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HouseTraining 1-2-3

Whether or not a dog is "housetrained" can be a pretty big deal... no one wants a dog who will ruin their carpet, stink up their home, make messes for The Human to clean up.  So, in preparing a new owner of one of my fosters to take a new dog home, and in order to make a new owner THINK about what has to happen in the New Home, I explain to them that

Although this dog understands that I want him to eliminate OUTSIDE my home, he *won't* understand that same thing  in YOUR home until you TEACH him.  So, from MY point of view, and in MY house, he's housetrained.  From your point of view, and in YOUR home, not so much. Think about it: if you come to my home, do you know where the bathroom is BEFORE I tell you?  (Well, you knew it in YOUR home, why don't you know it in MINE?)

He'll be easier to teach in your home, if he's already housetrained in mine... but he'll still need to be taught the basics.  Obviously, you can't use words to tell your new dog what you need him to know... so, all you can do is wait for signs that the dog might be looking for a spot, and time food/drink so that you can make these educated guesses... sometimes, this means you have to observe how he acts, and you MISS the point where you can interrupt... and sometimes, he'll give you a 'heads up' by performing that Ritual Sniffing Circle that lots of dogs do before they pick that perfect spot (the cut-off or interruption point), then lead him to the place you want him to use.  Be calm and boring (don't make mean faces, so that he thinks he's on the way to the Gallows)...And when he goes, reinforce HEAVILY.  Make SURE that he knows he did a Very Good Thing.  I use praise, my tone of voice, body language, food treats, toys, walks... every Tool I have access to gets thrown into the Party Mix.

Sadly, lots of dogs end up living in the backyard because of a general lack of understanding between dog and owner -- many of these, because of housetraining mistakes.  While often viewed as a behavioral problem, housetraining mistakes are most often the product of a lack of communication and understanding between dog and owner.  If your dog knew what you wanted him to do, he'd do it... this stuff causes a lot of unnecessary stress in relationships.  He doesn't want that.


Understand this: house training is not a set of behaviors that is invincible. Any change in circumstance can cause a dog to "backslide". If your dog has been sick, or recovering from surgery, or if there has been any change in circumstance in your living arrangements, someone moving in or out – no matter how insignificant they may seem to you -- accidents can occur. If accidents happen, they are more likely to happen again, forming habits. For example, if you bring a strange dog into your home, and it's allowed to have an accident, you increase the chances of other dogs in your care doing the same. Also, if you take your dog visiting, unless he has been housetrained in this new place, it is just that -- a new place. You will either have to take the time to teach him the rules, or just watch him closely.  For example, when my dogs go to my sister's house, I have to watch them closely and provide regular potty breaks because they haven't been housetrained there.

Simple Rules for House Training:

1)  No scolding or punishing for housetraining errors.  Don't rub his nose in it -- that's just gross!  Dogs are inherently clean animals -- they would much rather do their business outside.  If you haven't given him the opportunity to do it outside (and if he did it inside, you didn't) that's your fault, not his.  Rubbing a dog's nose in its messes teaches the dog 2 things -- that getting really intimate with excrement is encouraged, and that he can't trust you.  Scolding or punishing him teaches him that it's not safe to do his business where you can see him doing it, so if you scold him, you've just created 2 problems for yourself:   a dog who won't go on-leash, because that's within your view, and a dog who will, within minutes of your bringing him back inside, do his duty the minute you turn your back (out of your sight) on the oriental rug.  So, no scolding or punishing.

Note: if your dog is a rescue, you can't know how he was trained... to help ensure that I cover all the possible fall-out that might be lurking, I always try to train as though this dog has been treated Really Crappily... even if he came from my family member.  (I also change their name, but that's another discussion.)  If your dog was treated harshly (lots of people still think that HITTING is a valid way of "getting the dog's attention") then you probably have lots of fall-out to work through, like the dog being afraid to pee where you can see him, or maybe he can't pee on the leash.  Clicker training is an excellent way to circumvent these kinds of fall-out related issues... ask me, I can help!

2)  Put your dog on a feeding and "outside to potty" schedule.  Puppies, as a rule of thumb, can hold their urine for 1 hour for every month in age, plus 1.  A pup that is 2 months old, by this rule, can hold it for 3 hours -- TOPS.  If you want to make this whole process much less frustrating for both you and the dog, install a doggie door.   (I have lots of cool ideas for management for this problem – just ask!)  I use 2 hours as my 'rule of thumb' with adult dogs, and adjust from there.  Again, different dogs will have different limits, depending on a lot of variables.

3)  Confine him!!  There are a number of techniques you can use to do this, employing baby gates, crating, hooking his leash to a belt-loop (called the "umbilical" method) -- if you can't watch him closely every minute, you can't catch him when he's about to do something that you don't want him to do, like pee on the floor.  It's not fair to expect him to just "know" where to go, unless you're available to teach him, so the best way, and the most humane, is to confine him in an area where he's least likely to go to the bathroom when he can't be closely supervised.  By "closely supervised", I mean IN THE SAME ROOM, with you watching his every move!!  Don't think that he won't go while you glance through the newspaper -- he will, even if it only takes your attention off him for a second.  He needs your undivided attention, in order to learn this.   It's not fair, to expect otherwise.

4)  Get excited about it!!  Choose a "keyword" that can easily be associated with this ("outside" or "potty" are good ones), but STOP being happy when he's looking for his 'spot'... don't get him so worked up about it that he pees on the floor... there's a fine line there that experience will teach you.  Put treats in your pocket, get his leash, go to the door, and talk in your calm happy voice -- going "outside" is a GOOD thing!!  If, by chance (or by design) he does do his business where you want him to, lots and lots of treats and praise -- make sure he understands just exactly how happy you are with what he's done!!  Reward him while he's going, to ensure that he understands WHY you're rewarding him -- even if he momentarily stops going, in his excitement.  Remember the first rule of positive reinforcement training: every time you reward something, you're increasing the chances that the behavior will be offered again -- make it worth his while to offer it again!! 

5)  Reinforce The Hell Out Of Him.  Again, it's that First Rule... this stuff WORKS, in a lot of ways.  When something doesn't work the way you Think it will, look at what's happening at the moment you reinforce... make sure you're actually MARKING the behavior that you THINK you're reinforcing.  If you "send him outside" to pee, then give him a reward when he comes back in, what are you reinforcing?  In order to increase the rate of the behavior you're looking for, the reinforcement HAS to be paired with the behavior closely (within a second or 2) -- OR, the behavior has to be MARKED (this is the basis for clicker training) it’s important to make sure that reinforcement is paired with the act you want to reinforce, to get repeats of the behavior you want to keep… you can use a clicker (or verbal marker) to MARK the behavior so that he understands what the treat is reinforcing, then give him something Extra Special to make sure he knows how happy you are.

A note about taking toileting walks: in theory, it sounds awesome... but only if it's done in a sequence that reinforces the behavior that you want to keep.  Dogs see everything in terms of "what happens if I do THIS?"  So, if you take him for a walk, he pees, and you head home, what information are you giving him? You're telling him that the walk ENDS if the he pees.

On this train of thought, here's something to think about: about a hundred years ago, I did a lot of rescue transports from Columbus to Breezewood Pa… I sometimes took one of my St Bernard’s along with me.  On these transports, I would often stop at a roadside rest so I could stretch my legs, get something to drink... let the dog pee.  That’s when I learned to teach my dogs that the Good Stuff happens ONLY after they Pee. (If I didn't teach this, we would conceivably spend hours at a rest stop, awaiting the event.)  Dogs often learn to “hold onto” their pee because humans are SO prone to thinking that peeing ENDS the walk. Instead, if you teach them that they hang out in the yard UNTIL they pee, then go for a Fun Walk, you teach them to pee QUICK. So, be calm and boring Until the deed is done, then have a Party.

Finally, accidents happen -- get over it.  It's not the end of the world, and most dogs aren't reliably housetrained until between the ages of 9 to 12 months, without a doggie door.  If your dog has an accident, sit down, calm down, and think about it.  What could you have done to prevent it?   Chances are, you either weren't watching close enough, or didn't take him out according to schedule.  It's not his fault, so don't get angry.  Sooner or later, he'll get it, and you'll look back on this time and laugh.

Even in "special circumstances" -- no matter how dire they may seem -- patience, consistency, praise, tolerance, will, compassion, ingenuity, and a sense of humor will tell.

Note: exercises to learn housetraining are dependent on several issues, including the layout of your house, and your dog's age.  If this is something you're working on, I can help you with exercises to teach the individual components to this, based on your situation.  We can do a video chat, or you can send me a video.

Brenda Rushman, CCBC

PAWSitive Solutions! Canine Behavior Counseling



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