A cute white puppy lays down on a hardwood floor right beside a small puddle of yellow liquid.
Every dog is perfect in their own way. However, dog training and behavior is far from perfection, and that is what makes it fun and intriguing. It is important to remember that dog training is a responsible and a tricky undertaking. This is because even though there are innumerable resources available out there on best ways to train dogs, every dog is different and their needs are unique. While some training methods may be highly effective, they may not work on all dogs. This is what causes accidents in the process of dog training.
Accidents happen to the best of the dogs and dog trainers around the world. It is not a sign of failure, but evidence of the fact that a pet parent is trying their best.
There are several methods to deal with accidents when training a dog. But these methods must be deployed only after the non-skippable step of identifying the root cause of these accidents. Dealing with behavioral issues without identifying the root cause can have disastrous results.
Identifying the root cause will enable you to understand why your dog is behaving in a certain way. Once you recognize the reason, it will be a lot easier to select the appropriate training method to modify your dog’s behavior.
Learning to Identify the Root Causes of Accidents
Understanding the root cause is the first step towards working towards a solution when dealing with dog training accidents. The underlying cause of problems may be behavioral, medical or environmental. Let’s take a look at all three.
A table lists the possible causes of accidents during dog training, including Behavioral, Medical, and Environmental causes.
- General stress or anxiety
- Lack of socialization
- Lack of training
- Possessiveness or Territorial behavior
- Whining or barking due to attention
- Fear-based behavioral problems
- Separation anxiety
- Marking due to territorial behavior
- Incomplete house training
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Injury to bones or joints
- Muscular pain
- Hormonal imbalances
- Mobility issues
- Kidney diseases
- Neurological disorders
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Bladder stones
- Changes in routine
- Moving houses or cities
- Lack of outdoor access
- Weather conditions
- Fireworks and thunderstorms
- Unfamiliar environments
- Addition of a new family member
- Noisy environment
How Positive Reinforcement Can Change the Face of Dog Training
Positive reinforcement is the one of the most popular science-based methods of dog training that focuses on encouraging desired behaviors through rewards. The core concept of positive reinforcement is that if desirable behaviors in dogs are marked and rewarded frequently and consistently, they tend to repeat them proactively.
Dogs are encouraged to repeat behaviors that get them rewarded. These rewards may not necessarily be treats and may also include verbal appreciation, toys, games, certain experiences, and so on.
Positive reinforcement can be used to train dogs out of several undesirable behaviors and teach them good behaviors. Let’s understand this better in the context of potty training and preventing accidents. When house training a puppy, make sure to reward the dog every time they relieve themselves in their designated spot. Furthermore, it is crucial to reward small wins to accelerate the training process. For example, if you see your dog walk towards the door to be let outside, it is a significant progress in training and must be rewarded.
A good way to prevent accidents in potty training is to just clean it up and do a better job supervising them the next time. Dogs live in the moment and do not understand why they are being punished for having an accident fifteen minutes ago. Try to interrupt your dog while they are having an accident and gently lead them to the right spot to finish their business. Always end on a positive note with a reward.
An Australian Shepherd puppy lays down on the floor beside its owner, who is kneeling by a bucket of cleaning supplies and holding a spray bottle.
When to Consult a Dog Trainer and How to Work With One
One of the major problems when it comes to dog trainers is that pet parents feel the need to call them only when the problem is out of hand. In reality, dog trainers should be summoned so that the problem does not get out of hand.
A professional and a qualified dog trainer will be able to work closely with you and your dog and help with the following aspects:
- Understanding your dog’s behavior better
- Reading your dog’s body language better in order to prevent accidents
- Knowing your dog’s stressors, triggers, and fears
- Figure out the best way to train your dog
- Accepting your dog regardless of their little quirks and behavioral issues
- Navigating life amidst your dog’s behavioral issues
Dog training is an unregulated industry. With so much information and misinformation out there, a countless number of unqualified people whose only qualification is a huge social media following have taken the onus of educating owners on best ways to train their dogs.
It is crucial to make sure that the dog trainer you hire is credible and has an authentic certification in the field of dog behavior.
5 Ways to Effectively Deal With Dog Training Accidents
Be Patient With Your Dog
Frustration is natural when dealing with accidents. It is important to understand that accidents only happen when a dog is confused or frustrated. Patience is crucial while dealing with a dog going through a difficult phase. Focus on understanding the root cause behind the behavior to deal with it in the best possible way.
Understand That Your Dog Is Acting in a Way That Comes Naturally to Them
When your dog is having accidents, they are not giving you problems, but they are having one. When a dog performs certain behaviors like jumping, barking, or having potty accidents, you must remember that they are behaving in a way that comes naturally to them.
They are only doing so because they have been intentionally or accidentally rewarded for it.
Focus On Teaching the Desirable Behavior
You can say “No” to your dog all you want, but if it is not followed up with teaching the desired alternate behavior, your dog is effectively not learning anything. Rather than trying to constantly reprimand and correct your dog, focus on teaching your dog what to do instead. This will go a long way in shaping your dog’s behavior for the better.
Correction, in any form, must always be combined with training to do the right thing along with plenty of positive reinforcement for it.
Help the Dog Feel Safe
Dogs thrive in an environment where they can trust the humans around them. Be the human that nurtures their dog and provides them with plenty of affection and guidance while dealing with accidents. By doing so, you will be creating the best setting for your dog to learn in and repeat desirable behaviors.
Your dog must never be scared of having an accident and making mistakes in your presence. Only when the dog feels safe to express themselves completely will they respond to training in the best possible way.
Consistency Is Key
Dogs are creatures of habit. They respond amazingly well to patterns and routines because it makes life predictable for them and helps them associate tasks with events, thereby enabling them to perform tasks and behaviors consistently. Consistency is crucial while teaching any behavior to your dog because it helps them generalize their learnings better in a variety of situations, establishes boundaries effectively, prevents confusion, facilitates better communication, and ensures clarity.
Over everything else, dogs learn through consistency that their owners are fair, trustworthy and reliable.
A young woman cuddles and hugs her Golden Retriever puppy.
Why Aversive Methods May Not Work As Well As Generally Advertised
When we are dealing with dog training accidents, we are faced with 2 options – either reprimand the dog for making a bad decision or gently guide them into making better decisions the next time. How we deal with accidents consistently can make or break the dog.
Aversive methods such as using choke chains, punishing the dog with e-collars, prong collars, hitting the dog on their nose with a rolled-up piece of paper, etc., may get you instant results by stopping the behavior right then and there, but it comes at a cost.
Dogs are not being vengeful when they are having accidents. They are in that situation due to utter confusion and cluelessness regarding the right thing to do. Reprimanding the dog to put an end to bad behaviors is like putting a band aid over the problem. It may enable us to stop the behavior at that point in time, but it doesn’t let us deal with the root cause of the issue.
Typically, behaviors like aggression and attacking take place due to an underlying root cause that has built up over time. Correcting the dog without dealing with the root cause and teaching them alternate, desirable behaviors will eventually lead to a phenomenon called shut down, in which the dog will enter a state of utter helplessness, depression, and unresponsiveness. Furthermore, aversive methods work as long as the tools are being used. The second these tools are taken off, the dog’s behavior may circle back to square one or take a turn for the worse.
Trusting us is a decision made by our dogs. Keeping it or breaking it is a choice that we make.
Controlling and Managing the Environment
Environment is one of the major factors that influence a dog’s behavior. For example, a food aggressive dog will behave differently in an isolated environment where they are given ample space and distance vs in a crowded environment where they are constantly surrounded and disturbed by kids, other animals, and humans who think it is okay to approach an eating dog. Let’s understand ways to manage the dog’s environment in the best possible way so as to reduce the likelihood of repetition of undesirable behaviors.
3 Tips to Create a Favorable Environment for Your Dog to Thrive
This step involves eliminating triggers and things that make it possible for the behavior to repeat itself. If you are dealing with potty accidents on the rug in the living room, get rid of the rug and block out access to the area through baby gates. This will make it impossible for the dog to have an accident in that spot.
Dogs live in the moment, meaning, if they are reprimanded for a behavior that took place hours ago, they will have no clue about it. Make sure to interrupt your dog while the accident is taking place. If you are not able to do so, don’t bother scolding them later.
The best way to get a dog to repeat behaviors consistently is to get them to do it proactively rather than making them do it. Give your dog a strong reason to carry out said behaviors and make it easy for them to repeat them. Eg, if your dog is expected to potty outside the house, avoid carrying them every single time. Lead them outside with a leash and give them access to just the area that has the door to the backyard. The combination of these two factors will make it easier for your dog to step outside to potty on their own.
A woman offers a treat to a Chihuahua sitting on a sofa.
Deeper Questions to Answer:
How can owners differentiate between accidents caused by medical issues versus behavioral problems?
The root cause of regression in dogs may lie in behavioral challenges or medical issues. It is vital to recognize this early on to figure out the best way to help your dog. Here are some tell tale signs to look out for:
Signs that accidents may be caused due to behavioral issues:
- When accidents or a certain behavior takes place in response to a specific context
- If the aggressive behavior has happened after a series of warning signs from the dog over a period of time
- Regression due to lack of a consistent schedule
- Behavior changes due to major and minor changes in the environment
- Behavioral changes in response to training. Not all training techniques work on all dogs. Some dogs may have adverse reactions to training
- Learned behavior – some dogs may have existing response to certain triggers, which may resurface when faced with such situations
Signs that accidents may be caused due to medical issues
- Sudden irritability with no prior warning or reason
- Changes in grooming habits (excessive licking or lack of interest in grooming)
- Unusual vocalization such as whimpering, excessive whining etc
- Sudden sensitivity towards being touched
- Sudden changes in social behavior such as avoidance, withdrawal, lack of interest, etc.
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
- Excessive panting or drooling
- Discomfort or restlessness
- Aggression when touched in a certain part of the body
- Changes in mobility or gait
- Suddenly relieving themselves in random spots around the house
- Changes in appetite
What are some examples of positive reinforcement methods that can effectively prevent accidents?
There is more than enough evidence out there that shows positive reinforcement is the best method of dog training. It is backed by scientific and behavioral research and is proven to get results. Listed below are a few scenarios along with solutions based on positive reinforcement:
- Crying in the crate: Unless it is a medical issue, do not pay much heed to your puppy crying. Instead, focus on proactively rewarding your pup when they are calm and well behaved in the crate.
- Potty accidents: If your puppy has had an accident even minutes ago, there is not much you can do except clean it up and do a better job the next time at closely monitoring them. Reward small wins such as when your pup pees in the right spot or even when you catch them walk towards the designated spot.
- Jumping up: Keep turning your back and use the leash to your advantage to prevent your puppy from jumping up. Reward your puppy with lots of verbal praise and treats when your puppy stays calm during interactions.
How does a dog trainer tailor their approach to address the unique challenges of each dog?
A qualified trainer has the experience and know-how to customize their training plan based on the dog and the pet parents they are dealing with. Before designing a training plan, they will make sure to ask pet parents plenty of questions to understand the problem at hand and also recognize the root cause behind it.
There may be a finite number of commands to teach a dog, but infinite combinations in which they can be taught, based on the dog’s behavior, temperament, learning ability, and attention span. For instance, when a dog is leash reactive due to fear issues, they need to be desensitized towards their triggers. In this case, the trainer’s focus must be on confidence building and desensitization. On the other hand, when the dog is leash reactive due to over excitement, the trainer’s focus must be to build impulse control and improve responsiveness towards the handler.
Here is a quick step by step approach a good dog trainer should take while addressing a problem at hand:
Step 1 – Figuring out the behavioral problem and understanding the root cause behind it.
Step 2 – Interacting with the dog and learning their stressors, triggers and fears.
Step 3 – Interacting with the pet parent and learning how much time and effort they would be able to invest in training the dog.
Step 4 – Discussing the training approach (aversive or positive) with pet parents and making sure everyone is on the same page.
Step 5 – Designing a training plan to best suit the dog and the pet parents’ needs.
Step 6 – Physically training the dog in the presence of pet parents and making sure that the pet parents are learning to do it on their own. This would include understanding of body language, teaching commands, behavior modification, understanding stressors, dealing with accidents, etc.
Step 7 – Weekly follow ups with the pet parents to make sure they are on the right track.
Can accidents be indicative of deeper behavioral issues, and how can these be resolved?
Not all accidents may be an indicative of deeper behavioral issues. Some may be caused due to underlying medical issues, whereas some may be caused due to a slight regression in training which can be resolved with a quick training refresher.
Accidents due to medical issues must be taken seriously from the get go and should be checked out by a vet to rule out anything serious.
Accidents caused due to behavioral issues typically advance over time. They start with subtle warning signs and may advance to full blown behavioral problems like aggression and reactivity. These issues usually stem from fear or frustration and can take the face of problems like territorial aggression, food aggression, resource guarding, marking around the house, destructive chewing, etc.
Any changes in the dog’s behavior should be closely monitored from the onset and nipped in the bud as early as possible with gentle positive reinforcement techniques. At the same time, care should be taken to not put the dog in situations where they have to deal with their triggers and stressors.
What are some subtle signs of fear or anxiety in dogs during training, and how can owners address them?
Even the best of trainers and behaviorists may have moments of weakness when dealing with dog training setbacks and accidents. Unfortunately, the one that suffers the most in such scenarios is the dog. Your dog is always communicating with you, whether you are aware of it or not. More often than not, the signs of stress in dogs would be subtle and would include the following:
- Lip licking
- Turning or looking away
- Tail tucked in
- Hackles raised
- Tail upright and wagging
- Hunched posture
- Whales of eyes exposed
- Barking to express displeasure or discomfort
- Ears flat and back
If you see even one or more of the above signs of stress in your dog, make sure to take a break and get your dog out of the situation. Consider diffusing the situation with play or cuddles to relax your dog. Comforting a scared dog will not add to their anxiety.
Siddhika Bhat: Certified dog trainer and behaviorist and founder of Wag A Bond. Siddhika helps dog parents develop deeper connections with their furbabies by helping them understand and respectfully work with their dog's innate behaviors.
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