Dr. Emily Weiss shares the results of a new study on elimination behavior in shelter dogs and stresses the importance of predictable potty routines for the dogs in your care.
I am a bit obsessed about potty routines (for dogs in shelters, I mean!). I feel strongly that predictable schedules for elimination are so important to decrease stress, and they also provide a great window for us to attach a great homeable behavior for canines – urination and defecation on cue.
With a goal to move dogs as quickly as possible (meaning 72 hours or less whenever possible) from intake to home, many amenities can be held until a stay increases beyond a 72-hour benchmark. However, oral enrichment and a potty routine are among the items that should begin upon intake to help decrease stress and increase the likelihood of cue-based elimination.
Even for those facilities with great predicable potty schedules, the old adage “When you gotta go, you gotta go” comes into play. And in that case, where an animal goes is important. A study by Wagner, Newbury, Kass and Hurley published last May focused on the elimination behavior of shelter dogs housed in double compartment kennels. The study was published in PLOS one (an open access journal) and is available here. This straightforward and important study tracked the location of urination and defecation in double-sided guillotine kennels. One side of the kennel held the food, water and bed, while the other side was empty and always available (other than during cleaning time). Location of urine and feces was observed daily for 579 dogs – with a total of 4,440 days of observation.
As the dogs had daily walks, there was about a 42% chance that no urine or feces was noted in the kennel; when elimination did occur in the kennel, it was a strong preference to urinate or defecate away from food, water and the bed. In fact, only 27.5 percent of observations of feces were on the bed side, with 22.6% of urine on bed side.
Why does this matter? A few reasons – there is a fair amount of data noting that problems with house training is a risk for relinquishment and a failed adoption match. While there is not a study that I am aware of noting the time to habituation of urine and feces in sleeping quarters, we may assume there could be an impact to crate training and house training for dogs who are unable to urinate and defecate away from food, water and their beds. Also, one can assume that there may be a negative connotation for the potential adopter in the observation of poop in the kennel.
While not all shelters have access to double-sided kennels, many do. Shifts in capacity (shifting average length of stay down can significantly increase available cage space) can make those two-sided cages back into what they were originally designed for – one dog (or two compatible dogs living together) – and facilitate an opportunity for stress reduction and ease of care and feeding for all dogs. Another easy shift, if you already utilize double-sided kennels where the dog has access to both sides: Make sure the food, water and bed are on one side, leaving the second side open for elimination.
Even better, of course, is elimination outside of the kennel altogether. I have noted before the importance of urination and defecation on cue. This can happen through a simple Pavlovian response:
- Assign a word for each action (“Park” and “Hurry” are used in the service dog field, but you can use whatever you want).
- When the dog assumes the position, calmly say and repeat the word until he is done.
- Do this consistently for a few sessions, and the cue will ‘turn on’ the behavior.
Imagine the adopter walking outside with you and a prospective dog, with the dog squatting on cue! Most adopters ask the question, “Is he housebroken?” Now you can show them how to best ensure he will be housebroken in his new home!
Dog walking is always a popular volunteer activity – and can turn into a lifesaving activity if routine 2-minute potty breaks are instituted 3x (or more) a day for all dogs starting the day of intake. Enlist your volunteer Poop Pack or Volunteers on Duty for Doody today!
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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