The first step in turning an adult dog into a reliable house pet is to embrace a key concept: There's no such thing as a "partially" house-trained dog. He either is house-trained or he isn't.
Why is this so important? Because if you have a dog who is "sometimes" reliable, you have a dog who really isn't getting the picture, probably because no one took the time to teach it to him properly in the first place. And that's what you'll have to do.
Before you train him, though, make sure you're not dealing with a sick dog. If you have a dog who was perfectly house-trained and isn't any longer, you must determine that what you have really is a behavior problem, not a medical problem. So check with your veterinarian. If you've just adopted an adult dog, you should have him checked out, too, before assuming he's not house-trained. Not only is ruling out medical problems the fair thing to do, it's also the only sensible route: You won't be able to change the habits of a dog who can't help what he's doing wrong.
Once you've ruled out medical problems, house-training an adult dog uses the same principles as house-training a puppy, except that you have to be even more diligent because you'll be doing some untraining, too. You need to teach your dog what's right before you can correct him for what's wrong. To do this, spend two weeks ensuring he has nothing but successes by never giving him the opportunity to make a mistake. Here's how:
-- Leash him to you in the house, so you can monitor his every move during his training period. If he starts to mess, correct him with a sharp "no," take him outside, give your "go" command -- I use "hurry up" with my dogs -- and praise him for doing right.
-- Use a shipping crate to contain him whenever he's not on leash with you. A grown dog can be confined a lot longer than a puppy can, and it's not unfair to confine him for four or five hours at a stretch -- assuming, of course, that he's getting his regular exercise at other times. If you go to work, you can leave him in the crate with a couple of chew toys to keep him busy and a radio playing to keep him company.
-- Take him outside first thing in the morning, as soon as you get home from work and just before you go to bed, when you put him in his crate for the night. Always remember to give your "go" command, and praise, praise, praise when he does as you wish.
The most difficult part of house-training an adult dog is often the owner's attitude toward limiting the pet's options in such a way as to make success possible. And that means a crate and a leash. People seem able to accept a crate more with puppies, perhaps because they enjoy the respite they gain when their little terror is confined. You may not like the idea of crating and leashing your adult dog, but bear in mind you won't need to do it forever. But you will need to do it for now.
If you've been consistent, your dog will likely have a good idea of what's expected of him at the end of the two weeks, and you can start to give him a little freedom. Don't let him have the run of the house yet. Keep his area small and let him earn the house, room by room, as he proves his understanding of the house rules.
Accidents will happen. If you catch him, correct him with a sharp "no," take him outside and give him the chance to set things right. Give your "go" command, and praise if he does. Clean up the mess promptly and thoroughly, so he won't feel so inclined to refresh his smell there. If you aren't catching him but you're still finding messes, you're not keeping close enough tabs on him. Go back to the crate and leash and start over.
Consistency and patience are necessary for house-training an adult dog. If you have both, you will likely succeed. Without them, you'll have a very difficult time getting the results you're hoping for. If after a couple of weeks you still seem to be getting nowhere, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a qualified behaviorist.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Winn Feline Foundation (www.winnfelinehealth.org) is one of those rare charities where 100 percent of every donation goes to its work -- the direct funding of research that will improve the lives of cats and those who love them. Founded in 1968, the foundation has awarded grants for research that has ended up saving the live of hundreds of thousands of cats. The Foundation's simple Web site lists its current projects as well information on its upcoming annual feline health symposium.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about ID tags and how important it was to keep them current and keep them on your pet's collar. I mentioned my dislike for "S"-hook tag fasteners, which tend to drop tags and catch on things. The "O"-shaped key-ring type fastener is safer and more secure. This week a reader checked in with the remarkable story of how one of her dogs got an eyelid caught on the "S" hook of the other dog. The freak accident ripped open the dog's eyelid, required a trip to the emergency veterinary clinic and a couple of stitches. The veterinarian told the reader the dog was lucky to have escaped permanent damage. "I can't reiterate how these hooks -- something you think of as a totally innocuous object -- can hurt an animal," she writes. I agree, and it won't take you but a few cents and a little time to make the change to an "O"-shaped tag holder. Do it today.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: A friend of mine is giving away zebra finches. I think I would like to have one or two. I know nothing about birds, and I have a 1-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever. I was wondering if you could tell me how you think that would work with the both of them. I would be keeping the birds in a cage up high. -- M.P., via e-mail
A: Zebra and society finches are the "easy keepers" of the finch group, hardy little guys who'll bring energy and sound into your home. Unlike hookbills -- budgies, cockatiels and parrots -- who thrive on physical interaction, finches will be happiest if you leave them alone. Safe in their cage, they should be safe from your dog's interest, which should quickly wane once he gets used to the noise and the motion.
Since cage-bound birds need to fly for exercise, make sure you purchase a cage that will give them some space -- the bigger the better, as long as their heads can't fit between the bars. Since birds aren't helicopters, choose a cage that's more horizontal than vertical, to give them room to flit from side to side.
Q: I have a problem with my 1-year-old kitten. He will eat anything that he can fit in his mouth. The other day I had to pull a broken rubber band out of his behind. That scares me. I am afraid that one of these days a foreign object will get caught in his intestines. Is there anything that I can do to stop his eating problem? -- B.C., via e-mail
A: You're right to be concerned. Any kind of ingested string, yarn, thread or rubber band poses the potential to become a real medical emergency, requiring surgery to put it right.
You're not going to be able to change your kitten's enthusiasm for rubber bands, but I can think of two things you can do to lessen the risk.
The first is to be diligent. Keep all strings and rubber bands out of your kitten's reach. Put loose bands in drawers, sewing or knitting kits in closets. What your kitten can't get his teeth on he can't swallow. Anything you cannot hide, such as electrical cords, can be liberally coated with Bitter Apple, a nasty-tasting substance meant to stop chewing. You should be able to find it at any pet-supply store.
My second suggestion is to substitute safe toys and play with your cat to release some of that youthful energy of his. The best toys for this are toys on strings (for interactive play only) or "cat fishing poles" with toys on strong, lightweight wands. Light-chasing games are great, too.
If you keep your kitten busy with the good toys and keep the dangerous playthings hidden, you'll go a long way toward solving your problem.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or at WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
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