By Sue Sterberg, a nationally recognized expert in dog training who boards owned dogs and shelters homeless ones at her Rondout Valley Kennels in Accord, New York & Jacque Lynn Schultz, C.P.D.T., Companion Animal Programs Adviser. National Outreach
Adopting a new dog is such a fun, exciting time. But it can also be challenging, as you’re both getting to know each other and your new life together. A common source of frustration for new dog owners is house training a puppy. If you adopted a puppy or an adult dog that’s not fully housetrained, one of the first things you need to teach them is how to go to the bathroom outside. Even fully housetrained dogs will need a reintroduction to the basics when moving into a new home.
We all may hold jobs that preclude a schedule compatible with a puppy’s developmental needs, or live in housing without fenced-in yards, thus forcing us to paper-train until our pups are fully immunized. The further a lifestyle varies from the ideal, the greater the challenge house-training is. Here are the keys to success when housetraining your dog:
Feed your dog at the same time every day. Developing a consistent feeding schedule makes it easier to predict when your dog will need to relieve themselves. Puppies usually need to go within 20-30 minutes after eating, so be ready to take them outside during this time.
Use the same door to take them outside every time. Eventually, your dog may go to that door and sniff, whine or paw at the door to tell you they need to go outside.
Take your dog outside to the same spot every time. Choose an encouraging phrase, like “go potty” or “it’s potty time”, and say it each time they’re in this spot. They will eventually associate this phrase with the act of relieving themselves. If your dog does go, give them lots of praise, and then bring them back inside. If they don’t go after 2-3 minutes, bring them inside and try again within an hour, watching for signs that they need to go.
Dogs consistently need to relieve themselves after certain activities throughout the day: when they wake up in the morning, after naps, after playing, after meals, and after drinking water. Be sure to take them outside at each of these times and right before bedtime to prevent accidents.
Watch your dog closely for signs that they need to go out. Common signs are whining, walking in circles, or squatting. If they begin to go inside, interrupt and move them outside immediately.
Don’t leave your dog unsupervised for too long. To determine how long your puppy can “hold it”, take their age in months and add one. For example, a 2-month-old puppy should be able to go 3 hours without any accidents. For young puppies, this means you will need to take them outside during the night, and, if you work outside the home, you will need to come home to take them outside during the day.
Your dog will have accidents, and you will get upset. However, it’s very important to stay calm, yet firm. This phase can be frustrating, but it won’t last forever. Never hit or punish your dog for accidents. Do not rub your dog’s nose in their accident, either. They won’t connect their action to your reaction, so punishing them after the fact may cause confusion and fear.
In most cases, if you are consistent, patient, and supervise your dog closely, they will learn to go outside. But if your dog isn’t making any progress with regular training techniques, you may need to ask your veterinarian or a pet behavior specialist.
A method that helps build bladder and bowel control. Preferably in a training crate, builds control by associating the pup’s distaste for soiling in their special area with soiling inside the house in general. It is patently unfair to crate a pup for longer than they’re physically able to control themselves. In these cases, confine them to a small space such as a bathroom or kitchen with papers at one end and a bed and toys at the other. It slows the housebreaking process and confuses the dog a bit, but it is the best option, short of hiring a pet sitter if no one can be home with the puppy during an average workday.
A good enzymatic odor neutralizer to clean up accidents. Whether using papers or a yard, the pup should wear a leash and collar and remain under your control. If you don’t acclimate the pup to your presence while they’re relieving themselves, you may create a dog who won’t soil in front of you but waits until they’re back in the house and can disappear behind the sofa or under the dining room table. Do not allow puppies access to carpeting, especially wall-to-wall, when it nears time to eliminate, for they often return to and re-anoint accidents here. Should an accident occur, get out the odor neutralizer immediately and clean, clean, clean.
1. “My dog eliminates in her crate.”
There are two common causes for crate soiling. First, the crate may be too large for current housebreaking purposes, thus allowing your dog to soil at one end and lie high and dry at the other. Second, bedding in the crate may be acting like a diaper, wicking offensive waste and moisture away.
The solutions are easy! If the crate is too large, reduce its size with a barrier that blocks off the excess room. The pup should have just enough room to stand up, turn around in a circle and stretch out. As for bedding, your dog must earn it by keeping its crate clean for approximately seven days. When your dog accomplishes that, add thin bedding, such as a sheet or worn towel. If that too stays clean, then you are safe to add whatever bedding you like.
Try feeding them their meals in their crate. Dogs typically don’t like to go to the bathroom and eat in the same place. This also helps with crate training by creating a positive association with their crate. Be sure to pick up their food if they have leftovers. If they’re relieving themselves on their bedding, remove it.
Make sure you do not have unrealistic expectations and are not crating the pup for too long a stretch. And, if the problem stems from behavior learned during an extended stay at a pet shop, you will probably need to work hands-on with a professional trainer to develop a customized protocol. Try to limit their water intake before you put them in their crate. Remove their water 2 hours before bedtime, and don’t leave food or water in their crate.
2. “No matter how long we stay outside, my dog waits until we are home to soil.”
This problem is common in urban dogs who were paper-trained until they were fully immunized. Most folks paper-train by putting down papers in one spot, taking the puppy to the spot until the dog seems to “get it,” then leaving the dog in peace to eliminate. The puppy learns that housebreaking means going to a particular place in private to soil. The papers are almost incidental. Avoid this problem by simulating outdoor walking habits indoors. Put down the papers on a schedule instead of leaving them out constantly, and place them in different places instead of always the same spot. Take your pup to the papers on a leash, teaching them a toileting command such as “Do your business,” and praise them for a job well done. This routine easily transfers to walks outdoors.
3. “My dog keeps me outside for hours before he goes!”
Some folks walk their pups just until they eliminate and then promptly turn around and head for home. In no time, dogs learn that they can extend the fun only if they can “hold” themselves. A walk should be the reward for soiling. When you leave your home, take your dog immediately to a suitable toileting spot, such as a lamppost, patch of grass, or curb in front of a fire hydrant. It’s helpful if this is a spot other dogs use. Issue your potty command. Circle the spot with your dog for five minutes, ten minutes tops. If they urinate, praise and go play. If they hold, go right back in and crate them. Try again in an hour or two. Before you know it, you should have a dog who will eliminate on command in their spot.
4. “My dog was housebroken, but when he turned nine months old, he started baptizing the sofa near the window.”
As a male dog matures and begins to lift his leg, he marks his territory, leaving scent cues for other canines. Consider castration, since an un-neutered male is more likely to engage in marking behavior than a neutered one. A well-timed verbal correction when he is lifting his leg is helpful, too. Confinement will once again be necessary when he is alone until the problem is resolved.
The Potty Wars too often make adversaries of dogs and their caretakers. It should be a battle waged together, on the same side, because the spoils of this war—a clean and dry home—spell victory for all parties concerned.
5. “My puppy has accidents when they’re excited.”
If this happens when you come home, calmly and quickly take your dog outside before greeting them. After they relieve themselves outside, praise them and return the excitement. If they lose their bladder control when guests come over, ask them to ignore your dog for the first few minutes until your dog settles down. When possible, take your dog outside to empty its bladder before your guests arrive.
REMEMBER! Do not punish accidents! Ignore them, and reward success!
Housetraining boot camp
If the basics listed above still aren’t working, it’s time to try a more drastic measure. Temporarily take away your dog’s free time in the house. When they’re inside, keep them in their crate or on a leash with you at all times. Try tying a long leash around your waist to keep your hands free. Take them outside often – every 1.5-2 hours at first. If you miss their signs and your dog starts to have an accident inside, say “no” and quickly take them outside to their potty spot. Yes, this may feel time-consuming or inconvenient, but it’ll be worth the effort in the long run.
When it’s a health concern
If your dog was housetrained and suddenly starts having accidents, it’s best to visit your veterinarian. Most dogs that are completely housetrained don’t regress unless they’re experiencing a health problem, such as a urinary tract infection.
Stay positive! You’re doing everything you can to house train your dog, and it might take some time. If you need more help, consider contacting a professional dog behaviorist. Don’t give up. With patience and persistence, your dog’s accidents will become a thing of the past, and you can both move forward happily together.