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Dog Behaviour >> House training your dog

Housetraining difficulty is a common owner complaint.  Puppies and any new pets, should always be considered untrained until proven otherwise.  Any new pet is going through a stressful time as it becomes part of your family and possibly misses previous caregivers.  Even if you follow this routine for a few days as well as preventing accidents, it will help your pet bond and reduce their stress.  Remember too that occasionally pets have medical issues (diarrhea, urinary tract issues) that can make them hard to train and/or make it difficult for them to hold it.  If you are not having good success, advise your veterinarian and he/she may recommend testing to determine if there is a medical issue.

So there are several different key elements to a housetraining plan.  These include:

  • Preventing accidents.
  • Dealing with accidents when/if they do occur.
  • Encouraging and rewarding going to the bathroom in the desired location.

I will address each item separately.

Preventing Accidents:

First and foremost you must watch your pet 100% of the time while they are awake until there have been no accidents for at least 5 weeks in a row.  Wow, that’s a big commitment isn’t it?  Don’t worry, I have more tips that will make it easier.  It is also important to know how long a dog can hold it.  There seem to be different opinions on this but a rough guide is that a dog can hold their urine for their age in months plus one in hours.  So, a two month old puppy can hold if for 3 hours, 4 month old puppy for 5 hours etc.  An adult dog should never be expected to hold it for more then 8 hours. Remember also that your housetraining will proceed quicker if your pet can be given more outside walks.  Consider them opportunities for success.

Recommendations to Prevent Accidents:

  • Kenneling:  Dogs do not like to soil the area where they eat or sleep.  So kennel training your dog can be a valuable asset.  They must be kennel trained in a way that is gradual and doesn’t cause anxiety.  See the Kennel Training article for more details.  If you aren’t using a kennel, baby gates can be used to confine the dog to a small area where they can eat and sleep.  If using a kennel the dog should go outside and be given an opportunity to eliminate every time he/she is let out of the kennel and should only be confined for short periods at first.  If the dog has been out and has urinated and pooped then they are likely safe to have some free time as they are less likely to have an accident.  They will still need to be watched closely.
  • Timing:  Most dogs will have to poop 30-60 minutes after eating.  So the dog can be kenneled or left in small area to eat and left to rest (watching carefully) for 20 minutes and then take them outside every 10 minutes until they poop.  Exercise (moderate level) will help stimulate them too.  After a few days you will get to know their schedule better and can time things more specifically.  I suggest feeding young puppies 3 times/day (leaving food down for 10 minutes) whereas older dogs can be fed twice/day.  Urination is more difficult to time and may occur throughout the day and even overnight. 
  • Supervision:  For housetraining to be successful, you need to be very watchful and notice the cues.  Most dogs will sniff, circle and position before going to the washroom.  If you see these activities, take them outside for a potty break and reward these behaviours with praise and treats when they occur outside.  Over time, some dogs will learn to go to the door and/or whine to go out. The dog should be rewarded for telling you he/she needs to go.
  • Umbilical Cord Method:  I feel that this method, along with a kennel, is best for housetraining.  Simply attach the pet’s leash to your belt and don’t pay a lot of attention to the pet but have it go wherever you go. This will help with bonding, leash training and housetraining.  Don’t be focused on the dog but watch for signs as above that the pet needs to go and get them out quickly.  Once they’ve eliminated, they can have some off leash time, then either back to the kennel for a rest or back on leash.  If you need a little break, give them some exercise outside and the put them in their kennel for a rest. This will make sure that the dog doesn't learn to sneak off and have accidents in other areas.

Dealing with Accidents:

Most dogs are going to have a few accidents at first.  Usually, if you are honest, it will be due to not being watched close enough.  The puppy/dog is not being malicious or spiteful or stupid if he/she has accidents they are just untrained.  Just like a child isn’t potty trained in a day or two neither is a dog.  Young dogs don’t know any better and older dogs may be used to going whenever they have to if they came from a bad situation or were improperly trained.  It is instinctual for them to go whenever they need to so you just need to help them understand in a kind and gentle way that your rule is outside only!  On that note, I do not personally believe in paper training dogs as I think it leads to issues so this article is not for those who prefer that method.

Recommendations:

  • If you catch your pet going to the washroom in the house don’t consider this a disaster, consider it an opportunity to teach your dog the appropriate spot.  Here’s how:
    • Make a sound that is enough to get your pet’s attention without frightening the dog and then gently say no and immediately (even mid stream or mid poop), get your dog outside.  If you scoop a small dog up with your hand under the belly they will often stop.  Then, if they finish outside, give them a food reward, lots of praise and, if they like being outside, play outside for a while and even have a special favoured toy for outside.
    • Clean the accident up with the dog out of site.  Do not use bleach on the site.  Use a veterinary recommended enzymatic cleaner and follow the directions.  Otherwise the dog will be attracted back to the scent and the behaviour will continue.   If a dog goes more than once in the same spot consider blocking off that site or putting furniture over that site or closing the door to that room.  
    • Consider what might have gone wrong in your routine.  How did the dog have the freedom without supervision to have the accident?  Make a plan to prevent accidents next time. 
  • Never punish the dog:  If you come home and find an accident or see the dog having an accident punishment is not recommended.   If you punish the dog while they are going to the bathroom, they understand going to the bathroom in front of you is wrong but they don’t know what the correct behaviour is.   This will often cause the dog to sneak off and go to the washroom to avoid punishment.  If you find an accident and punish your dog more than 1 second after the event all they will know is that you are mad.  Never rub the dog’s nose in it either.  Again, it doesn’t tell the dog what the appropriate behaviour is and will make them fearful of you without teaching them anything!  Lots of people say they come home and the dog is acting guilty but the dog is simply responding to your annoyance and anger.  This is worry, not guilt.  They know that you are upset! This is especially true if you’ve punished your dog before when you’ve come home.  They will be feeling out your mood when you come home to see whether you came home mad vs. happy.  They won’t automatically understand that you are angry or annoyed because of an accident.  If you have been using punishment, simply stop and follow these recommendations and they will figure it out quickly.

Encouraging and Rewarding Going in the Desired Location:

When your dog does go outside you need to really show your dog that this is a great thing. 

Recommendations:

  • When the dog is sniffing, encourage with praise and give them a command.. such as good dog, go to the potty, do your business etc.  Any term is fine, just be consistent.  As they are going, use more verbal praise using your terms… i.e. good dog, good potty. 
  • Once they are done immediately give a favoured treat that is only for good potty behaviour (see Training Treats Handout).   If your dog prefers being outside then stay out and go for a little walk and have a little play.  If your dog prefers to go in or if the weather is nasty then go inside and have a play session.   
  • Once they are fully trained, you will likely be able to get your dog to go on command which can come in very handy before travel or vet trips!
  • If they are outside playing and use the washroom give lots of rewards too.
  • If your dog has had no accidents for 6 weeks, then you can start giving them a lot more access to the whole house and trusting them more. Eventually when your dog has been consistent for 6 - 8 months, you can decrease the food rewards (variable unpredictable schedule) but always give praise.

Other tips:

  • Some dogs will like to go in certain places on certain footing.  If you are having trouble, try to find an area where there is some grass, some gravel and some cement nearby and see if the dog consistently chooses one.  It isn’t a bad idea to get your dog used to going in different spots but work on that once the behaviour is good and consistent.
  • Also, placing a pole or post scented with a known healthy dog’s pee can help attract them to an area or pee pit if you want to save your grass.  There are also pet store products that are supposed to attract them but I don’t have personal experience with them.
  • Try to get the whole family in on the program.  Pets will learn much quicker if everyone is consistent.
  • Do not leave water in the kennel overnight (unless your veterinarian has stated that your pet needs water overnight for a medical condition).  Ensure they have free access to water all day long.
  • Do not leave food in the kennel for more than 15 minutes.  If they haven’t eaten, remove the food and don’t try again until the next meal.  This will teach the dog to eat when you say it is time and discourage pickiness.  Initially keep the schedule the same.  Once they are eating well, vary it a little bit so that they get used to routine changes that occur on weekends etc.
    • Note: there are exceptions such as very small dogs and very young dogs who cannot tolerate fasting more than a few hours.  Again, ask your veterinarian if this is OK. 

Although housetraining is a big commitment the rewards are having a consistent pet that you can trust!  It can also be a fun bonding experience too. 

Thanks for your interest in my website

Dr. Liana Mawer

Veterinary Partner articles:

http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=1066
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Last updated July 2013.