How to Housebreak an Older Dog

Being too patient can encourage helplessness rather than independence.

This week my son buttered his own toast and my daughter tied her own shoe laces. Both kids could have mastered these tasks sooner but my husband and I took a mellow “let’s not push it” approach that seemed like smart parenting while we were doing it. Then I read “Spoiled Rotten,” a book review that appeared in the New Yorker. Uh-oh. Author Elizabeth Kolbert studied the abilities of children living in “privileged” American families to those living in “primitive” Amazonian tribes. It’s not a pretty picture.

Kolbert referenced a quote by Twenge and Campbell who note that in our kid-centric society, “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval.”

I finished the article and as so often happens, thought of a dog. Specifically, Jo-Jo.

Jo-Jo is a four-year old Cocker Spaniel mix with a serious housebreaking problem. Pam, his loving and long-suffering owner, had long grown weary of the problem and decided that the best course of action was to just accept it. After all, Jo-Jo had a tough puppyhood.

Plucked from a high-kill Southern shelter, he had never been properly socialized. His list of fears included linoleum flooring, coffee grinders and house guests. He didn’t “do stairs,” he suffered from severe separation anxiety and he regularly pooped in the house.

Jo-Jo would go outside to do his business but only if Pam accompanied him. And only if he was allowed adequate time—sometimes 30 minutes—to locate the perfect spot. And not so much in the rain. Or snow. Or … well, you get the picture. Jo-Jo was the unwitting victim of the canine version of “spoiled rotten.”

As I sat listening to Jo-Jo’s story, I noticed his overall anxiety: he was completely preoccupied with sustaining physical contact with his owners. They petted him on cue to sooth his anxiety but that didn’t resolve the anxiety … it only sustained it.

I learned that Jo-Jo was “getting a little heavy,” but Pam continued to carry him up and down stairs. The family stopped custom-grinding fresh coffee beans in favor of store-ground. They laid strips of carpet on the linoleum floors. They spent hours circling the block waiting for Jo-Jo to relieve himself. They cleaned up gallons of pee and poop and finally picked up the phone and called me.

It took a few lessons to get to the heart of dear Jo-Jo. His owners were not intentionally encouraging the helplessness of this anxious, discombobulated dog but that was the result. Hoping to build Jo-Jo’s confidence with oodles of unconditional love, attention and support they instead created an overly dependent and fearful dog.

Jo-Jo needed a confidence boost. To encourage his can-do spirit (which has been almost entirely snuffed out), we created a basket of “fester” bones. When Jo-Jo was anxious, he would seek reassurance through petting… but petting did not relieve his apprehension.

Now when Jo-Jo is anxious, Pam encourages him to slide under her chair and chew a bone until his nerves steady. Then she pets him to reinforce calm. This seemingly simple change is really quite significant: Jo-Jo is slowing learning to seek his own comfort rather than wait for someone else to give it.

Next we took on the stair phobia. After some enthusiastic encouragement (of both Jo-Jo and Pam), tubby Jo-Jo was leaping—OK, maybe leaping is overstating it—over some simple agility jumps. Creating a positive, successful association with non-flat surfaces helped Jo-Jo feel more able around stairs…literally, one step at a time.

And then we addressed the primary frustration: Jo-Jo’s housebreaking problem. We created a small, mulched patch in the yard, not too far from the house. Instead of walking, walking and walking until Jo-Jo finally made his choice, Pam brought him to the spot and stayed there until he did his business. She did not pet, play or walk him until he did his business. Pee and poop parameters set, Jo-Jo will continue to gain confidence knowing what is expected of him.

An overnight solution? No. But within a month, Jo-Jo was playful where he had been anxious, cooperative instead of clingy, can-do rather than I-don’t-wanna. The solution to Pam and Jo-Jo’s problem didn’t involve harsh corrections or oppressive training techniques, just a simple change in mindset.

The opposite of spoiling isn’t bullying, it’s understanding and encouragement. When we step in and do it all — be it buttering toast, tying shoelaces or circling the block for hours — we slowly sap the confidence and initiative of our two- and four-legged kids. As Jo-Jo came to learn that he could solve a few of his own problems — I feel anxious…I better go find my chew bone! — his self control increased.

Often, people avoid training their dog because it seems like “too much work,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Now that Pam better understands Jo-Jo, she spends time enjoying her dog, not doing for her dog. Give your dog the gift of confidence and understanding by doing a little bit less!


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