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Date:   02 January, 2010  
Focus: Small animals - dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pig & rabbits.

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Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?   
Dr Sing Kong Yuen, BVMS (Glasgow), MRCVS
First written: Oct 28, 2009
Updated: Nov 13, 2009

Oct 29, 2009

Dear Dr. Sing;

I adopted a 9-year-old Border Collie/Aussie mix from a family five weeks ago. She is a wonderful dog and easy to make her behave. However, she seems to only want to poo on lawn or cut grass. I have a large yard with a lot of brush in the back, and all gravel in the front. She doesn't seem to poo in the yard, but holds it until we go for walks at the park, which isn't every day. She pees anywhere just fine.

Can you give me some ideas on how to get her to do her business on other surfaces besides grass?
Julia in Nevada

Oct 30, 2009

Dear Julia

Thank you for e-mail. Your dog is conditioned used to poop on grass and therefore soft feel and smell of the grass are important factors for his elimination process. Now you need to replicate a similar environment. 

Please let me know if the following procedure works:

1. In your backyard, clear some area of brush (bushes?) to create a level patch for pooping. I presume you prefer your dog to eliminate in  the backyard.  
2 Create a level ground area 3X or more the standing area occupied by your dog as a pooping ground.
3. Scatter some grass and soil (with poop smell) onto this flat ground area. You get such samples from his previous poop area in the park.
4. Bring your dog to this area. You need to know when your dog normally poops. Is it after meals, as for most dogs? Is it twice a day?
5. Say "poop here" or some firm commands.
6. Rewards (food treat and praises) on success.
7. You need to persevere and be patient. It may take 2 weeks on daily training. Training is never easy.
8. Pl let me know if this method is successful and e-mail me his picture for my record.

Nov 13, 2009

Hello Dr. Sing,

I have had some success with your suggestion on how to get my new dog to poop on different surfaces. I have brought home her poop from the park whenever I could find it, and put it in my yard where I wanted her to go.

When I put it down, I call her over and say 'good girl, good poop' and so on. The first time, she acted ashamed so I have petted her and reassured her that it was okay. After that, she just looks at it and quickly turns away, but I saw her pooping in the back yard yesterday for the first time, so we have some success.

I want her to go in the front yard too, on the gravel, because sometimes the back is too muddy, but so far she hasn't done anything there. The poop I put out there is dry now so I may have to put fresher stuff there.

But she has recently developed bad breath and her poop is very smelly. Could this be from holding it? The poop I've seen is formed properly, a good color and texture, not hard like constipation. When I got her 8 weeks ago, she had been eating commercial food but I have converted her over to the fresh food that I also feed my other dog (raw meat and bones, potatoes, rice, cereal grains, and fermented vegetables that I make myself). She seems to be doing well on it. There was a 4-day period when we didn't go to the park that was about the same time her breath went bad. (Her teeth have been checked and are fine.)

Apart from the poop and bad breath issues, she is settling in well, has become more confident around me and my other dog, is accepting the rules, and so forth. She is a very nice dog in every way.

Thanks for your help.


Nov 14, 2009

Dear Julia

It is a pleasure to get your feedback as I seldom get feedback from the time-pressed puppy owners of Singapore. There does not seem to be sufficient time here in busy Singapore. In reply:

1. Bad breath in newly adopted older dogs. In your case, possible causes are:
1.1 Gum ulcers and infections due to stress. You may dispute this "stress" issue as what is so stressful about a dog with no worldly problems as in people? Eat and sleep. How can that be stressful? Some dogs do get stressed by changes of environment and ownership and develop mouth ulcers.

Open the mouth and check. Has your vet examined the dog's mouth and submandibular glands?

1.2 High meat diet does cause bad-smelling stools. I have complaints from some puppy owners of commercial dog food causing bad-smelling stools. Such brands have higher percentage of meat. As for bad breath, it is possible too that your dog's stomach gas is passed out from the mouth or there is a stomach infection (gastritis due to stress possibly).
A course of antibiotics from your vet may resolve the problem.

1.3 Stool eating. If your dog enjoys eating his stools, the smell of breath will be that of his stools. You need to monitor this. He may eat stools in your absence.

2. Pooping in the frontyard gravel. The same principles of smell, oral command and praises you applied to training her to poop in the backyard apply. Initially, you may need to lay some grass patches on the gravel to simulate the "softness" of ground which the dog has had been used to. Choose a corner of the frontyard to be the elimination area. Otherwise the dog does it everywhere and you will be angry.

3. Is it possible for you to post a picture of the dog for case study recording purposes? Best wishes.

Dec 30, 2009

Hi Dr. Sing,

I finally have a picture of Trifle, the dog I had to train to go potty in my dirt backyard. It's not a good photo, and doesn't show her great personality and charm but the Santa Claus wasn't very nice so she was reacting to that. I believe she is a hunting dog from the way she behaves toward birds and wild critters although she looks somewhat like a herder.

Trifle has turned out to be a fabulous dog. I have had her for three months and it's as if she has lived here for years. She is around 9 years old but she learns even better than a puppy. She is super smart and can figure things out without being told. She has adapted to me and my routines very well, and as well to my other dog. I did what you suggested, and she goes potty in the backyard just fine. She was timid and clingy for a while but I can see her becoming more and more confident. This is amazing to me, since she was with the previous family for 8 years.

I wanted to thank you again for your help but also wanted to say that even though you only helped me with that one thing, it opened me up to trying to find better solutions for other issues too. There weren't any big problems but it just made things go smoother. For example, she is a compulsive licker. The previous owners tried various things to stop it (including acupuncture!) but all I had to do was lightly tap her on the nose every single time she licked me, and say "No lick". In less than three months, she stopped it about 95%. I never had to get upset or frustrated about it, just had to be consistent. (My other dog has a terrible barking problem that I haven't been able to "cure" because I wasn't consistent in the beginning.)

I think I got lucky with Trifle -- I'm not sure every older dog would respond so well to getting a new family. But I am very grateful for her -- she is a wonderful addition to my life.

Thanks again,


Dec 31, 2009

Subject: Re: Trifle

It is New Year's Day today. I was surprised to receive your e-mail and happy to get a picture of Trifle. As regards the barking problem of the other dog, perhaps you can do the following:

I have a Miniature Schnauzer dog owner who holds the dog's muzzle when he barks (actually grip) and say "No barking." She slapped her hand gripping the dog's muzzle lightly as she gave this command. She gave me this tip as she was successful. She was the "gate-keeper" in a corporation and certainly had that strong personality to command respect from the dog. Maybe you can try this as you did for the "No lick" training. Please let me know.


Old dogs can be taught new tricks. However many owners just don't have the time and patience to re-train an old dog to eliminate in an appropriate area. Much more time is need to re-train old dogs to eliminate in a new area.

1. Replicate the previous elimination ground feel and smell in your new elimination area - the key to success.
2. Give oral commands like "poo here" as you place the dog's poop and urine onto the ground where you want the dog to eliminate.
3. Praises and food treats when the dog performs. 
4. Repeat training as the dog may not get it during your first two lessons.

For example, if the dog pees on the newspapers in one part of the house and you want him to pee in another area (garden) outside the house, you need to replicate the environment. Bring the piece of soiled newspaper with the urine smell and put it on the patch of grass to change the dog's mindset. Do steps 2, 3 and 4 as mentioned above. Remove the newspapers gradually.

Of course, there are dogs who don't need such procedures and will do what the owner wants after some oral commands and praises.         
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