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Potty Training Tips

© 2013 by Gena Seaberg, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved

Question: Can my pet prairie dog be potty trained?

Answer: Yes, many can, but some variables and considerations are involved for the best outcomes.

Consider your human-based expectations of a wild animal.

When one stops to think about it, we're all genuinely fortunate that a wild animal does ANYTHING that we'd like it to in the first place. Our expectations of a wild animal often need to be adjusted or, at minimum, be flexible, always considering and remembering that this particular species is a prey species, nearly always guarded and distrusting of its surroundings due to its position in the food chain. Personally, if humankind would leave them to be free, that would be ideal, but that's not realistic with our continual encroachment, population growth, and never-ending development. So instead, we attempt to educate on the proper care of those displaced that can't be released due to imprinting due to care needs at capture, lack of suitable land, or enough resources on available land to sustain them all as a colony grows over time.

Successful potty training depends on each prairie dog's unique personality, its history over time, and other variables involving patterned working behavior. Still, I've also found that success in this area depends more upon the owner and what consistent patterns or predictable routines they establish, sometimes similar in scope to house training a canine.

After a prairie dog has had significant time sleeping, don't wake them and expect to hold or cuddle them. This is a prime time that they will squirm, bite you to get away, and possibly urinate or defecate on you. Why? Like people, after a long period of sleep, they need to relieve themselves shortly upon waking.

So, as a caretaker, first gently and calmly wake them. Then pet them very briefly from within their beds or habitat. Then secure the cage or habitat door and walk away for at least 15 minutes, and don't make eye contact or talk to them to allow them time to focus purely on their bodily needs for a moment to do their thing. After 15 minutes, go back and hold, say good morning, or provide floor time exploration or whatever you have in mind. This is often an area where there are mishandling issues by the caretaker, and accidents occur from getting them out of the cage too soon after waking instead of giving them the respect of normal body function, to awaken, and attend to needs first before demands are made upon them.

Assuming the above has occurred after waking and they've been awake for some time when having them out for playtime, the following steps establish a consistent routine about bathroom breaks that they will eventually learn. If you're confident they've relieved themselves before leaving their cage or habitat, let them out for about 30 minutes. Afterward, put them back directly in the designated litter box in their cage/habitat, secure the doors, and walk away for another 15 minutes before repeating the process. Again, please do not talk to them or make eye contact (any attention provided is still attention, and it distracts them from focusing on their body sensations which keeps you from reaching your goal). You don't want to make eye contact because you want them to shift their focus from you to what is going on in their cage. You will leave them in their habitat for 15 minutes while keeping a distanced eye on what they're doing and not observing too closely, which again will distract them to want out instead of focusing on their body's needs. Hopefully, during this period, they will maybe take a drink, have a snack, but most of all, go to the bathroom.

After those 15 minutes, let them out again for another 30 minutes to an hour, and put them back into their litter box without eye contact/talking/prolonged touching for another 15 minutes. Repeat. These steps assume that you've accomplished all other pre-bathroom time protocols and bonding time and are in the phases of working in different rooms. Similar strategies need to be applied to my other response about giving them time to wake up and do their business before taking them to the bathroom for a bonding and boundary-forming session.

Regarding the placement of your litter box, please pay close attention to their habitual living patterns in their cage or habitat. They will often pick a routine place to go near a corner, especially after having slept for an extended time. When you have multiple prairie dogs, sometimes they will pick different corners until they learn about what you've set up in their environment. An initial strategy is to place some of their droppings or urine-soaked cloth in the area you've prepared as their latrine and to keep repeating this process until they recognize you've done so. What most people overlook in this situation is that they are not monitoring other areas of their habitat to ensure that they are clean of all waste. If there is no waste in their bed, other play areas, or food areas, they eventually learn that the waste is only in one spot and not multiple places over time. Again, this process relies upon attentive caretaker vigilance is required for any success to be possible. To ensure they are clean, checking areas where you do not want waste, morning and night, is an excellent pattern to follow until they catch on to the designated potty spot.

Due to the prairie dog's overall clean nature in the wild with their specialized burrow systems, which include bathroom chambers, this species readily takes to potty training if the environment is monitored well by the caretaker. When the owner is proactive in consistently maintaining the habitat's cleanliness in all non-designated potty areas over a couple of months, the prairie dogs soon follow suit. If their environment is free from waste, they will often adopt the same practice. This would also include nests that they've built. So, if they've compromised something outside their designated waste area with urine or fecal matter, clean it up and dry it as soon as you notice. I typically recommend a cage check three or four times a day, especially during training phases, and twice a day once they become aware of what you're looking for in the outcome.

Physically feel around in their bed (where they sleep). Is it dry and free of fecal matter? If not, replace their bedding and have an additional bedding supply readily available for that purpose. Eventually, they'll learn that they want their bed clean and that it isn't a restroom. Do this in other areas. If you're making a check and notice that one of their wonderful nest creations has been compromised with waste, remove it so that it doesn't send mixed signals about where is a good potty area.

As with most things, the issues on this topic have more to do with us and our responsible and active stewardship and not with them in what they do. That said, have reasonable expectations of wild animals that they do anything for us and recognize that some are faster at catching on than others. Still, I've found that most do reasonably well with urine, but often many don't feel when they leave their little fecal matter, "Belly Jellies," almost as though they just drop out. Those are relatively easy to stay on top of and easy to clean.

Cages or habitats should be cleaned frequently so that the cues they get from their environment don't tell them their whole habitat is a waste pan. My basic rule is that with one prairie dog, clean once a week, for two, clean every two days, for three, every other day, for four or more, daily. This will also depend on each person's habitat size, but overall this works best over time from a health and respiratory standpoint.

Be careful of what items you use in a waste area, assuming you don't utilize a drop-down pan. If using a designated litter box area, please make sure NOT to use traditional sand kitty litter or anything that contains chemicals, baking soda, other additives, or fine particulates that can cause anal gland impaction. Also, ensure that it doesn't have wood shavings or lots of dust that can cause urinary tract infections, compacted glands, skin, or respiratory issues over time.

Eventually, with consistent routines established over time, it is not uncommon for a pet prairie dog to learn to sleep in bed with its caretaker overnight, get up, and return to its cage to use the litter box as needed. It is always recommended that close supervision and prairie dog-proofing safety measures to account for potential falls, accidents, dental trauma, and more are entirely in place before making this giant leap.

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