Many dog owners wonder whether they should punish their dog for pooping in the house and how they can reduce the occurrence of such messy ordeals. As tempting as it may feel to yell at Rover upon coming home from work and finding a pile of smelly waste, owners are better off biting their tongue. Equally important is avoiding the common cliche’ of grabbing the dog’s nose and sticking it in his own poo while pronouncing the mantra of “bad, dog, bad dog, bad dog!” While these methods may help dog owners momentarily feel better, they have a boomerang effect which comes back around eventually to bite them. Let’s take a closer look why.
Firstly, Dogs Don’t Poop Out of Spite
Many dog owners feel compelled to punish a dog for pooping in the home and this tendency is likely due to the fact that dogs are often believed to poop in the home out of spite. It’s as if dogs were thinking alone the lines of: “My owner didn’t take me along, so I’ll seek revenge and deliberately poop on the couch.”
The proof that such dogs must act out of spite is based on the guilty way these dogs react upon the owner coming home and finding the mess. Turns out, this not just an assumption of just a handful of owners. If you think your dog is actually acting guilty when you come home, you are in good company: according to Scientific American, 74 percent of dog owners have a strong belief that their dogs experience guilt.
Contrary to popular belief though, dogs lack the cognitive ability of feeling complex emotions such as guilt, pride and shame mainly because these emotions “require a level of self-awareness that has been difficult to demonstrate even in chimpanzees,” explain Bradshaw and Casey in a research paper published on the Animal Welfare journal.
So what’s up with dogs who give you a guilty look? Why are they acting as if they did something they knew they weren’t supposed to if it ultimately wasn’t their true intent? What’s likely happening in this scenario is that our dogs are simply responding to our anger and frustration, and what we interpret as a “guilty look,” is just a dog’s way to manifest an appeasement/fear response.
” Clinical experience suggests that the application of punishment by owners who attribute ‘guilt’ to their animals may unwittingly lead to compromised welfare.”~Bradshaw, JWS; Casey, RA
5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Punish Your Dog For Pooping in the Home
If dogs don’t act out of spite, then why is Rover pooping in the home when he is left alone? There are several possible reasons, and to identify some, you may need the help of a professional, often starting with a trip to your veterinarian, and then, once medical causes are ruled out, working with a dog behavior professional/dog trainer.
1) Your Dog May Have a Medical Disorder
Let’s face it: even us humans aren’t perfect in the bowel movement department when our digestive system goes topsy-turvy after some dietary discretion. Sure, when it happens to us, all we need to do is just rush to the closest bathroom and drop our pants to the floor, while Rover instead is left home alone to his own devices with a big door blocking him from the yard. He may bark, he may whine, he may pace back and forth, but the door mercilessly stays close no matter what.
So what’s left for him to do? The urge is too great. He may try to hold it a little longer, but sooner than later the threshold of holding it is passed and an accident happens. Of course, your dog didn’t mean to poop in the home so he doesn’t deserve being reprimanded for that. That’s why it’s called an accident in the first place!
There are a variety of medical conditions that can trigger an increased frequency of pooping in dogs. According to veterinarian Dr.Wayne Hunthausen conditions include diarrhea, colitis, maldigestion and malabsorption. Some of these conditions may be caused by the presence of intestinal parasites.
Other underlying causes include neurological issues where nerves meant to control the spine may not work as they are supposed to leading to fecal incontinence and therefore accidents. This can happen with spinal cord disease, infection, inflammation and age-related
As dogs get older, they may also suffer from painful arthritis which can make walking down stairs or steps or squatting uncomfortable, not to mention that, as the years go by, cognitive decline may occur, leading to memory loss, confusion and soiling in the home. This form of cognitive dysfunction is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
Did you know? Dietary changes can cause house soiling issues too. For instance, shifting to a high fiber diet can increase the volume of stools causing a need for dogs to poop more often.
2) Your Dog May Be Stressed
Once any potential underlying medical problems have been ruled out, pooping in the home in dogs may be due to stress. If the pooping happens only when the dog is left alone, there are chances that he is simply being left alone for longer that he can hold it or he may be suffering from separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety often starts happening when the schedule of a dog owner (to which the dog is strongly attached to) changes abruptly leading to anxiety in the dog when left alone. The dog may therefore start pacing, barking, howling and having accidents upon being left alone. These dogs experience sheer panic, and don’t need any further stress associated with being punished for pooping in the home.
3) Your Dog May Not be Fully Potty Trained Yet
If your dog is a puppy, consider that it takes time for pups to attain full bladder and bowel control (on average, this roughly happens around 4 to 5 months of age). Puppies are just like babies, but unlike babies, they don’t wear diapers so just as a punishing a baby for soiling a diaper is out of question, the same should apply to young puppies who happen to poop around the house.
And if your dog is not a puppy, consider that you may have to go back to basics in the potty training process just as you would with a puppy. Yes, this means lots of supervision, frequent potty trips and a plan in place for when you must be away for a certain period of time (crate, pee pads, access to doggy door).
4) Your Dog Won’t Make the Association
Here’s one important reason not to punish your dog the moment you open the door and find a pile of poop: he won’t make the connection. Your dog likely pooped a while ago, so when you come home and get angry, your dog won’t have a clue why you are acting that way. Or worse, he might think he is being punished for what he is doing at the moment which may be just looking at your and wagging his tail upon greeting you.
This is proven by research. According to Ramirez 1999, in order for a dog to associate a specific action (in this case, pooping in the home) with a consequence (e.g yelling at the dog), that consequence must occur within half a second. So unless you witness a desirable or undesirable behavior unfold right in front of your eyes, you cannot successfully reward or punish it.
“Research on animal learning has found that if you do not reinforce the behavior while it is happening or within a half second, the animal will not associate the reinforcement with the behavior .”(Ramirez 1999)~Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff, by Emily Weiss, Heather Mohan-Gibbons, Stephen Zawistowski – 2015
5) It Will Make Your Dog Sneak Away to Poop
And even if you do catch your dog in the act of pooping consider this: if you punish him, he will likely learn that pooping in front of you is bad. Next thing you know your dog may start hiding to poop and will poop under the bed, behind the couch or even under the blankets. Some dogs may even start eating their poop so to hide any “evidence.”
This can put a big dent in the potty training process considering that your dog may be so afraid to poop in front of you, that, not only he will sneak away to poop when he has to, but he will fail to approach you to tell you when he needs to be taken out.
On top of this, his fear may generalize to the point that he might not even poop once outside if you are there with him in fear of punishment. So as seen, there are many good reasons why you shouldn’t scold your dog for pooping in the house. And please also skip rubbing your dog’s nose in his poop. Your dog won’t understand and he may lose trust in you. Many more problems associated with punishment-based methods can be found here: 13 negative effects of aversion-based training.
- Bradshaw, JWS; Casey, RA, Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism as influences in the quality of life of companion animals, : Animal Welfare, Volume 16, Supplement 1, May 2007, pp. 149-154(6)
- Horowitz, A. Disambiguating the guilty look: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behav. Process. 2009;81:447–452.
- Animal Behavior for Shelter Veterinarians and Staff, by Emily Weiss, Heather Mohan-Gibbons, Stephen Zawistowski – 2015
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