Housetraining problems are a major source of frustration for owners of both puppies and older dogs. In the following article, we will be discussing principles and a program that have proven to be effective for both immature and mature dogs.
In the case of older dogs, especially those who seemed to be trained and suddenly start to have accidents, it is essential that you check with your veterinarian and rule out any medical causes. Diabetes, hormonal changes and several other medical conditions could be the reason for this breakdown in behavior. With puppies, it is important to have reasonable, age appropriate expectations. There are few children, four and five years of age, who are not “potty trained”. There are also few dogs, five and six months of age, who are not housetrained. The reason for this has to do with the physical and mental readiness. Though not etched in stone, as a general rule, most puppies don’t gain complete bowel control until around 3 months of age, and do not gain full bladder control until about 4 months.
By nature, a dog’s natural instinct is to keep its sleeping and eating areas free of urine and feces. This explains why when Fifi has been closed off in the kitchen or laundry room for a period of time, she will when released, if not watched, rush off to relieve herself in the formal dining room (on the Persian rug) or perhaps the guest room. In her mind, these are unessential areas that are peripheral to the pack living area and are therefore proper potty spots from a canine point of view. Although this is a problem from a human point of view, please note that the dog is controlling herself and is in fact choosing a place to eliminate. The way to redirect her is to temporarily feed her in those areas or spend time with her in these rooms thereby making these areas significant to her.
Another factor in the success of your training is “what goes in comes out”. It is critical that you schedule your feedings and water intake. Depending on your puppy’s age and breed type, he may need 2-4 feedings a day. Most adult dogs do best on two medium-sized feedings a day—some will choose to eat once a day. Not only should you schedule your feedings, but what you feed has an impact on the stool content and volume. Many people feed non-premium foods out of convenience and a perceived cost savings. These foods are primarily vegetable based and are not as digestible, usually doubling your dog’s stool output. They are often loaded with dextrose and gluten to make them palatable, but the salt and sugar in the food will increase both water consumption and urine output. Another occasional side effect is that the color added to the foods can act as a bladder irritant. My advice is—feed a premium food. These foods are not sold at the grocery store but at pet stores and veterinary clinics. They cost more per pound, but in the long run you feed less, have reduced urine and stool volume, and have a healthier pet.
If you are at home, you can also schedule your water offerings. Water should be offered with every meal and at 2-3 hour intervals in-between, culminating with the last offering of water one hour after the dog’s last meal, approximately 7-8:00 p.m. Scheduling of water is not for dogs kept outside or in unairconditioned homes where the temperature may rise above 75 degrees.
Using these guidelines, you can assume that your dog, as a puppy, will need to urinate 5-8 times a day, usually upon waking from overnight or a nap, after a vigorous playtime and after a meal. If fed a premium food, most dogs and puppies will stool once per meal as well as in the morning after waking. For example, a puppy fed three times a day will have four stools, and fed two times a day will have three stools. As an adult, the urination needs are usually 3-4 times daily and the same stool to meal ratio as puppies.
Another principle to follow with puppies as well as problem adult dogs is to monitor the amount of unrestricted access your dog has to areas of the house. The problem here is two-fold. Not only does excessive freedom allow for accidents, it also sets up heavily scented areas that no matter how well you clean, will still have residual scent to entice the dog to repeat the error. No one I know has deliberately allowed their active toddler extended time without a diaper. Yet repeatedly, people will allow an 8-10 week old puppy to roam free—unsupervised. This is a key ingredient for housetraining failure.
With these principles in mind, you now can begin a housetraining program. We will start with morning as a pattern for the day.
Starting in the morning, as you release your puppy from his sleeping area, take him to the door by a leash or in your arms. When you reach the door say, “Outside”, as you open the door. Take the puppy ON LEASH to where you want the puppy to eliminate. Think about this TARGET ZONE carefully. Do you want your cute little ball of fur to eliminate right off the edge of the back patio when he is full grown? Don’t start this messy habit now just because you don’t want to talk all the way out into the yard. Look at this as the diaper stage of puppy training—inconvenient but temporary.
After choosing a target zone, take the puppy to the area and without staring at him, wait for nature to take its course, holding the leash as loosely as possible. The first few times, don’t say anything until the action starts, then gently say, “Good Potty,” or “Do Your Business”, whatever short phrase suits you. In this manner, the puppy will make an actual association with the action rather than a meaningless string of words. The lifelong benefits of starting your training on leash are that the dog will relieve himself on a leash when traveling, boarding, or if injured later in life where exercise has to be monitored. Many dogs that are just thrown out the door are very nervous about relieving themselves on a leash and, under stress, won’t eliminate in front of strangers.
When the puppy has finished his “job”, offer him a small treat with your praise. Now the puppy has a motivation to get right to business. Many puppies stall in the process because the value of being able to sniff the grass is higher than relieving themselves and being shuttled back to confinement. The addition of a reward will usually mitigate the stalling response. However, also bear in mind it often takes some movement to stimulate the bowel flow. BE PATIENT!
The second week, you can eliminate the leash if you have a fenced yard. Continue to monitor the dog closely from the sleeping area to the “outside” door and walk toward the target zone. If your puppy goes ahead and eliminates, praise and treat. If puppy stops as soon as she hits the grass, praise, but do not treat. This is called a gradient reward. She gets a bigger reward the closer she gets to the bulls eye of the target zone.
By the third week, if you have been consistent, you should be able to go to the “outside” door and gradually reduce the steps you take towards the area. Soon, you can stay inside the door with your slippers on, and the puppy will run to the area, do his business and come back for a treat. Eventually, you can alternate treats and praise with treats offered on an occasional basis.
Using this pattern of confinement, “outside”, target zone, request of “good potty”, praise and treat, you also have the framework for the rest of the day. When inside, the puppy should not be allowed to roam unsupervised until you are sure of her training. If you desire to play inside with the puppy, do this after one of her potty times. When not closely watched, have the puppy in her crate, or bet yet, nearby on a tie down.
What is a tie down? A tie down is a small length of leash tied to a solid object such as a furniture leg or an eyebolt in the wallboard. The length of the tie down should only be sufficient to allow the puppy to stand up, turn around, and lie down. The shortness of the line prevents the puppy from becoming entangled and sets up the area as a resting spot for the puppy which her natural instincts will deter her from fouling. The added advantage is the tie down is portable. You now have a means by which the puppy may accompany you from room to room as you go through the day. Have one in the family room, one in the kitchen, one in your office. When you attach the puppy to the tie down, give her a new chew toy. In this way you help her to target a specific chewing item also. A tie down is, in my opinion, a superior tool to the crate or laundry room when you are at home and awake with the puppy. The tie down, under supervision, allows your puppy’s social need to be close to the pack members to be satisfied. As previously stated, it controls the puppy’s chewing. With regard to housebreaking, the tie down of the puppy near the owner will teach the puppy to signal you it is time to go outside.
Once the puppy has become used to the tie down, when he has to relieve himself, he will stand up and act uncomfortable and possibly whine. Since the dog is close by you can be alert to these body cues, acknowledge them with the word “Outside?” and start the pattern. In this fashion, as the dog matures, he learns to come to you, look at you and walk to the door, signaling it is time to go out.
As the puppy approaches 5 months, or for the older dog after a period of 3-5 weeks, you may gradually increase the amount of free time when the dog is not tethered or confined. Start with the periods between meals. If your dog eats and eliminates at 7:00 a.m., give him freedom between 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., after another elimination. Gradually increase the free time by one hour increments. In this way you will have established some regular times of relief. If you are attentive to them, the dog will comply.
This information is in no way totally complete, nor does it address the owner who is gone long hours while their dog is confined. Hopefully, this framework will allow you to understand some training principles and techniques you can then adapt to your specific situation.
In conclusion, let me say that all of our programs are based on teaching and training the correct behavior rather than punishing wrong behavior. It is counter-productive to scold, spank or rub a puppy’s nose in their excrement. Whole books have been written on people problems due to punitive potty training. The fact of the matter is that punishment will sometimes suppress a behavior, but in this situation it will teach the puppy to avoid you rather than tell you she has to go. So, instead of marking the living room carpet, the puppy will hide behind the sofa. After 5 seconds, your puppy has little, if any, direct association with the action. If you find a mess, ask yourself, “Where did I fail?” “Did I give her too much freedom?” “Did I ignore the puppy sniffing and circling?” If you catch your puppy squatting, you can clap your hands and say in a startled voice, “Outside!” and hurry the puppy to the door. Then, without a scowl, continue to reinforce the right behavior. Most dogs prefer to be clean. It is up to you to define and agree on what and where clean is for your dog. If you are CLEAR, CONCISE and CONSISTENT, your training will be successful. Good luck, and watch where you step!