For the past 16 years, I have been teaching puppy kindergarten and adolescent-dog classes at The Canine Connection, my training center in Chico, California. The number of graduates of my classes is likely more than 1,000 puppies – but it feels like I’ve answered client questions about potty training at least a million times. What’s one more time, if it helps someone live more happily and harmoniously with their new dog or puppy?
Potty-training situations are of three types: (1) dogs who have never learned the appropriate place “to go,” (2) dogs who were once housetrained but are having a training regression, and (3) dogs who are pottying involuntarily – that is, they have no control over their urination or defecation. It just happens without any intent and often without the dog even realizing it is happening at all. Let’s look at these in order.
Housetraining For the Never-Housetrained Dog
Perhaps you have a brand new pup or a newly adopted teen or older dog. One thing that is vitally important to building a happy interspecies household is that your new dog becomes housetrained as quickly and reliably as possible. You should be equipped and ready to start housetraining your new dog from the moment that you bring him home.
Housetraining involves more than just learning where to potty; dogs and puppies must also learn to “hold it” until they get to an appropriate potty location and how to notify you to get them there. To help dogs build these skills and to help keep us on track with our housetraining responsibilities, I encourage people to think of housetraining in terms of C.R.A.P. Each letter of the acronym stands for an important part of the housetraining program: Confinement, Routine, Attention, Platinum rewards.
How to House-Train A Dog
Preventing your dog from pottying in the wrong place is the first and most important housetraining task. Since most of us cannot keep our eyes on our dogs every minute, having a safe, comfortable confinement area is key to housetraining success. Most dogs naturally avoid going potty in their sleeping areas, so confining your dog in a small enough area that is more bed-like than room-like not only prevents unwanted accidents but also will help him develop bowel and bladder control.
What are appropriate confinement areas? I am a huge fan of crates, used appropriately, once dogs are comfortable with them. An area that is fenced off with a portable exercise pen or a smaller room (such as a bathroom or laundry room with a baby gate across the door) can also serve as a confinement area.
The key is that any confinement area should be small and cozy enough for your dog that he will choose “holding it” over pottying in it. When confinement is in place and used appropriately, there will be a decrease in potty accidents and an increase in bowel and bladder control.
As your dog enjoys continued success at pottying outdoors appropriately and not pottying indoors, you can increase the size of the area where he is confined when not being supervised. Don’t go too far, giving him whole-house freedom after he hasn’t had an accident for a few days. Instead, use an exercise pen to expand his confinement area by, say, 50 to 100 square feet more per week of success.
Both dogs and humans benefit from a predictable, consistent housetraining routine. This routine should account for confinement time, potty breaks, meal times, play time, training time, walks, and all the other enriching activities that are part of your dog’s daily life.
I recommend my clients create a written routine that includes potty breaks a minimum of every hour or two, depending on the age and situation of the dog. The general rule for “holding it” in a crate or pen is that dogs should have the ability to hold their bowels and bladder, in hours, the number of months they are plus one. So, a three-month-old pup ought to be able to hold his urine and poop for four hours. However, there are so many exceptions to this rule; most notably, that activity often makes a pup have to “go.” The best routines, then, are based on a solid understanding of your dog.
Some important notes about potty breaks:
1. You must go with your dog to the potty area so you can reward the deed when it occurs. By delivering an immediate reward, your dog quickly comes to understand that “Oh my gosh, going pee or poop in this location is nothing short of brilliant!”
2. It can be very useful to teach your dog a cue for pottying behavior. Some people use the simple phrase, “Go potty!” Others use a euphemism such as “Get busy!” Whatever phrase you use, say it once just before he starts to potty (don’t say it over and over again), and then reward and praise him mightily when he’s done. Soon, he will understand that the phrase is a cue – an opportunity to earn rewards for doing what he now knows it means: going potty. This will help him understand what you want when you take him to go potty in a new environment, or under distracting conditions he has not yet experienced.
3. If you expect your dog to potty on- and off-leash, your potty outings with your dog should sometimes be on-leash and sometimes off-leash. Why? From a dog’s point of view, pottying while on- versus off-leash can be a very different experience. Familiarizing him with both will pay off in the future.
4. While it might seem convenient to have a dog who will potty only in your yard (I call these private pottyers), it’s important that your dog learns to potty in other outdoor places, too. Indeed, I want dogs to be public pottyers (with responsible guardians who will clean up after them) so that day and even overnight outings are comfortable for all. I pity the poor dog who has learned to potty only in the privacy of his home when his family decides to bring him on a long vacation!
5. Also in the interest of adaptability to new environments, dogs should be exposed to different surfaces as part of housetraining. Dogs can develop “substrate preference,” the willingness to potty only on specific surfaces, such as grass or concrete.
While your dog’s inclination to develop a preference for pottying on certain substrates can be helpful in creating a defined toilet space in your yard, it can also limit your dog’s adaptability to new environments if he is not allowed the option to potty on different substrates.
6. Potty outings should be mission-driven. if your dog tends to fiddle and frolic prior to pottying, restrict your dog’s access to play until the deed is done. Fiddling and frolicking can then become part of the reward.
7. If you are away from your home for extended periods of time during the day, you must have a plan for getting your dog to his potty spot in your absence. Sometimes it takes a village to housetrain a dog, with friends, family, and neighbors, perhaps assisted by professional pet sitters, dog walkers, or trainers helping with the potty outing shifts.
The first question I ask when a client asks me a question about a difficulty with their dog’s housetraining is: “Are you catching your dog in the act of pottying inappropriately or just finding the evidence after the fact?” More often than not, people sheepishly confess that they usually find the mess after the fact – and this always means their attention needs to be improved.
There are two huge benefits to maintaining a laser focus on your dog when he is not confined. First, you can start to recognize and reward your dog’s “gotta go” signals. When your dog begins to pace, circle, and sniff, you can applaud his signaling (“Awesome doggie! Let’s go, go, GO!”) and rush him to his potty place. Rewarding “gotta go” signals will encourage your dog to become more demonstrative when he feels the urge – communication that is as helpful to us as it is to our dogs.
Second, when we catch him in the act we can provide immediate feedback. A simple “Hey, hey!” while hustling him to his potty spot will make the point that there’s a difference between the spot where he started and that special place you want him to go.
When housetraining a new dog (puppy or adult) I make sure I know what my dog considers “platinum level rewards.” Housetraining is a big deal, and it requires that we acknowledge our dog’s success with a fitting outcome for his or her achievement. High-value food rewards should be stored on a shelf or table by the door so you can grab them on the way out with your dog. And the rewards of praise and play should be abundantly part of the potty party that celebrates your dog’s success at pottying in the proper place.
It is distressing when you believe housetraining has been achieved, only to find improperly located puddles or poops. Here are some reasons your dog’s housetraining might unravel:
Urinary tract infections or other medical concerns can result in potty accidents. If your fully housetrained dog begins to potty in the house, your first stop should be your veterinarian. Physical problems must be ruled out before assuming the problem is a behavioral one. Prior to your visit, assess your dog’s water and food intake so you can report any changes that might be part of the picture.
Recognize that a dog’s housetraining may not transfer to new environments. I have had many clients whose dogs’ housetraining fell apart when visiting the home of a friend, after a move, or even in a public place (how embarrassing!).
Just because a dog is housetrained in one environment does not mean he is housetrained in all environments. When you change environments, assume your dog is not housetrained until you have helped your dog understand that the habits learned in one place can also apply to the new setting. To do this, take your dog back to Housetraining 101.
Seasonal challenges. Just as your dog may need to relearn housetraining in a new environment, so may he need to relearn housetraining in different seasons. I have had many clients discover that their summer puppy’s housetraining unraveled at the first fall rain or winter snow.
I always advise clients to be proactive weather-watchers. If your dog’s potty place is outdoors, consider that potty habits can and might change with the season, and you may have to consider creative and proactive ways to keep your dog’s potty habits strong. For dogs who detest rain, the erection of a portable canopy might just ease the pain. A snow shovel goes a long way in helping small dogs deal with deep snow. Some indoor-outdoor carpet can buffer the heat of summer pavement.
Differentiate between relieving oneself and marking. Marking behavior can develop in dogs after their housetraining is concluded, as dogs mature and hormonal levels change. Marking is a natural behavior of both male and female dogs, though more pronounced in male dogs.
I approach marking like all housetraining problems, taking dogs back to Housetraining 101, with the emphasis on keen attention, since it is important to interrupt the urge to mark before actual house-soiling occurs. For dogs who are chronic markers, a belly band that prevents house-soiling may be a helpful management tool.
Consider the possibility of fear or anxiety being a contributing factor. One of my clients was dismayed when her Newfoundland started pottying in the house. As it turned out, the dog was pottying inside because he had become frightened of venturing into his yard following a neighbor’s home being re-roofed. The barrage of blasts from the nail gun had so traumatized the poor dog that he became housebound, leaving him no choice but to potty in the house, causing further anxiety.
In this case, we established an indoor potty area that was used while we worked on rebuilding positive associations with his backyard environment.
Potty Problems that are NOT Housetraining Problems
Involuntary urination and defecation can occur for a number of reasons with the common denominator to all being that the dog simply has no control over it. Here are some common reasons for involuntary pottying:
Excitement urination. Some dogs, especially young dogs, will involuntarily produce a puddle during happy homecomings and other joyful situations. Since most trigger situations can be predicted, the best way to reduce excitement urination is to downplay greetings and other emotionally charged situations by ignoring or only casually greeting your dog.
It also sometimes helps to give your dog something else to do in the moments when he is excited. For example, you might enter your home with one of your dog’s toys in hand, toss it away from you, walk past your dog while he retrieves it, then greet your dog several minutes later once the initial excitement worn off.
Because the trigger for excitement urination is a really big deal to the dog, it’s helpful to set up and practice mock greetings repeatedly so the trigger becomes less exciting – perhaps even a little boring.
Submissive urination. This form of involuntary urination is about social signals. It occurs when your dog’s emotional reaction to a trigger (e.g., a stranger or a family member) is one of appeasement, perhaps even fear. Submissive urination can be distressing to friends and family members who trigger it; they may think it suggests they have been threatening or unkind toward the dog, even when they have not. More often than not, the dog may be responding to the human’s body posture and size, voice volume and tone, or other characteristics that trigger an innate submissive response.
Submissive urination problems can be often be resolved by downplaying greetings, counter-conditioning the presence of the individual (building a positive emotional association with the trigger), coaching individuals who trigger the submissive urination to avoid provocative body language (such as direct eye contact with the dog, looming over or reaching for him, direct frontal approaches, and loud body language and voices).
I have also found that teaching the dog a cue that means someone is about to approach (such as, “Hello, I’m Here!”) can reduce submissive urination by removing the element of surprise from the interactions.
Incontinence. Age and illness can produce urinary and/or fecal incontinence in our dogs. Ill or elderly dogs may leak urine or expel feces while sleeping or may experience sudden urges to potty and be unable to make it out the door. Female dogs with hormonal changes may leak urine, too.
While many people accept incontinence as an inevitable part of their dogs’ health or aging, both western and eastern medicine offer remedies, so a visit to your veterinarian is a must. The use of belly bands, doggie panties, and potty pads in sleeping areas may help lessen the burdens of clean-up.
Essential Tools for Housetraining
It makes the whole housetraining task a million times easier if you are prepared in advance of your new dog or puppy’s arrival with all the things you will need to manage his whereabouts and support his progress. Here are the essentials:
- A crate, portable exercise pen, or small room equipped with a baby gate, so you can create an appropriate confinement area for your dog. This will prevent unwanted accidents from occurring. Preventing unwanted accidents ensures our dogs don’t rehearse pottying in inappropriate places and keeps the non-potty places from becoming infused with those potty scents that can trigger a dog into making a mistake.
- Some good clean-up products to eliminate potty smells from your home should an accident happen (as it might, since we’re only human and we do make mistakes). While there are many on the market and recipes for potty clean-up concoctions can be found online, my personal favorite is unscented Anti-Icky Poo by Mister Max (available in some pet supply stores and online). It contains enzymes that help destroy the odor-causing compounds in urine.
- A ready supply of high-level (as defined by the dog) rewards to dole out to your dog when he or she gets it right. Appropriate pottying is not a minimum wage activity; consider it a canine act of genius when your new dog gets pottying right and reward with the stuff (food treats, toys, and play) that your dog really values.
- In some cases, potty pads may be helpful, though I personally prefer to exclude them from my housetraining protocols (it’s one less step to fade out to get to the final goal of the dog pottying in a specific spot).
- For some, it’s helpful to create an indoor toilet area – a litter box for dogs, so to speak. If an indoor toilet area for your dog would be helpful for you, the “litterbox” should be available as a potty destination from the get-go.
- In cases involving urine marking, belly bands can be a very helpful tool. They don’t prevent marking but they do prevent house soiling, and many dogs seem to refrain from marking when the belly band is on. Belly bands are available in various sizes from pet supply stores and online.
Potty Pads for House Training?
I am not a fan of introducing potty pads as part of a housetraining regime. If the goal of housetraining is for your dog to potty outside, then potty pads create a middle step that must eventually be phased out as part of the overall housetraining plan. I would rather start focusing a dog’s attention immediately on the final destination. Why create an extra step if we don’t have to?
Some people, however, plan for their dogs to have an indoor toileting spot, with potty pads as part of their dogs’ lifelong scenario. This can be convenient, so you don’t have to make that trip outside, by giving a dog a legal potty place indoors. However, they don’t magically attract dogs to eliminate on them; dogs need to be taught to use them, just like they need to be taught to go outdoors. Either task can be accomplished by following the rules of house training 101.
People sometimes decide to use potty pads because they have to leave their dogs alone indoors for longer periods of time than their dogs can hold it. If this is the case with your dog, make sure you leave her in a larger long-term confinement area than the aforementioned crates or cozy confinement area. Make an area for sleeping and hanging out, and a separate space for eliminating on the potty pads.
Dog Doors: Yay or Nay?
As the proud guardian of both a brand new Aussie puppy and a “sudden urge” Greyhound senior, I am grateful for my dog door. My dogs go in and out at will, never needing to call on me to use my opposable thumb to turn the handle to open that door. At my house, there’s no need to find the attendant to get the restroom key; the bathroom door is always unlocked. My dogs go out, my dogs come in. There’s nary a potty accident or worry.
(Note: Some people worry about things that can happen to their dogs outside in their yards if the dog is unattended. The yard that is available to my dogs through my dog door is super dog-proofed and double-fenced. That said, there are more dangers to an unattended dog outdoors than indoors, but this is a risk I have taken with my dogs for many years without a problem. You may make a different choice.)
Without a doubt, my new pup has learned to go outside to potty and I am thrilled that she has learned to use the dog door. When nature calls she hops through and out. There hasn’t been an accident in weeks and I’m off the hook as door attendant. But is my new puppy fully housetrained? The answer is…no!
Besides learning where to potty, our dogs need to learn to “hold it” when they can’t get access to the potty place. And they need to learn how to inform us that they need our help to get from here to there. Without these lessons, housetraining is incomplete and potty mishaps are bound to occur when dog doors aren’t available – perhaps when the dog door is inadvertently left closed or when we’re visiting the home of a dog-door-deficient friend.
My new pup will be traveling with me soon and I don’t think the dog-friendly hotel has a dog door (that’s a bit too friendly). I’d better get going with Housetraining 101, rather than letting my dog door allow me take the lazy way out. And, as an adjunct to the basic training, I’ll be teaching my new pup to ring a “Hey, I gotta go!” bell. It’s pretty simple to train a dog to ring a bell (I think of this as a call for room service) and in terms of my learned response (jump up and attend to her), I’m a pretty quick study. (For instructions on teaching a dog to ring a bell on the door, see “Target-Train Your Dog to Ring A Doorbell”.)
Proper House Training is A Great Investment of Time
This might all sound like a ton of work; it isn’t necessarily so. If you observe the CRAP guidelines (Confinement, Routine, Attention, and Platinum rewards) from the very first day with your new dog or pup, he should quickly figure out when and where to “go” (perhaps on cue!), and how to “hold it” at all other times. His success at these tasks may make or break your happiness at living together, so give it your very best!
How to House-Train A Puppy: Problem-Solving
Amber was a darling Golden Retriever pup who had graduated from my Puppy Kindergarten with honors. She had a strong foundation in socialization and training, which had resulted in her having a happy and positive worldview and good puppy manners. Most importantly, Amber had mastered housetraining. At the time of her graduation, her parents proudly noted that Amber had not pottied in the house in weeks, and when she had to go, she let her parents know by whining at the door.
I next heard from Amber’s mom when Amber was a little over six months old. Completely unexpectedly, Amber had started peeing in the house! While the peeing was problem number one, a second problem was that Amber had started to ignore her owners and seemed generally more “out of control.” The appearance of these two behaviors together led her dad to one conclusion: Amber’s inappropriate peeing, along with her inattentiveness and unruliness, all coming at this teenage moment, was proof positive that she wanted to exert her dominance on her family. Oh, boy.
I had another thought that I shared with Amber’s mom: When a fully housetrained dog starts urinating and/or defecating in the house, one must get thee and thine dog to a veterinarian to rule out a medical cause! Urinary tract infections are a very common reason that a formerly housetrained dog might start urinating in the house; the painful condition causes an urgency that few dogs can resist.
Sure enough, Amber’s medical work-up showed just that. After a course of antibiotics – and her owners’ renewed training practice sessions – Amber’s “dominance problem” fully disappeared.
Sarah Richardson, PhD, CPDT-KA, CDBC, CSAT, is the owner of The Canine Connection, a boarding, training, and daycare facility in Chico, California. Over the past 12 years, she and some of her assistant trainers have often modeled for photos that illustrate articles in WDJ, but this is the first article that Richardson has written for WDJ!
Thumbnail: Photography by Patryk Kosmider / Shutterstock.