a plastic bag for you. Bring this home and place in the area of the garden you’ve decided to use for elimination. Dogs will tend to do the toilet where other dogs have been, so this is a good way to stimulate the dog to eliminate in this area. Ideally, use a new stool every two days, and do this for about a week. If you decide to freeze these “free samples”, then they must be defrosted before being placed in the area, and normal hygiene measures are to be taken.

Alternatively, if you have friends who can bring their dogs to visit, then ask them to try and get them to eliminate on the chosen area.

What to do about…

Dogs that only eliminate when they’re out

Very often, what’s happened here is that the dog has figured out that the second they eliminate, they’re taken home immediately, so they tend to take as long as possible before eliminating. Praise lavishly as above when the dog does eliminate, and, keeping him on lead, let him have a good 10-minute or so smell around before taking him back inside, varying the time period.

Limit daily walks to only once a day and about ten minutes, as above, and for the rest of the day you can engage in the basic routine as described above, with the dog being on lead – the balance of daily walks will now take place in the garden.

The dog could also have been punished, or even just shouted at, for eliminating in the home, so ensure that this doesn’t occur.

Dogs that only eliminate when at home

These are normally nervous of being in new places and very often will not eliminate when out on walks, only to perform (often in the wrong area) when they’re taken home. If the dog was ever punished for performing in the home, this will tend to make the situation worse. Your own reaction can impact as well, because the dog will feel any nervousness through the lead, so be chilled and laid back.

What you want to do here is to build up the dog’s confidence to being in strange places, ideally with no other dogs around initially – it may be the other dogs that your dog is nervous of, not just new areas.

We would suggest taking your dog out to the garden for his morning elimination, using the sequence above of rewarding, praising and using the new cue, and keeping him on lead. With this dog, don’t use only one designated area; let him eliminate in any part of the garden he prefers.

In between, choose just one area relatively close to home where other dogs aren’t likely to be to take your dog for a short walk and you’re going to start using as his new elimination area. You may find that it’s easier to start with the area of pavement outside your home, as long as your dog doesn’t stress when cars go by and there are no other dogs. Although the area you choose may be relatively large, don’t expect your dog to walk around the whole area, rather keep him closer to the car (or your gate) so he feels more confident. You can gradually walk him further away from the car/gate when he’s more confident.

When it’s getting close to the next elimination time, then go and walk in your new elimination area, really going overboard with praise and treats when he does perform. If he’s happy to walk around a bit more, then it’s his decision, not yours. Then take him home and do the same for the next elimination time.

Continue in this manner until the dog is happy and confident and eliminating happily in the whole area. Your next step would then be to choose another new location, and yes, you’re going to start at the beginning again and gradually build up his confidence.

Many dogs like these have issues with other dogs, and that’s why they don’t want to eliminate; or it could be a combination of a new area and other dogs – remember that when a dog is in the elimination position, especially for a stool, it’s in a very vulnerable position. If you feel this is the case, then follow the suggestions above and consider getting hold of a canine behaviourist who can take you to the next step of actually having another dog in the area and gradually building his confidence.

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