Why Does My Dog Drink from the Toilet?

As an animal trainer people often think my companion animals are trained to perfection. In a recent live stream, it surprised some participants when I mentioned that my dog prefers to drink from the toilet. Although I keep my toilet pretty clean (in part because I am aware my dog likes to drink from the toilet) there can be concerns with this practice. Some issues are with what is left behind by humans, even if it is washed away. The other concerns have to do with the chemicals used to clean toilets. I can easily block this response by keeping the lid closed. But the more important question is "Why do dogs like to drink from the toilet?" Or at least "Why does my dog like to drink from the toilet?" This animal trainer wants to know! There are numerous places for my dog to access water besides the toilet. He has fresh water in a bowl on the ground in the kitchen. For most of the year there is also a kiddie pool filled with water in the back yard. This is replenished almost daily. Additionally, there are two water bowls on the back porch. These are often frequented by the local grackles. They steal pizza crusts from the neighboring restaurant and soak them in the bowl throughout the day. This means I need to refill the bowls frequently. Yet despite all these options the water supply my dog seems to prefer to access the most is the toilet bowl if he can. 

Degrees of freedom is something I’ve learned about from mentors in the field of behavior analysis, primarily Dr. T.V. Joe Layng, Dr. Paul Andronis, Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, Sean Will, M.S. and Maasa Nishimuta, M.S. When an organism has degrees of freedom, they can access the same reinforcing consequences for doing many different behaviors. What is important about degrees of freedom is it gives us information. Knowing that my dog has all these different opportunities to access water, but typically uses the toilet when he can, tells me something about accessing water from the toilet. This can cause me to evaluate what’s different about the toilet compared to the other options available. Two features stand out for me. My dog is a pit bull mix. As a medium to large sized dog, the toilet is just about the right height for him to easily drink water without having to lower his head. Another thing I’ve observed about my dog is that water that is fresh is highly preferred. Whenever I am filling up the water bowls outside, he often comes over immediately to drink water. And the bowl that is probably filled most frequently with fresh water is the toilet bowl.

Will increasing the height of this water bowl change which bowl my dog visits more frequently?

I have yet to test my hypothesis by changing the height of the other bowls and filling the other bowls much more frequently, but if I do, I will get back to this blog and update it with my results. The main point is to give people some food for thought and inspiration to expand degrees of freedom so that you can explore other reasons why an animal may participate (or not participate) in a particular behavior. Essentially, expanding degrees of freedom can give you more information.

Another potentially relatable example might be working for a paycheck. Many of us have likely thought about taking another job at some point in our lives because the pay may be better, but perhaps the work environment was not as satisfying as the previous work environment in which the pay scale was lower. We quickly learn that money is not the only reinforcer, and that other factors play a role in why people work for a specific company.

If you want to learn more about degrees of freedom, nonlinear contingency analysis, behavior science, and their practical application with animals join AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com

Here are additional resources within the virtual educational program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com where you can learn more.

Hope for the Hopeless. Transforming the Behavior of Exotic Animals Once Thought Impossible to Train.

The Secret Life of the If/Then Contingency: Six Hidden Ways the 4 Quadrants are Impacting your Training

By Barbara Heidenreich - Animal Training Consultant
June 10, 2022

About the Author: Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training consultant specializing in exotic animals. She consults worldwide working with zoos, universities, veterinary professionals, and conservation projects. She has worked onsite with over 80 facilities in 27 countries. She is an adjunct instructor at Texas A & M University. She has authored two books and contributed to four veterinary textbooks. She is a co-author of two Fear Free® Avian Certification Courses. Much of her work focuses on training exotic species to cooperate in medical care. She operates the online education program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com. This virtual learning program features award winning courses, tracks to guide professional development, verifiable badges to share and prove course completion, community, and more. Barbara is an advisor for the Animal Training Working Group and the Parrot Taxon Advisory Group for the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has provided her expertise to conservation projects The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. She has a Bachelor of Science in zoology and has begun the journey towards a Master of Science in applied behavior analysis. Her goal is to leave behind a legacy of kindness to animals by sharing her expertise.

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