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Housetraining Help!

By Robin Tierney

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Principles of effective housetraining:

  • Realize that patience, supervision, a routine sleep-feeding-outside schedule, and praise are the keys to housetraining. Also realize that it is up to the owner to teach the dog where it is appropriate to relieve himself.
  • Be patient. These techniques can be very effective with young dogs as well as older dogs who were not properly housetrained. You may spend a lot of time going outside initially, but the dog will usually catch on quickly and be trained within a few days.
  • Be reasonable. Puppies can physically hold their urine for only about two hours. Puppies typically are not mature enough to control their bladders and bowels until about 16 weeks of age, and cannot be expected to be reliably housetrained until reaching 6 months old.
Even mature dogs cannot hold their bladders and bowels for many hours, especially if they ate prior to your leaving them and were not adequately walked after eating. Dogs must be given an opportunity to eliminate after eating a meal or drinking a lot of water. The solution is not withholding water; it is essential to make time several times a day to take your dog outside and to give him adequate exercise. Also, do not assume that because a dog can hold his urine over night, he should be able to hold it equally well during the day. Like many people, pets are typically better able to hold off eliminating during their nighttime sleep cycles.
  • Dogs do not urinate or defecate indoors out of spite. Canines do not experience the human emotion of spite. The reasons dogs potty indoors range from medical conditions that compel the dog to eliminate suddenly ... the urge to mark over old odors in the house (particularly territorial marking by unneutered or recently neutered male dogs) ... to the most common reason: that the dog was not properly housetrained by his past or present owner.
  • Focus on the positive, not the negative. You'll experience faster progress if you encourage and reward your dog for positive, desirable behavior on a consistent basis.
And you will only delay learning if you instead punish your dog -- because dogs do not have long-term memories and will not understand why you are yelling or hitting him, and won't even understand if you point an accusatory finger at a carpet that he soiled a few hours ... or even a few minutes ... earlier. Your dog will likely be confused about why he is being scolded, and may learn to fear your approach and your hand. Such unintended lessons will harm your relationship with your dog and impede his learning.

Even if you reprimand right after a dog potties indoors, it often backfires. The dog doesn't usually make the connection that going in the house is bad, but rather, going in front of a person is bad. So a common result is that the dog will seek out-of-view places to do his business, such as a back room, dark hallway or behind a couch. So when your dog has an accident indoors, it's better to quickly shuttle your dog outside instead of scolding him.

And praise your dog each time he potties outside, as soon as he potties. It can help to carry small tasty treats to reinforce the verbal praise. Treats can be a puppy-sized tid-biscuit, a few pieces of kibble, a piece of freeze-dried liver, even a few pieces of dry pasta or plain cereal.

  • Start housetraining on day one. Teach your pup or dog verbal cues for eliminating and rewarding him for it. As the dog begins to potty outside, firmly and cheerily say "Go potty." This will help establish the verbal cue or command word. When your dog finishes going, say 'Good Dog!' or 'Yes' in a happy, confident tone. Fortify the verbal praise with a small treat. You can also use a clicker to effectively reinforce such good behavior.
You can also teach your dog to associate the word 'outside' with going outside. Then you can 'ask' when he needs to go 'outside.'
  • When you catch your dog in the act of eliminating indoors, view it as a teaching and learning opportunity. Say 'AH-AH-AHH' or 'OOPS' or 'NO' in a low, firm voice that's loud and sharp enough to startle, but not so forceful as to frighten the dog. As an alternative, you can create a startling noise by slapping a wall. You might even be able to stop him midstream. Then quickly take him outside.
This is why it's so important to supervise your new dog and to keep his leash close at hand; it's the only way to quickly intervene so that the pup or dog gets the right idea about where to go. In most cases, the dog will finish eliminating outside; when he does, praise lavishly. Even if he doesn't have any more to eliminate at the time, still take the opportunity to praise him at the desired potty spot outdoors.
  • Avoiding accidents is better than acting after the fact ... and easier than trying to unteach undesirable behaviors. Reduce and eliminate opportunities for the dog to make a mistake. Watch for signs that your pup or new dog has to go outside, such as sniffing the floor, pacing, whimpering, staring at you, looking restless, slinking behind a couch, or walking to a door, and immediately take him out. Also, take him outside after a play session, after he wakes from sleeping, and after he eats or drinks a lot of water, since these are often times when a pup has to relieve himself. Praise and reward your dog for going outdoors -- catch your dog in the act of being good.
  • Keep the pup or dog in the same room with you when you are home so you become aware that he has to potty or is about to engage in undesirable behavior. A 'umbilical cord' tip: attach a leash to the dog to keep him beside you, either holding the leash or attaching it to a nearby sofa or table leg. For safety reasons, do not leave a leash attached to a dog's collar when you're not there, or else the leash could get caught on something, or chewed up.
  • At times when you cannot watch him, keep him in a safe, puppy-proofed room with hard-surface flooring for easy clean up. Or for periods of under 5 hours, confine him in a dog crate. Before you begin confining a pup or dog in a crate, however, you must acclimate the dog to this living area, introducing him in a way that he will accept the crate as a pleasant space where good things happen. There are good articles on the web and in modern dog raising books describing how to accomplish this (for example, starting off with leaving the crate door open, putting special toys in the crate, feeding and treating the dog in the crate).
Many people use crates to housebreak puppies and even mature dogs who haven't properly been housetrained. The rationale for this approach is that canines instinctively do not like to mess in their living, eating and sleeping areas. By the way, this is why it's important to establish a designated potty area outside; you want to teach the dog the distinction between the family's living area and the dog's toilet area.

Use a crate large enough for your dog to lie down and turn around in. If you have bought a larger crate because your puppy will grow larger, use a divider to confine him to one portion of the crate until housebroken. Put soft, washable bedding such as a thick towel on the crate floor, and leave a couple of safe chew toys and small metal water bowl inside.

Keep in mind that it is common for a pup or dog to whine when first put in a crate, especially if you have failed to spend enough time acclimating him to the crate and teaching him at the beginning that 'good things like treats happen in the crate.' Avoid letting him out when he cries, or that will teach him that crying gets him let out of the crate. On the other hand, if he might be crying because he has to potty, be sure to take your dog outside immediately to his potty spot. Otherwise, try to ignore crying and barking so that he learns that these are not effective behaviors. his cries will help teach him that crying is not a useful behavior. To help him learn to be calm in the crate, stay close by when you first begin crate training and always give him verbal praise ('Good Dog!') and a small treat as soon as he stops whining or barking. Clicker training can also be used in conjunction with crating.

However, remember that the crate is a tool, not the dog's permanent or main domain. Do not use a crate as a petsitter or as a substitute for properly housetraining your dog. See related articles listed at the end of this tipsheet.

  • Limit the areas of the house to which a puppy or new dog has access. A new dog (especially a smaller dog) could understandably perceive far corners of a house as 'outside' and thus an appropriate place to potty. Shut doors, use baby gates to block stairways and other areas, and make sure other humans in your home don't leave the doors open.
Especially avoid leaving a pup or new dog in darker or damper environments such as basements, where they are likely to try to urine-mark or soil in order to cover up other odors that are typically present in those environments.
  • Have the dog sleep in your bedroom, in a crate or on his own bed. This way, you'll know if he gets restless at night -- an indicator that he has to empty his bladder or bowels. If so, take him out. It's worth the effort because it will expedite housetraining. Another tip: attach a jingle bell to the dog's collar to help alert you to his movements.
  • Never shove your dog's nose in his mess. This does not work. It only prompts more accidents as well as leads to bacterial infections. Remember: dogs forget what they do immediately after doing it. And never hit your dog; as some trainers joke, the only effective use of a rolled-up newspaper is to hit yourself whenever you forget to supervise your dog.
  • Cleaning up: When you clean up the mess, try not to let the dog watch you, or else he might get the idea this is some interactive game. Use an enzyme-based pet odor neutralizer such as Simple Solution to kill the urine scent, since dogs try to mark over spots ... and their sense of smell is many times more sensitive than ours. They may also try to mark over spots in which they sense other animals have left scents in the past. Don't use ammonia solutions, since urine contains ammonia. For excellent cleaning tips, see the Dog Tip about Marking.
  • Designate a spot in your yard as the toilet or potty area. Place a rag or paper towels soaked with the dog's urine after an accident in the spot. And/or bury some of the dog's feces in the spot. Try to always take your dog to that spot when he shows signs of having to potty, or immediately after a play session or after he awakes from a nap. Use the phrase 'Go Potty' (remember, for the dog to understand what you mean, you must first teach him to associate this verbal cue with the action of pottying). Be ready to praise and treat the dog when he shows any interest in pottying in the spot.
Keep the potty spot clean; scoop up and dispose of feces at least daily for sanitation reasons.
  • Do not just let the dog out by himself when you're housetraining. Why? Because if you're not present when he potties, you cannot praise and reward him, which is essential for reinforcing desired behavior. In addition, you won't know whether he urinated or defecated; unsupervised, he might only sniff around or play. By accompanying him outside, you can shepherd him to a designated potty spot, encourage him to potty, and then reward him for going there.
  • Use exercise, play and the act of going outside as rewards. Food treats are not the only ways to motivate and reward an animal. You can pair verbal praise with physical fun, just as you can pair verbal praise with food treats. For example, most puppies love to play. So after the pup finishes pottying, don't just immediately rush him back indoors. Praise and play with him for a little while in the yard. You can even reserve a special fun toy for this purpose; he gets to play with the special toy for a few minutes after pottying in the right spot. The same goes for walks.
  • Teach your pup or dog that the fun begins, instead of ends, when he potties outside. What's the most common reason that a dog doesn't potty outside and instead, relieves himself soon after coming inside after playing in the yard or going for a walk? Because the owner makes the mistake, often unconsciously, of shuttling the dog back inside the house after the dog does his business. Soon, the dog realizes 'when I pee or poop, the outdoor fun time ends.' Once he realizes 'pottying means end of our walk,' he will be motivated to delay eliminating while outside. The solution is easy: instead of turning around after the dog potties, praise the dog and keeping walking at least a little longer. Ideally, you want to teach your dog that fun time begins after, and not before, pottying, and that the sooner he potties, the sooner he gets to explore further on a walk or to play with you in the yard.
  • Establish and stick to a schedule. Canines thrive on routine. Your goal is to work with the dog's natural body clock and to help the dog learn when he can expect a potty break. Realize that dogs, especially puppies, typically need to potty after sleeping, eating and drinking, being confined, and playing.

At first, take him outside at least every 2 hours. For a young puppy, every hour is better (remember, this is just for the first few days, not forever ... and the effort will pay off). This routine will give you a better chance for frequent teaching opportunities -- opportunities to praise and reward your dog for going in the right spot. Especially for puppies and young dogs, refuse to play with them until they potty. If the pup learns to associate 'potty' with 'getting rewarded with playtime,' all the better.

Feed your dog the same times each day, then take him out a certain amount of time after feeding. The length of time depends on age; puppies must be taken out sooner, often within 15 minutes. Strive to learn when the dog will need to eliminate. Young puppies are usually fed three times a day; older puppies and adult dogs twice a day. Avoid switching from food to food, since a consistent diet will aid in housetraining. At the beginning, take your dog outside within a few minutes of eating to give him the idea to potty outside.

A potty routine: Take your dog outside first thing in the morning for a quick potty ... feed him breakfast, followed by a walk ... take him outside when you get home from work ... take him outside again for a walk before bed. For a puppy, also go outside soon after his midday and dinner feedings. Also take young dogs outside following vigorous play or exercise, and after you have visitors, since excitement affects digestive activity. Young puppies may need to be taken outside as often as every two hours, and they will get housebroken much faster and reliably if someone can take them out midday during the workday.

  • Make notes about your puppy's elimination schedule. Many pet people have found it immensely helpful to record such observations as when the pup has had accidents, how long after feedings the puppy indicates the need to potty, etc. The information can be shared with other people in the household, and can be used to fine-tune schedules for feeding and walking/going outdoors.
  • Puppy housebreaking accelerator. Here's a tip from several puppy experts: you can speed up puppy housebreaking by sleeping close to the puppy pen and whisking a pup outside whenever you hear him awaken. You will lose a little sleep, but the folks who practice this technique assure that the nightwatch period need last only a week.
  • For those who work away from home, try to arrange to come home for lunch for a couple of weeks after getting a new dog. Keeping to a routine is important for all dogs, and it's critical for puppies to be taken out before they form the habit of eliminating regularly indoors due to inability to hold their immature bladders and bowels. If you can't come home midday, make arrangements with a neighbor or petsitter. This is very important, and remember, it's not something you need to do forever. By investing the time and effort for a few weeks at the beginning, you will avoid problems and enjoy a well-adjusted, housetrained companion animal for years to come.
  • Paper training can be a useful solution for people who live in some situations such as high-rise apartments. However, many canine experts advise that most dog owners should not paper-train puppies because this practice postpones learning the desired behavior.
  • Doggy diapers: Simple Solution now makes a washable Diaper Garment designed for puppies, incontinent dogs and females in season. It's made with cotton and has adjustable fabric tape closures.
  • Delaying elimination: Sometimes, even when he has to relieve himself, a pup is distracted by his surroundings or overcome with an urge to play. Then you return indoors and he potties. Frustrating, but there are some solutions. First, make sure you are not giving the pup the idea that fun time ends as soon as he pees or poops. This is a very common problem. Another common problem: the owner, or someone in the owner's household, has reinforced to the dog the idea that it's bad to potty in front of people.
Frequently, owners aren't aware they are 'demotivating' their pups. Sometimes, the problem lies with someone else in the household who needs to learn more about housetraining. At the same time, you would need to help the dog unlearn the undesirable behavior that he was inadvertently taught.

To encourage a reluctant pup to potty outside, remember to teach him the verbal cue (such as 'go potty') and to reward him immediately upon pottying. Make sure you and anyone else handling your dog carry tasty treats whenever taking the dog outside. Use the treats to reinforce the desired behavior. Also use happy talk and playtime to reinforce. You want your pup to realize it's really fun to potty outside.

  • Potty motivators: After taking the above steps and your pup is still delaying defecation, here are some tricks used by several dog folks. (1) Tank up the dog with a good serving of water, flavored up with some broth or wet food. After the dog laps it up, take him out and keep walking until he goes. Then reward as previously suggested. (2) Try inserting an infant suppository, followed by a brisk walk. Naturally, you do not want to rely on such a method; this is just for short-term use to quickly give the dog the idea that it feels good to go potty outside. (3) Gently insert a blade of grass, blunt rounded end of a pine needle, rounded end of a leaf stem or paper match (unlit of course!) into the anus. This 'tickler' will remind the dog to finish his business. Some folks use this last technique even with mature dogs who get distracted from defecating.
  • Neuter and spay: Unaltered dogs have a much greater tendency to mark due to hormonal urges. In his book 'The Dog Who Loved Too Much,' Dr. Nicholas Dodman noted findings that some 90% cease marking within a few weeks of being neutered. Keep in mind that it will take several weeks for hormonal levels to drop after surgery, so effects such as decreased marking may not be readily apparent.
  • Beware of doggy doors. While they sound convenient, they do not teach a dog to be properly housetrained, and by letting your dog outdoors in your yard without supervision, you would be subjecting him to many dangers such as injury, taunting, theft and escape. It is also dangerous to leave a dog in a garage, with all of the hazards he could get into and the unhealthful effect of walking on cement flooring for long periods. It's better for everyone to take the time upfront to housetrain the dog.
  • Mature dogs with housebreaking problems. Dogs don't automatically become housetrained at a certain age; they need to learn desired behaviors from their owners. Many adopted dogs aren't yet housebroken because sadly, their former owners relegated them to living outdoors or in a basement, then gave the dogs up, instead of teaching the dogs good house manners. These disadvantaged canines may come with some baggage ... but also an immense capacity to love. The good news is that mature dogs generally learn much more quickly than puppies as long as you use proper techniques and follow the principles noted in this tipsheet and the articles listed below.
If you don't work at home, it is helpful if you can plan to bring your dog home when you have at least 2 days off from work. This way, it will be easier to start a housetraining schedule. Enlisting a trusted friend, neighbor or petsitter will also help.
  • When you begin your housetraining with your new dog, limit the number of visitors to your home. While you want to socialize your dog so that he is comfortable with new people, a dog can be overwhelmed by strangers and excitement when he is already trying to adjust to a new home. Plus visitors will distract you from establishing a schedule and keep you from focusing on teaching your dog good house manners.
  • Does your dog urinate when excited or frightened? This is a condition called submissive urination. Do not scold or punish the dog, because that will aggravate the problem with your sensitive pet. Avoid shouting or making sudden movements. When coming home, greet your dog quietly and calmly, and take her right out to potty. Instruct your visitors to enter your home quietly and to ignore your dog (and even avoid eye contact).
  • Important: if your dog has trouble getting housetrained when you are using these techniques, or your housetrained dog suddenly starts having accidents, a medical condition may be the cause. Take your dog to the vet right away. A physical exam, urinalysis and fecal exam will help determine if the dog has a urinary or bladder infection, parasites, pH imbalance, or some other condition affecting elimination.
  • A change in the household can affect a dog's elimination habits. The change may be a new person, a new pet, a change in routine, renovation and remodeling, or moving to a new house. The change itself could have a major effect on the dog, so you may need to help your dog adjust to the change. Or the problem may stem from the owners not taking the dog outside enough, or spending less time with the dog, in which the owners need to adjust their own schedules to make more time for the dog and/or give the dog a new potty schedule that he can depend on.
  • Food can also affect housebreaking and bathroom habits. A lesser-quality or otherwise inappropriate food may also lead to housebreaking accidents. Overfeeding or erratic feeding schedules can impede housetraining as well as cause accidents. Canine experts also advise against 'free feeding', since leaving food out all day for the dog to eat at will can result in overeating, loss of appetite, inability to keep to a potty schedule, and illness due to the food spoiling or attracting bugs. Many experts recommend 3 meals a day for young pups and 2 meals a day for most other dogs. Many people use high quality brands of dry dog food or homemade dog food because these choices aid digestion. Canned foods can be harder to digest and sometimes lead to wetter stools that are harder for pups to hold.
If problems persist, ask yourself:
  • Do you keep your dog on a consistent feeding and potty schedule?
  • Are you missing signals that your dog has to go out ... such as wandering by a door, sniffing the floor, nervous pacing, staring at you, or whining?
  • Do you use an odor neutralizer on the spots, so your dog won't be tempted to mark there again?
  • Could your dog have a medical condition?
  • Is the dog eliminating in the crate? Remember that a dog can't hold off eliminate indefinitely ... he needs to go outside every few hours, and puppies need to go out every two to three hours.
If you are making sure the dog gets to go out on a decent schedule, other factors may be at play. For example, a dog who spent much of her puppyhood confined to a pen or pet cage can become used to sitting in her own mess. Take her outside about 20 minutes after eating or drinking. Do not crate her until she has the chance to go potty. Use a grate on the bottom on the crate to keep the mess apart from the dog, so she can get used to enjoying a clean space. In fact, for puppy mill dogs, some experts recommend to use an exercise pen instead of a crate. Place papers in the part of the exercise pen farthest away from the food and water bowl and bedding. Your goal is to help the dog relearn his lost instinct -- not to mess in his living area.

Lastly, keep a good attitude. Sure, nobody likes cleaning up messes, but your dog will learn good behavior with your help. Remember, 'accidents happen' ... but not for long if you apply knowledge, patience, consistency, a dependable routine, and a good attitude. The longer you have your canine companion, the more he or she will strive to please you. By using positive reinforcement, you'll teach your dog how.

Links to More Information

Housetraining and Helping a New Dog Adjust to a New Home:

Housebreaking Older Dogs:
Housebreaking Dogs who Lived Outdoors:
Marking and Inappropriate Indoor Elimination:
Teach Your Dog to Alert You When Having to Potty:
Teaching Potty On Command:

MetroDog: The Essential Guide to Raising Your Dog in the City by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson
Adoptable Dog: Teaching Your Adopted Pet to Obey, Trust and Love You by John Ross and Barbara McKinney
Your Outta Control Adopted Dog by Eve Adamson
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller
Second-Hand Dog: How To Turn Yours Into A First Rate Pet by Carol Lea Benjamin
How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks by Dr. Ian Dunbar
The Weekend Dog by Myrna Milani, DVM
Crate Training Your Dog by Pat Storer


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Last Updated: December 21, 2014 (LET) PawSupport