Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Why is My Dog Scared to Potty Outside?
Certain behaviors of dogs can sometimes leave us baffled and one of them is refusing to go outside to potty, especially when we cannot identify a possible trigger. But that's our perspective. From the dog's perspective, there's likely a valid reason to categorically refuse to go outside. This fear may involve different senses.
A common cause of fear in dogs are loud noises. It could be when the dog was out that they heard one of the those loud cars backfiring, it could be there was some thunder at a distance, or it could be there was a plane or helicopter flying by. Dogs can also be exposed to scary sights. A kid running, a person on a wheel chair, another dog, or the sight of lightening can be frightening stimuli. Tactile stimuli can be scary for some dogs as well. Many dogs don't like the sensation of rain touching them and getting wet; this is a common cause of dogs refusing to potty in the rain. Some dogs may not want to go out because they stepped on something sharp that caused pain. Then you have stimuli that combines all these scary components or are chained together in a sequence such a the sight of lightning, followed by the rumble of thunder, and the sensation of getting wet by the rain. On top of that, some dogs are also sensitive to your moods and are quick to pick up your energy, so if you make a big deal out of an approaching storm, your dog can pick up your anxiety.
In any case, sometimes a real trigger cannot be found, so you are wasting time trying to figure it out. However, if you know what triggered your dog's fear, you are at an advantage; you have some control over the fear and can work on the issue by using exposure therapy along with desensitization and counterconditioning. In this article, we will take a look at some tips to help your dog be less fearful of the outdoors.
Tips for Dogs Scared to Go Potty Outside
Let's see going potty from a dog's perspective, shall we? Consider that going potty puts your dog in a vulnerable position. When dog's don't feel safe, they won't eat or drink and they won't potty as they have more important things to think about. After all, we aren't all that different. For sure we wouldn't use an outdoor toilet if we had bears in our yard!
Being scared to go potty outside though can be quite problematic. First and foremost, dogs that are scared are likely to hold their pee and poop for extended periods of time. This is not healthy. Consider that when urine becomes concentrated, it ups the chances for bacteria to thrive, which can lead to annoying urinary tract infections. The following are some tips for dogs who refuse to potty outside. If your dog doesn't potty because of rain, read this article about dogs who won't potty in the rain.
- Rule out medical problems. Sometimes what looks to us as a behavioral problems may stem from a medical one. Dogs who always loves to be outdoors and now suddenly refuse to go out may have an orthopedic problem. In some cases, if the act of going potty causes pain, the dog may associate the pain with being outdoors and may prefer going indoors. This is often seen in cats who stop using the litter box when they have a UTI because they associate it with pain, so they start using cooler surfaces such as the bath tub or sink. Something similar can happen to dogs too.
- Be patient. If you were traumatized in a certain place, you may feel anxiety if you had to return to that place. For instance, after I had a scary flight where the airplane was tossed around the sky in the worst turbulence I ever encountered, the last place I wanted to be was on a plane again. I had to go on several fear-of-flying boards before I felt comfortable flying again. I talked to pilots, talked to other people scared as me and found out that planes were built to withstand strong winds and storms and that it was normal for the wings to flap up and down as they were built to be flexible to prevent them from breaking apart. I also visited airports to just see how many flights were able to depart and arrive safely each day. So in simple words, if your dog is scared of going outside, forcing him out by pushing him or pulling him can only make things worse and even reduce the level of trust in you. For more on this read the effects of "flooding."
- Make the Door a Great Place. So just as I had to visit the airport and watch planes flying to feel more confident, you can start by making the door area a highly rewarding place. Place treats there, feed your dog there, place a stuffed Kong there, line up her toys there. If your dog doesn't seem comfortable, try to place them a little farther from the door and gradually closer to the door over several days. With time, you should notice your dog going by the door more and more to check for goodies.
- Open the Door. When it's quiet and there's not much going on, you can open the door if you have a screen door that keeps your dog safely inside. Continue putting great stuff by the door, and you can feed your dog treats every time your dog looks out the door. Make sure you praise a lot for just being near door. When your dog is away from the door, be boring. You want to emphasize that by the doorway is a great place to be. By doing this your dog should learn to things: nothing scary happens by the door, and actually great things happen!
- Use High Value Treats. If you are using treats that aren't too interesting, your dog may not decide it's worthy of the eating them. So if you think you can lure your dog to follow a treat to go outside this may work against you. Imagine being terrified of spiders and somebody is tossing a $10 bill inside a bucket full of them. Would you stick your hand inside to get the $10 bill? Most likely not, but what about a 100 dollar bill? You may consider it perhaps. So if you want to use treats, I would suggest to go very high value. Many times dog owners tell me their dogs won't take treats, but then when I tell them to try a variety of high-value ones they're surprised how readily their dogs take them. Chicken, freeze-dried liver, mozzarella sticks, low sodium hot dogs, food rolls such as those made by Red Barn or Natural Balance are just a few worth mentioning.Try to visit your local pet store and ask them what high-value treats they offer for training.
- The Risk of Luring. Another important consideration to keep in mind is that there's a risk in using treats to lure (show to your dog to guide her out) your dog to go outside. If the fear is much greater than the value of the treats (which your dog assigns to them) seeing the treat can become a predictor of bad things. This may happen in different circumstances. For instance, people who give their dogs a stuffed Kong when they leave the home, have noticed how their dogs may readily accept the Kong the first times, but soon the may start associating the Kong with the owner's departure and the Kong is no longer enticing. Many dogs have stopped eating the contents of the Kong and rather waited the owner to come back in order to start enjoying it.
- Train the Back Command: a helpful trick for dogs scared of going somewhere is training the back command. I learned this trick when I owned a horse who was fearful of going inside a stall. Training the dog to move backwards did the trick and the dog was able to enter the stall as long as he went in walking backwards. This trick is easy to train. With your dog in front of you in a hallway, move towards your dog's space. Because the hallway is tight, your dog will likely take a step back. Praise and reward for taking that step back. Continue and reward your dog for any step back he makes. Once your dog understands the exercise, you can add the cue "back" and start asking for more steps back. Then, start asking your dog to perform in another room and gradually move near the door and ask him to do back steps moving towards the door. Then do this with the door open and the storm door closed and then finally with the door open, asking him to just back out with one back leg, then the other back leg, then the front legs. Praise and reward every little step. When your dog is completely out, make sure you praise and give your dog a jackpot of treats (several in a row). End the exercise on a positive note and do it again another day. Make being outside great by praising a whole lot, and then when you're back inside, be boring, no treats, no attention. Only great things happen outside. Day after day, increase the amount of time your dog is out and then start going on brief walks, giving your dog treats every few steps. If your dog happens to potty on these trips, make a great deal of it and head back inside. As your dog gets more confident, try staying out a bit longer outside after going potty instead of heading right back in. Make sure you make the outside the fun place to be!
- Train the Potty Command. Training your dog to go potty on command works well, but make sure you train this once your dog is less fearful of going outside.If your dog is paralyzed with fear, there's little space for learning. For sake of comparison, back to the fear of spiders, try to solve a math problem while a spider is crawling on your arm! Here is a guide on how to train your dog to go potty on command.
- Choose a Quiet Area. A while back, an owner who was using a potty patch asked for advice because since she moved the potty patch to her balcony the dog was refusing to potty. I went to her home only to find that the balcony was very noisy! There are kids playing basket ball and you could here the train passing through town. Once I told her to move it to another location, her dog resumed using with no problems. So if you must take your dog potty, pick the quietest area possible. If you are going on a walk, try an area where other dogs mark in hopes your dog will want to add his pee-mail. For more on curious dog potty behaviors read my article: why is my dog so picky to poop? Go on a car ride. Some dogs refuse to go on a walk to go potty but they readily will go on a car ride. If so, take your dog on a car ride and then walk back to the house. Hopefully, on the way home your dog will have the opportunity to potty.
- Enroll a Potty Friend. Sometimes, all you need is doggy friend to show your dog what to do. Choose a dog who is extrovert and loves to go outdoors and doesn't mind going potty outdoors. Many dogs learn quickly by watching behavior of other dogs, they also pick some confidence. Make going out with their pal very fun and possibly take them together to play somewhere.
- Go Out and Greet Outdoors. Many dogs miss their owners dearly when they're out. You can take advantage of the excitement in greeting you by coming home, clipping the leash and greeting your dog outdoors. This may make the outdoors more appealing.
- Take Advantage of Morning Urge. Most dogs have a strong urge to potty in the morning after a long night without going, so they feel great relief when they potty first thing in the morning. Make sure you praise and give several treats when your dog goes first thing in the morning.
- Use a Long Line. Just as dogs love greeting us when we come home, they dread seeing us leave. If your dog is one of those who hate being left behind, clip a long line on his collar and head outdoors with the end of the long line in your hand. Your dog may not follow at first you as he notices you going out, but may decide to eventually when he sees you are giving hints of leaving like getting in the car of out of sight behind a corner. When your dog steps out to join you praise lavishly!
- OK, So What Do I Do Now? While it may be fine to go slowly on certain issues, going potty isn't one of them. We talked about about how it may be unhealthy to hold urine for extended periods of time, so how can we work on this slow process, when our dog needs to go potty now? Also, we talked about how we could make things worse by pulling the dog out or pushing him. So what's left to do? There are a few options. Here they are:
- Use a Calming Aid. It can be difficult to modify behavior in fearful dogs, because there is little space for learning when adrenaline is running high and the dog is in a fight or flight situation. The help of a calming aid may help take the edge off so you can increase your dog's response threshold. Some fearful dogs may respond well to a calming aid which allows space for learning and making positive associations. A calming cap, reduces visual stimuli helping dog overcome their fearfulness and increasing their confidence. Dogs can still see through it but it filters their view enough to allow them not to get over stimulated. Another option is a Thundershirt, which works through constant pressure and can provide a calming effect similar to swaddling an infant. Additional calming aids can be found here: calming aids for dogs.
- See a Veterinary Behaviorist. For some dogs the fear may too overwhelming and calming aids, training and behavior modification may not be able to remove the edge off enough to reduce the fear and open the lines for learning. Veterinary behaviorists have made the field of behavior their specialization, after attending veterinary school they studied further to received board certification from the American College of Veterinary Behavior (DACVB). These specialists may prescribe medications to help your dog out so his response threshold can be modified opening up the opportunity for learning.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: My four-month-old dog enjoys being outside and going for walks. She just refuses to potty outside. I keep her in a kennel while at work, and we go for a very long walk as soon as I get home, but she holds it until we get back. Then she goes as soon as we get inside. What could be the problem?
Answer: There can be several possibilities. Your puppy is too excited and busy exploring and forgets about the need to potty until going inside. Or perhaps, is scared and over the threshold when outdoors. Sometimes, they look for a particular surface to potty on, so if your dog goes on carpet indoors, she may be looking for a similar surface outdoors.
Question: My puppy goes potty when we are at the dog park or any enclosed open area. But as soon as we take her outside for a walk (sidewalk), she will want to run back inside and won’t walk or potty. I do have an older dog who is fine on walks. Is this something I should find a specialist about?
Answer: It sounds like your dog is very fearful and too over threshold to be able to be relaxed enough to enjoy the walk and go potty. She feels safer in certain enclosed areas. Sometimes bringing the older dog/another doggy friend on walks with her can help the pup feel more confident. The help of a professional (dog trainer/canine behavior consultant) can certainly help.
Question: I am desperate. I have a "Foster" that does not like going to the bathroom outside. Some mornings it takes over an hour to get her to tinkle and some mornings she refuses to poop. When I leave the home, with her in her crate, she has a temper tantrum and smears poop everywhere. Suggestions?
Answer: More than a temper tantrum, I am afraid she is soiling because she is anxious, possibly suffering from separation anxiety or containment phobia. The other possibility, is that she is being crated for longer than she can hold it or she isn't "empty" before being crated. You may need to find out exactly what is causing her to not like being outside and work on reducing the fear. This is not always easy, for some severe cases, this may mean training them to use pee-pads indoors until they can are less anxious.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 03, 2020:
Reneecarr, please have your dog see the vet to rule out medical conditions. If these are mostly pee accidents, there are meds that can help. She might have a UTI or maybe she feels insecure/anxious outside because of her poor eye sight/hearing. Maybe it hurts for her to squat and has associated the outdoors with pain. Please be patient, as pets age their suffer from more issues just as we do.
Reneecarr on June 21, 2020:
We have a 12 yr old Maltise and have had her since she was a puppy. Fully potty trained with no issue. She is bow blind in one eye and mostly deaf. We are still on the same routine, however in the last 2 yrs we have noticed more accidents on the floor. I believe she knows what she is doing as well. As I said we go out with her, stand near her and she paces as if she has to go but waits till we get back in the house to potty. We have no carpet in our home and when she does decide to go outside she will use the concert rather then the grass. Please I need help. So sick of cleaning the floors 4 times a day.
Bron on May 18, 2020:
For the last 5 days my dog refuses to go outside no matter wot I do has never done this bfor and is now pooing inside my house
Sue on January 21, 2020:
My dog won’t go out to pee it’s been 30 hours help
boni wolff on September 11, 2019:
my shih tzu had a hot spot cleaned at the vets. It was very painful for her. Now she refuses to go outside to potty. It has been five days now She is on a allergy pill and I've started a pain pill. When I try to move her, she tries to bite me. What can I do?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 27, 2019:
So sorry your dog is so scared of the outside she won't potty and will rather hold it. She may have also been punished for soiling in the home in the past if she tends to hide to do her business away from a human's sight. All you can really do at this point is get some pee pads and place them nearby the door and hope she uses them if you confine her in that area using an exercise pen. Then gradually, you can try keeping the pee pads just outside the door and then finally encourage outdoor elimination. When you think she has to go badly (like first thing in the morning) if she goes on a walk with you, bring along high value treats to reward her if she happens to do her business outside. When you take her out, best to always have those treats on you so that you can reinforce that.
Eleora Rockov on August 25, 2019:
I just adopted a dog, who was very fearful these pst couple of days but has warmed up a lot. But now she won’t go to the bathroom outside, she’s been holding it and even though she’s willing to go outside and walk with me she won’t go. She will only pee inside when no one notices. What can i do?
Peter McWhorter on August 06, 2018:
Useful tips, terrible writing style!
Gina nichols on June 16, 2018:
My dog want eat or go and potty since she had a swollen anel gland that broke why.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 01, 2015:
Misterhollywoods, thanks for stopping by and votes up. Dogs scared of eliminating outside can be quite challenging behavior to deal with.
John Hollywood from Hollywood, CA on August 01, 2015:
This was a very interesting and informative hub. I didn't know how to handle this issues when it came up with my dog. Wish this was available back then! Great job I'm voting up!