As many of you know I do a popular radio show devoted to dog training and I take call-in questions from dog owners and give them advice for how to fix their dog’s behavior. Today I was speaking to a dog owner about their dog’s house training, or lack thereof, I should say.
The owner described a behavior pattern of the dog sneaking off to go to the bathroom in various parts of the house. The owner would find the ‘accident’ later and would proceed to show the accident to the dog while scolding. The owner swore up and down that the dog knew it was doing the wrong thing because she would always cower when being shown her ‘accident’. She couldn’t figure out why the dog would continue doing it if she knew it was bad. How many of you are in this boat? I hear this type of thing all the time whether it is in relation to going to the bathroom, chewing up a shoe, getting on the couch, etc. Each time the owner swears the dog is doing it in spite of knowing it is wrong. Allow me to teach you something about dogs that you may not know.
Dogs don’t operate with the same moral compass that we as humans have, or hopefully have, I should say. What I mean is that if I catch my daughter stealing something at a store I can take that opportunity to teach her that stealing is wrong. From that moment, ideally, she can now know that stealing in ANY store is wrong. If she steals again she is likely doing it despite knowing that it is wrong.
This is how humans think and learn. Dogs aren’t equal in that respect. If I teach my dog that something is wrong in one setting he can’t take that moral lesson and apply it across the board. He just can’t. That means that if I teach my dog that going to the bathroom in the house is wrong he can only understand that with me in the picture. As long as I am around he can know that going to the bathroom is wrong. As soon as I am gone, however, he may go to the bathroom. Does he do it knowing it is wrong? Absolutely not! For him it is simple equation. Dad is here = Don’t go to the bathroom. Dad is gone = Going to the bathroom in the house is no longer wrong.
Some may be scratching their heads wondering, then, how is it ever possible to leave a dog alone and not have him eat the couch, poop on the floor, and pee on your wall. The way you do that is by simple conditioning. While you are home you correct misbehaviors. When you are gone you prevent misbehaviors from happening by using the crate. In this way the dog never experiences going to the bathroom in the house or destroying your stuff. What that means is that after time I can gradually give my dog small doses of freedom while I am gone and gradually build that time to hours and hours.
So the next time you swear that your dog ‘knows he did wrong’ just realize that he is simply reacting to your angry tone and not the fact that he just destroyed something.
If I stop there I know I am going to get more questions. I know some people are going to say, “Wait, wait, wait. Yesterday I came home and my dog was already hanging his head like he did something wrong. I didn’t even have a chance to find his accident; he was already acting with regret.”
Once again this is a misunderstanding of behavior. The reason a dog does this is that he gets improper communication. Let’s take the example of the dog going to the bathroom in the house. His owner catches it after the fact several times. Each time the owner returns the dog to the mess and scolds him. Soon the dog starts to realize that if there is an accident in the house he is going to get in trouble. It’s not the fact that HE POOPED in the house; it is the mere fact that POOP IS IN THE HOUSE and you, the owner, are going to get mad. Dogs do have memories. He likely remembers that he was the one that pooped. But in order for you to make an association with THE ACT OF POOPING you have to catch it in the act. You can’t catch it later and hope to have success.
So follow a program of working on behaviors while you are home/crate training while you are gone/gradually giving freedom to be alone outside the crate and you will have success in having a poop and destruction free home. Good luck.