Potty training, whether you have a new puppy or an adult dog, can be a messy, unsanitary, and frustrating enterprise for dogs and their people. But the vast majority of dogs can effectively be taught appropriate elimination behaviors, with a little consistency and patience.
However, your dog may be having a medical issue if she seems to “leak” in her sleep; she consistently has accidents with loose stool in the house; her urine is especially dark, strong-smelling, or more frequent; or if she has always been reliably trained and suddenly begins having accidents in the house. If your dog is having any of these issues, you should talk to your vet.
“She always seems to go the second I look away!” I usually recommend tethering dogs to you or a nearby solid piece of furniture (unless you have a giant breed, then you may need to drill in a tether point). You must be able to watch your dog at all times when you are home and she is out of her crate. If you are unable to supervise her, crate her! Once she is reliably eliminating outside, you can allow her longer periods of time without direct supervision.
Most dogs can be taught to love spending time relaxing in their crates, and it then becomes a wonderful training tool. Susan Garrett’s Crate Games DVD is a great resource. For some dogs, the crate is already a place where dogs potty, or it is a scary place: If so, you may want to consult with a trainer on alternative management options.
A lot of dogs will eliminate at the scene of previous accidents over and over again. This is usually a sign that these spots have not been adequately cleaned in the past –- often, owners have used conventional cleaning products rather than enzymatic cleaners specifically designed to clean up and remove the smell of pet waste (we use Nature’s Miracle at the classroom).
While regular floor cleaners may mask the smell for us, the superkeen noses of dogs can detect residue from previous accidents, which becomes an olfactory cue to return to the scene of the crime and reoffend. A black light, used in a dark room, can give you a visual cue as to where further cleaning is needed -– place a towel over any places that fluoresce, so you can find the right spots to clean once the lights are back on.
The more chances your dog gets to “go” outside, the more likely she will be to learn quickly and get it right more often! Go to the same spot each time, wait (ignoring your dog) until she goes, and then give her a treat! If you go out for five minutes and she still hasn’t gone potty, you can bring her back inside, put her in a crate for a short while, and try again later.
EVERY time your dog eliminates outside, give her a treat immediately. She should be on a leash, right next to you, and you should always have treats (something she really likes -– for your dog, a “treat” may even be the toss of a tennis ball). For maximum benefit, only provide this special treat when she potties outside. She will quickly learn that going outside pays off. If you want to take your dog for a walk, you can use a walk as a reward for appropriate elimination by saying, “Good girl! Let’s go walk!”
If you catch your dog in the act, a quick “oops!” followed by scooping her up and taking her outside to finish is your best bet. If the accident already happened, clean it up, but don’t punish your dog. I know many dogs who have developed coprophagia (stool eating) as a result of being punished when accidents are found; now your dog still potties inside but the spots are harder to find and her kisses are, um, yucky.
It is unethical to expect dogs of any age to hold bowel or bladder movements longer than they are physically able, and then to get angry with them for having accidents. If you must leave your dog longer than she can be expected to hold it because of her age or health, provide a dog walker, a pet sitter, or an alternative area where it is acceptable to eliminate.
Dogs don’t usually have a good “poker face” -– most dogs offer pre-elimination behaviors or cues. Some will turn in circles, others will sniff, some dogs will head toward a corner, scratch at the ground, etc. Understanding your dog’s signals will help you better plan your trips outside.
Dogs who eat on a schedule generally poop on a schedule. Free feeding can make potty training a challenge.
Barring medical problems, even old dogs can learn new tricks and better manners. Potty training takes consistency and commitment. These are just beginner tips, but a good trainer can help if you aren’t making progress.