Canine Behavior/Dog pooping as a pay-back?
We have a 7 yr old german shepherd that we have had since a baby. He's a really great dog, a member of our family (its just myself and my husband). He has always used "pooping" as his way of telling us he was mad about something, such as if my husband would go hunting for a weekend, the dog would poop in the den, knowing that was hubby's room, and to tell him he was mad that hubby didn't spend the weekend with him etc. He poops in the laundry room on the rare occassion that he's mad at me, I guess he knows I'm the only one that uses that room. When I was taking night classes and didn't have much time for him, he would do this to tell me he was mad at me. All of this occurred maybe three or four times a year, so we lightly scolded him while it actually humored us a bit that he was so good at expressing his frustrations with us.
About two months ago my husbands sister came to stay with us temporarily, and he began to poop in the family room almost every day. We realized that hubby and I each give him a treat when we leave for work everyday, but his sister didn't do this. So, we gave her treats to give him each day when she left for work, and he immediately stopped the pooping.
She stayed with us about 3 weeks and has since left, and all was well for a couple of weeks, but now he has decided to go back to the pooping but now its just wherever, whenever.. we have not been able to identify any behavior that has caused this. We have scolded him vocally, then we began to make him stay in his kennel for an hour with the poop in a grocery bag in there with him... which he really HATES! but.. he keeps doing it. Now sometimes we even find poop in the family room that he's done while we were at home in other parts of the house. We have no idea how to discipline him in a way that makes it more rewarding to not do it than it is to do it! His ears drop and he acts like he feels terrible about doing it when we find it, but it must be bringing him some type of gratification that he continues to do it. We dont hit, and our scolding barely amounts to even raising our voices, we usually just use a firm "NO! BAD" and sometimes kennel him for 30 min to an hour. But this is getting very frustrating, as we dont know whats causing the behavior therefore we dont know how to fix it.
Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you for your question. Let me start by saying that while my response may sound a bit blunt at first, there is no judgement of you or your husband for what you've tried so far. I just find that being straight is often the best way to explain this stuff... The important thing is that you saw that it wasn't working and is in fact getting worse and so you're seeking out more information and that's HUGE.
I think the best place to start is to clarify a misunderstanding that you've made in your question. You say several times that your dog is pooping "because he's mad at you," suggesting that he's actively trying to tell you he's mad - spite. This is a common misconception of potty accidents in an otherwise well potty trained dog. When he does this, it's not an effort at spite or an effort to "scold" you for doing something that makes him mad. It is an indication that he is feeling stressed and/or anxious. He's not doing it consciously. Think of it more like a nervous gut that humans experience when they are scared (about to go on a roller coaster or give a big speech, etc. and suddenly the person feels a need to poop or pee quite urgently). Many dogs experience this as well and that sounds like what your dog is experiencing.
So when your husband goes hunting and your dog poops in the den (hubby's room) it's because he's going to the place where he feels closest to your husband, but when he's not there, your dog's stress/anxiety increases and he has a sudden need to poop and it happens in that room. When you were out late and he pooped in the laundry room it's because this is a place he associates closely with you, went there looking for you to to feel close to you and when you weren't there, his anxiety rose and he pooped.
There are two major things to remember in this. First, he's not acting out of spite or to scold you. He's acting out of anxiety. It's a cry for assistance/help, therefore scolding him or punishing him in any way is exactly the wrong thing to do because it will only serve to increase his anxiety the next time he's alone and thus increase the likelihood of him pooping again. (**I'll explain that further in a second).
The second thing to remember is that when potty training under normal circumstances scolding or punishing the dog after the fact - even just seconds after the fact - is too late. You can give a firm "No" if you catch the dog in the act of going potty in the wrong place, but you must follow that immediately by taking the dog (sweetly and invitingly) to the right place, give them at least 5 full minutes to finish their business and then praise the heck out of them for going potty in the right place so that they can learn not only what is NOT right, but what absolutely IS right.
So, coming home to find a poop and then scolding the dog verbally, pointing at the poop, pushing his nose toward it, isolating him in his crate (and forcing him to sit with his poop, even if it's in a bag) is not only an inappropriate way to address the issue, but will make it worse...
**I said a moment ago that I'd explain further about how the scold can make the situation worse. When dogs give us those puppy eyes, lowered head, ears back "guilty" look, many many owners misinterpret that behavior to mean that the dog understands that they did something wrong - and even that the dog understands WHAT they did wrong. This isn't the case. These behaviors are standard appeasement signals that dogs give to any individual (human or animal) that they believe may be looking for a conflict. These behaviors are done in an effort to defuse tension and avoid conflict. A study was done not too long ago with dogs and their owners. In some circumstances, they told the owner that the dog stole a treat that had been left on the floor even though it was the experimenter who removed it. In others, they told the owner that the dog was great and didn't touch the treat, even though the dog DID eat it. If the owner believed the dog stole the treat, the owner entered the room and scolded the dog. If the owner believed the dog did not steal the treat, they entered and greeted "as normal." The results showed that no matter whether the dog stole the treat or not, if the owner scolded, the dog displayed those same "guilty" behaviors because they were trying to calm their person down and avoid punishment. It had nothing to do with whether or not the dog actually did something. And the dogs who did steal the treat, but the owners were told the dog didn't, those dogs showed zero "guilty" behavior. The overall results of this study confirmed that the dog's behavior is a direct reflection of the owner's behavior, not the dog's previous actions.
So in this case, the dog is pooping out of anxiety. When you and your husband scold him, it increases his anxiety and he associates your return with getting punished. So now we end up with a situation where the dog is anxious because he's alone, then becomes even more anxious about your return as he anticipates being scolded or put in the crate and this increased anxiety makes it even more likely that he will have the anxious poop.
So, going forward... we need to first decrease his anxiety about your return. If you come home and find poop, pretend you didn't even see it. Greet your dog with love and pets and kisses and a game or a couple treats. Then, when he's in a different room, clean it up without a word. Make sure you clean it up with proper cleaner such as Simple Solution Pet Stain & Odor Remover (it has live bacteria that will literally digest the enzymes in the feces that make it smell like feces). This simple change will dramatically decrease his anxiety surrounding your return home and that's a big step.
We also need to address his anxiety about being left alone. You don't indicate that this happens on a daily basis, but more when there's an unusual schedule change such as hubby being out of town for a weekend or you having particularly late nights. So this isn't so much about separation anxiety in the classic sense as it is a sensitivity to the change in his routine. Dogs are creatures of habits and they thrive on routines. Some dogs become very stressed when those routines are altered.
If you have Kong toys or marrow bones (the thick bone with the hole through the center), you can load these up with tasty treats (see below). You can prep them ahead of time and store in the fridge or freezer. Allow him to enjoy them several times per week when you're home so that he associates them with you. Then you can offer them when that routine is altered to help give him something to do to occupy him and make him feel more routine. If he needs to be crated, that crate should always be a safe and comfortable place (never used as a punishment/timeout), so you can put him in there with the Kong for some extended quiet time with a tasty, self rewarding activity. You can also offer him antlers as they are very inviting long lasting chew items. Bully sticks are fully edible and also last a while (10-30 minutes depending on how large the stick is). Chewing is actually a great stress reliever for many dogs, so helping him come to really enjoy such items can then become quiet soothing for him when he's feeling anxious.
You can also try a Thunder Shirt. This is an anxiety shirt that creates a subtle, constant stimulation that helps to alleviate stress in many dogs. It's about 85% effective, meaning about 85 out of every 100 dogs show a decrease in anxiety when wearing the shirt. The effect of the shirt only lasts about 30-90 minutes at a stretch. Taking the shirt off for a few hours and then putting it back on can reestablish the effect for another hour or so. It's OK to leave the shirt on for 6 or 8 hours, just know that the effect wore off after that first hour or so. The shirt should be off for at least 8 consecutive hours every day. It's machine washable. I've had very good luck with one of my own dogs and several client dogs. They're available at all major pet stores now as well as on line.
Anecdotally, I've found that wearing the shirt daily for a few weeks can have a lingering effect. I had my sensitive dog wear the shirt for a couple hours in the morning and then again in the late afternoon or evening every day for 3 weeks and found that he showed increased confidence even when he wasn't wearing the shirt.
You can also try holistic options like DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) which is a synthetic form of the hormone that nursing mother dogs produce. The idea is that this pheromone is soothing to dogs. Some people swear by it, while others see no effect. It can't hurt to try it and you may see a great effect. It comes in a defuser that you can plug in near where he hangs out, or a collar that you can put on when he's going to be faced with a more stressful situation.
So in short, stop scolding him, don't crate him as punishment for this, and definitely don't make him sit near his poop. All of these are likely the reason why it's becoming worse rather than better. Start greeting him happily no matter if there's a poop or not, clean it up when he's not in the room, provide him with options to chew on (chewing can be big stress relievers for many dogs) and make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to enjoy these things when you're home and relaxed with him so that presenting them is not just a neon sign that something out of the ordinary is about to happen.
Loading a Kong - if you're giving him a fully loaded Kong make sure you're using kibble from his daily ration so that we don't over feed him. The recipe I use is 85% of the total stuffing should be the regular food. 5% can be a couple of tasty treats, 10% should be a soft binder.
Binders can be apple sauce, peanut butter, cream cheese, sour cream, nonfat plain yogurt, liverwurst, Beech Nut baby food, soaking the kibble in broth such as low sodium chicken, beef or vegetable until the kibbles are mushy. You can use pretty much any dog-safe human food that is soft and spreadable. I like to mix a couple together, especially if I'm using a higher fat item like the liverwurst or peanut butter. I'll mix the higher fat item with something lower in fat.
Mix the kibble, a couple treats and the binder together and then fill the Kong. If the dog is hungry, he'll stay focused on getting the food out for a good long time. He may take a break after a while, but he'll come back to it repeatedly to try to get the rest out.
If you find that these changes are not improving the situation, you should consult your vet to make sure there are no medical conditions that may be affecting his bowel habits (in fact, that may be worth doing at the front end of this whole process - rule out any medical issues). If he's given a clean bill of health and these modifications to your interactions with him don't create any improvement, then you should consult a veterinary behaviorist in your area to have a proper in-person evaluation and determine if medication might be necessary or other modifications specific to your home.
Good luck. Happy holidays. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist