Potty training your dog

Ok, so after a few months as a dog trainer, I’ve heard a LOT of people tell me that they can’t get their dog house-trained. “I want him to go outside!” I hear, “Not on the carpet!”

While I don’t think ANY dog is beyond training, it takes 3 things:

Consistency, supervision, patience, and praise.

It’s not easy, I’ll grant you, especially when you have a very small dog with a bladder the size of a lima bean, or an older dog that’s been in the shelter for awhile, or a puppy with the attention span of a fruit fly. But it’s all pretty much the same training: when Lima Bladder or Shelter Dog or Fruity Puppy is being house-trained, they’re learning a whole new set of skills.

Look at it from the dog’s perspective. Their life revolves around you, the owner. You decide how much food they get fed and when, you decide when playtime is, you decide when they can go to the bathroom, and you decide all the rules your dog is expected to obey. That’s a pretty tall order!

Some people I’ve spoken to (and I did keep count in the beginning, but I don’t since it’s numbered over thirty now) have an outdated idea that house-training a dog involves “showing them” their mess, scolding them, and putting them outside. So you’re doing three things: you’re showing them where they went to the bathroom (and dogs don’t really know the difference between right and wrong, so the fact that you are ‘showing’ them their urine on the carpet essentially means nothing to them), you’re yelling at them (again, an unfathomable reaction to the dog – you’re dragging them over to this specific spot on the carpet and acting very angry), and then you shove them outside (whoo hoo, reward!). Obviously, to many dogs, this kind of behavior is really weird, but something that they, being lovable companions, accept without comment.

“But s/he looks really guilty!” I’ve had people tell me.

Of course they do! It’s not because they make the impossible leap between a mess on the carpet and your reaction, it’s because every time someone is mad at them, or at someone else, that person has a specific set of physiological changes they undergo. Breathing usually becomes faster or they hold their breath, pupils dialate, posture changes, etc. etc. Dogs are amazing people-readers. So naturally, they associate these changes with your impending anger at them, especially if you are staring right at them as you walk up.

If I become angry at, say, someone I’m talking to on the phone, my dogs will slink around and act very guilty. They will go hide behind a chair, or go peer out forlornly from the spindles of the staircase. Have they done anything? No, but they sense my change in tone of voice, the physiological changes that I undergo, and how my posture changes. Seeing all this, who wouldn’t be a little concerned? And it’s not that I get mad at them, it’s just all the “symptoms” of anger are there, and dogs, like most thinking and feeling creatures, know that when the pack leader is angry, it’s Not Happy Fun Time.

To use one last example about how dogs perceive: say you went to a foreign country where you didn’t know the language. You had to go to the bathroom, so you went to the one that you assumed was free – one of, say, twenty bathrooms available to you – only to be berated by an angry hotelier. Not knowing the language, you can’t be sure what he was saying – only that it was “wrong”. So next time, you pick a different bathroom – only to be berated again. You try another bathroom out of sight of the hotelier – he becomes even more angry. This is how your dog can perceive the bathroom issue – “where do I go?”

The answer is, of course, outside or in an area specific to where you want them to eliminate. But how to teach them that? We have to go from “dog level”.

1. Confinement.

This is not as terrible as it sounds. If you, being the intrepid explorer, had only ONE bathroom to choose from, it would be difficult to make a mistake. So too, if your dog has ONE place to go to the bathroom, your chances of success in potty-training will increase. Most trainers, myself included, recommend crating the dog when you can’t watch them (such as when you go to work). Get a crate big enough for them to stand up and turn around in, and generally dogs won’t eliminate where they are sleeping.

“But my dog HATES being in a crate!” This is kind of a tough one. You bring a dog home from the pound, only to find they pitch a fit being in the crate (I have a dog like this, so I can sympathize). The solution is to confine them to a smaller, cleanable area, such as a kitchen, while you teach them to love their crate (and I’m planning a post on this later) and so you can hold down your job.

(A brief note about crates: don’t use them as “punishment” to the dog – they should only be Happy Places where food and treats and delicious bones get delivered, and a place the dog can go to “get away from it all”. Using the crate as punishment generally ends up with the dog hating the crate because they view it as “punishment”, not a neutral or good place to be).

Again, if you can’t supervise and your dog isn’t reliably going outside to eliminate, confining the dog is best for both your sanity and theirs.

2. Schedule the dog’s potty-time.

Why a schedule? Much like people, dogs work best if they know what to expect. If they know you come home at 5pm to let them outside, they will anticipate that. If you come home unexpectedly at 6pm, their routine is disrupted and even the best-trained dog may leave a mess on the floor. It also puts their bladder on a “timer”, so to speak.

3. If there’s a mess, don’t fuss!

This is probably the biggest point to potty-training, and one people fail to follow. If you didn’t catch the dog in the act of urinating on your carpet, you can’t punish them for it! It’s counterproductive, because the dog doesn’t really understand that the carpet was $1000 (dogs having next to no concept of money), that you paid good money to get it cleaned (again, no concept of money) and that by messing on it, they are being VERY BAD (dogs having no concept of where to go to the bathroom if we don’t teach them). It’s just another cushy place to go, like that bunch of grass outside.

The only time that you should correct your dog (a good, loud “AH!AH! will do it) is when you catch them in the act. If more than 3 seconds has passed after they pee on the carpet and you can’t caught them, the dog has moved on to another moment and won’t understand why you’re angry.

4. Clean it up the right way.

Dogs have an extremely keen nose, and are able to differentiate between many different individuals based on the scent they leave behind. This is why it’s hard for dogs to understand why we DON’T want them to leave their scent signature all over the carpet. “But it smells like ME!” they might protest, “I’m making this MY territory, the same way you do with your picket fence and borders of shrubbery!”

This is why it’s so critical to clean it up the right way. You don’t want to leave any of those scent molecules in urine or feces behind for the dog to inhale, to tell them that this is an acceptable place to go again.

A good enzyme cleaner will clean up those scent molecules and break down the enzymes in dog urine so they can’t smell to go back to that place. I highly recommend Nature’s Miracle for this (in addition, I’ve cleaned up blood, vomit, mud, oil, wine and a whole bunch of other stuff with it), but any good, enzyme cleaner will do.

5. Praaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaise!

When the dog does go outside, Praise! Praise! Praise! Dogs will often work for our praise, and when you fail to have any reaction to them going to the bathroom in the house (or sternly warn them away when you catch them in the act), they will start to understand what earns your praise and affection and what doesn’t. So always, always praise a lot when they do go to the bathroom in an appropriate place. Giving treats, play or anything the dog considers “good” is excellent.

6. Eyes on the dog!

Watch your dog when they do go to the bathroom outside so you can learn their body language. My dogs often circle or sniff the ground like they are following a scent trail (very interested-like) before they eliminate, or pace a lot trying to find just the “right” spot. Dogs will often do this inside as well, and if you learn their body language, you’ll be able to “read” when they need to go outside and take them out quickly.

7. Other reasons dogs go potty inside.

Even the most well-trained dog will have accidents from time to time, so be prepared and don’t get upset at them. Dogs that are suddenly frightened will sometimes pee inside, even though they “know better”, or dogs that are very submissive will sometimes urinate while they are being petted. Don’t worry! With a little confidence-boosting training or appropriate counter-conditioning of the fear, the issue should go away (but again, sometimes, accidents just happen).

8. Territory marking.

There is a difference between “territorial marking” and peeing. Dogs pee  (and/or poop) because they have to “go”, whereas territorial marking is peeing to send a olfactory signal to other dogs that this is THEIR turf. Male dogs are usually the ones that mark their territory more than females, but in female dogs it isn’t unheard of. They also do it to make their home smell like “them”, peeing over unfamiliar odors. This is somewhat of a dominant behavior, and the first step I usually recommend is to get the dog into good training classes (again, punishment doesn’t work for this situation).

Another reason dogs might mark their territory in the home is because something out of the ordinary has happened – perhaps you’ve brought another dog into the home, or a new baby, or you’ve started a completely different job with a completely different shift. In this case, dogs can mark because they are stressed and feel the need to reaffirm their territory, and it’s important for you, the owner, to understand that the dog may feel that his life has been upended and is trying to assert some control where he can.

To deter the dog, again, constant supervision, crating, and cleaning up are necessary. If the marking is in specific places, some people have had luck with either a spray that discourages the dog from urinating in a specific area or attaching aluminum foil to a certain spot that the dog likes to mark (the foil makes a weird sound and will splash urine back on the dog, discouraging them from marking there again). Making the place or object unattractive is the key here – either by making it inaccessible or unpleasant to be in (there are some contraptions out there that will spray or release a citronella mist when they detect motion in the area, which can help). There is also the definite recommendation of spay or neutering your dog, as dogs who are spayed or neutered generally cease this behavior.

9. Medical problems.

If you have a well-trained dog that is suddenly urinating much more frequently, or a dog that is straining to pee, or any other unusual behavior (or any of the behavior listed above that you may be concerned about), please take your dog to the vet to rule out medical causes!

In conclusion, your best bet is to house-train the dog using the tips above – just remember, your dog is completely dependent on you for almost everything, so be patient and consistent! And, y’know, investing in a couple of gallons of enzyme cleaner doesn’t hurt either.

Do you have a question or want to add your tips about house-training? Please leave a comment!


About Mel

Likes: Canada, spelunking, shiny objects, painting her living room a different color every couple of months, animals, dogs, clicker training Dislikes: Canada, styrofoam packing peanuts, snoring, crazy stalkers, failure of google-fu Favorite sports: hockey, marriage, agility, curling, hockey, snooker, hockey Noted for: participation in charities, antique furniture obsession, not-entirely-appropriate sense of humor, obsession with dog training
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1 Response to Potty training your dog

  1. Juice says:

    Good stuff!

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