In general, it is not a good idea to teach your dog to eliminate in the house, but there are some situations in which litter-box training can be useful. If you live on the 50th floor of a high-rise apartment building, are away from home for longer than your dog can realistically be expected to hold her bladder, or have a dog recovering from surgery who cannot use the steps to get out of the house, you may very well need to teach your dog that a litter box is an acceptable place to toilet but that other areas of your living space are not.
Watch for the signs
The first tip to success is recognizing when your dog has to eliminate. Common times are after eating, drinking, playing, waking from a nap, or exercising. Providing plenty of potty opportunities after these activities will help you prevent unwanted accidents elsewhere in the house.
When dogs have to eliminate, often they show certain signs, which may include restlessness, sniffing around, spinning around in circles, or scratching at the floor or door. If you notice any of these signs, take your dog to the litter box immediately. You’ll want to keep her on a leash so that you can keep her near the litter box. If she eliminates, immediately tell her what a wonderful puppy she is and give her a delicious treat (read: better than her every day, normal food) to reward her.
Reward, reward, reward
If your dog does not eliminate in the litter box, place her in her crate for another 15 minutes or half hour and try again. Until your puppy is reliably eliminating in the litter box, reward every single successful potty endeavor in the litter box. Once she is reliable, you can begin phasing out food rewards and introducing life rewards for desirable behaviors.
Dogs that are fed on a schedule generally eliminate on a schedule. Feeding your dog at the same time every day generally produces a dog that potties at the same time every day and develops an internal biological clock around such predictability. Once your dog has established appropriate toileting behaviors, you will want to begin slightly varying mealtimes again.
Clean up accidents properly
If you find accidents in other parts of the household, make sure that you are using an enzymatic cleaner specifically designed to clean up pet accidents. Very often, cleaning products intended for other purposes can mask the smell to us humans but don’t do a very good job of disguising the scent from our dogs, who have a much better sense of smell. The scent of previous elimination at a particular site is an olfactory cue for continuing elimination in the same spot. If you are not sure you have cleaned up all the accidents, a black light in a dark room can show you where additional cleaning is needed.
If you catch your dog as she begins to squat in a different area of the house, do not scold her, but quickly rush her to the litter box and reward her for appropriate elimination. If you catch your dog mid-pee, it is already too late -– corrections at this point are ambiguous at best and counterproductive at worst. Punishing a puppy for pottying in the house when her bladder is half empty tends to be about as effective as punishing a counter surfer when he has already consumed six pounds of steak. The dog has already been rewarded for the behavior; it is too late to punish her. In the case of the counter-surfer, the steak was the reward. In the case of your puppy, the reward was relief from a full bladder!
Combine your training with other techniques
Your litter box training will likely be most successful if you combine it with other management techniques like crate training and tethering or “umbilical cord training.” Dogs are generally very clean animals who do not want to soil the areas where they rest and sleep. Crating capitalizes on these natural dog desires. Tethering allows pet parents to give their dogs more freedom than they would have crated, and allows parents to supervise the dog and notice signs that she may need a potty break.
By observing your dog carefully to see when she needs to eliminate, providing her with plenty of opportunities to eliminate in the right place, rewarding all incidents of desired litter-box toileting, and cleaning up accidents quickly when they occur, your dog should be using her litter box reliably in short order.
Have you litter-box trained your dog? Are you thinking of doing it? Let us know in the comments!