How to House Train an Adult Dog: The Umbilical Cord Method

You adopt an adult dog only to learn she doesn't know how to do her business. Follow these tips


We all think our dogs are smart. Some of us think our dogs are really smart. I do. I think my Pit Bull Bunch is at the top of the class. After all, after I adopted her, she learned her new name in a day. Pretty swift, huh?

Why, then, has it been really hard to teach Bunch not to pee in the house? Granted, it’s a tough situation — she is two years old, she lived on the streets a lot of that time, we live in an apartment sans yard, and her brother, Hudson (an old Pit Bull), is allowed to go to the bathroom inside on wee-wee pads because his illnesses can prevent him from going out.

Other dog owners may not have the last three issues to deal with but many, especially those who adopt, have difficulty house training an adult dog. We all know the adage, “An old dog can’t learn new tricks,” and we all know it isn’t true. But you may need to be creative to teach an adult dog where to go, so your best bet is to use a method that is both linear and instinctive.

Dogs think mostly linearly. That is, simply and step-by-step, without human traits that get in the way, such as analyzing and self-doubt. They are also instinctive, which means their behavior often follows a fixed pattern.

If you’ve adopted an adult dog, chances are you don’t know much about her previous life. If it consists of running around the streets of New York City like Bunch’s does, it means starting house training from scratch. Bear this in mind and keep your house training as positive and gentle as possible.

You’ll also have to set aside plenty of time. You need to commit to one-on-one time at home with you focusing on your dog and his training. This includes keeping your patience.

House training your adult dog with the umbilical cord method

In this method, you will be attached to your dog all of the time except when she’s in the crate. Talk about bonding! I’ve found that this is one of the best ways to house train an adult dog. It is also gentle, positive, and very simple, and works well if you don’t have a yard.

Attach the leash to your dog, loop the leash handle through your belt or around your waist (if you have a small waist, which I certainly don’t), and then hang out with your dog. That’s it! Do whatever you need to — cleaning, reading, writing, etc. — with your dog at your side. You can talk to your dog about last night’s date, how work sucks, what you think about politics — it doesn’t matter. This is a time to bond, and your dog is a good listener.

During this, watch your dog for signs of peeing or pooping. These will quickly become apparent. Most dogs will start to sniff for an area to go in and, if you haven’t cleaned well, will go to the same area again and again. As soon as you suspect foul play (sorry, bad pun), speak in your best positive voice and say, “Let’s go outside!” Rather than dragging your dog to the door, distract her with a treat and encourage her to heel.

After your dog pees or poops outside, give praise and treats galore. Repeat as needed. (Usually for about two weeks.) Simple!

Bear in mind some things that the umbilical cord method doesn’t entail:

  • Wee wee pads: These can be great for training a dog to go to the bathroom in one spot inside, as I’ve done with Hudson. But if a dog isn’t house trained first (as Hudson was), shifting to going outside can be difficult.
  • Carrying a dog outside: Who wants to carry a 60-pound Pit Bull through the door every time you catch her peeing inside? I don’t. Even if your dog is tiny, this tactic can be confusing to a dog.
  • Rubbing a dog’s nose in her accident: This is punishment after the fact and is, obviously, not positive nor gentle nor is it effective.
  • Giving your dog freedom too soon: Some dog owners think that as soon as their dog “gets it,” they’re set to go. Expect the umbilical house training method to take approximately two weeks, but keep in mind your dog’s unique situation.

Tools you will need for the umbilical cord method

  1. A crate: This doesn’t have to be a fancy crate that doubles as a side table and plays lullabies at night. A simple crate with a comfortable bed will do. Keep in mind that a dog should not be crated more than four hours.
  2. Cleaning supplies: Put these in a shower caddy or cleaning caddy you can carry with you while training, or put one in each room. The cleaning products should include either an oxidizing product or a mixture of one part white vinegar to three parts water, either of which will help take out the smell or any urine or poopie mistakes.
  3. A four- or six-foot leash: In a small space, use the four-foot.
  4. Treats: Keep these in your pocket or in a treat dispenser that clips to your waistband.
  5. A dog walker or pet sitter: If you can’t take time off of work, hire a reliable dog walker or pet sitter to help out. Of course, you should have one anyway if your dog will be crated more than four hours at a time.
  6. A positive voice and patience: These are very important.

If your dog has an accident after you think the house training is complete, start over. This is very important in relation to a dog’s linear thinking — she needs to repeat a previous step in order to follow the next one.

Remember that even an “oh so smart” dog may have trouble with house training, especially if she’s an adult. Bunch and I are still working on it, but it’s been the best method I’ve tried. There’s no need to assume your dog is lacking in the brains department or to prove that your dog is still smart. Say, did I mention that Bunch learned her name?

Read more on housebreaking — and cleaning up the messes!

1 thought on “How to House Train an Adult Dog: The Umbilical Cord Method”

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