Potty Training

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© Copyright 2004 Beverly Hebert


House or potty training is the process of teaching the dog where he or she should and should not go to eliminate. 

Consider the problem from your dog’s point of view: He is learning where it is safe and not safe to potty.  Your dog must sort out why he is reprimanded some of the time but not every time he eliminates.   Meanwhile, he may discover that if he eliminates in the living or dining room he is not punished, as long as the you are not present—ergo—the dog may conclude it is “safe” to go anywhere as long as the you are not there.  The first thing that many dogs learn is that is not “safe” to go in front of the owner, but it is safe to go anywhere- inside or outside- as long as the owner is not around. Your job is to help the dog avoid this confusion – by teaching him that location is what counts.


The keys to successful potty training:

Confine your dog or keep him in sight – do not give an untrained dog full run of the house.

Stick to a schedule – feed, water, walk, play.

Go outside with your dog and give positive reinforcement (praise and treats) for going in the right place.

Indoors interrupt and re-direct the dog when he starts to make a mistake.


Keep to a regular feeding schedule--If you are potty training your dog, don’t complicate the task by leaving food out all the time.  Most dogs will have to eliminate within 30 minutes of eating a meal.  Try to schedule regular mealtimes and allow the dog no more than 15 minutes to eat-then remove the bowl.


When You Are Home -Stick to a schedule - Feed, water, walk and play

Take him outside as often as possible—and be sure that you go out with him.  Take your dog outside immediately after each meal and half an hour later as well. Also take him out first thing in the morning, last thing at night, after naps, and after play periods of more than 20 minutes.  Do not play with him before he has eliminated.  Instead play with him afterwards as part of his reward for doing his job.  


Supervise or confine in the house--When your dog is inside the house, keep him under your watchful supervision and never let him freely roam.  Keep in mind that every time your dog eliminates out of your sight, he is getting strong self-reinforcement that will encourage him to repeat that behavior – after all, he took care of business and immediately felt better – why not do that again?

Confine him in the same room with you by closing the doors or keep him next to you on leash.  When you are busy, sleeping, or not at home, either confine him in his crate or in a small safe space like the bathroom with a baby gate where any accidents will be easy to spot and clean up.  Caveat- if you use a crate, never leave your dog in it so long that he will be forced to soil himself and the crate. 


When You Are Away From Home

If you work outside the home-- Confinement in doggy room—If you must leave the dog alone for more than a few hours at a time, crating is not the solution; pups may have to urinate as often as every 45 minutes and while an adult dog may be able to wait several hours to eliminate, being crated for more than a few hours at a time will have a negative effect on his emotional well being. A better solution is to confine your dog in a small area such as the bath or laundry room closed off with a puppy or baby gate (make sure to “puppy-proof” the space for safety).  You can also use an exercise pen (small kennel).  Place newspapers or potty pads on the floor and only leave a foot or two next to the water and food bowl uncovered.  Then as the dog learns to successfully use his papers, gradually reduce the size of the covered area, until he can successfully go in one small paper covered area.  Another option for small dogs or pups is to place a box in the area and fill it with cedar shavings.  Wipe up a small sample of the pup’s urine and feces in a paper towel and place in the cedar box so the smell will give him the idea of what to do there.  The box can be cleaned by scooping out the mess, just as a box of kitty litter is cleaned.  To encourage the pup/dog to eliminate outside, take some of the smelly cedar shavings or papers and place them in the area of the yard that you want him to use.   When home, you should still take your dog outside to eliminate, following the instructions for potty training in the first part of this handout. 


Play and Free Time - For allowing play and free time, think in terms of “full” versus “empty” dog.  Exercise the dog outside as soon as you take him out of his crate or confinement area.  If you have seen the dog perform both functions, he can be trusted to play safely within your sight for a while before the next period of confinement.


Crate training— (See handout on crate training) - Using a crate is a handy way to teach a dog to eliminate outdoors.  Confinement in the crate to prevent accidents, combined with frequent trips outside and rewards for elimination in the proper place, can speed the training process and sometimes success can be achieved in a matter of days with older pups and adult dogs. Do not leave the dog crated for longer than he can control his bladder or bowels; instead when you have to be away for this long, confine him in a safe room with papers on the floor.  Dogs who are forced to soil their crates will soon overcome their natural instinct to keep the crate clean, and the crate will no longer be a viable training tool.  If you have adopted a dog that has already learned to tolerate a dirty crate, stop trying to use the crate for house training and instead confine the dog in some other small space or tether him when it is safe to do so.  (Never tether your dog unless you are there to watch him).


Reward him for going in the right place— As he starts to do his job, say “Go potty” so that he will learn to associate the words with the action.  Be sure to have some treats in your pocket and praise him and give him a treat as soon as he finishes taking care of business.  Remember, while it may seem obvious to you that the location where your dog chooses to eliminate (inside or outside the house) is what earns him praise or reprimands, this is not at all clear to the untrained dog, trying to learn what is safe and not safe for him to do. This is why it is necessary to accompany the dog outside on potty trips whenever possible, and praise and reward him with an immediate treat from your pocket for going in the proper place.   Otherwise your reprimands for mistakes will quickly convince the dog that it is not safe to go in front of you and he will “hold it” while in your presence, even when outside, and then sneak off to take care of business later when you are not around.  Consistently providing praise and treats for going in the right place (i.e. building up a reward history for making correct choices) is just as important as interrupting and reprimanding for going in the wrong place. Only by doing the former can you teach the dog that of all the possible variables, location is the one that matters.


Training Tip: Do not underestimate how many times you will have to give your dog positive reinforcement for going outside before he really “gets” it.  It usually takes at least two weeks of consistent training – longer for young puppies.   Until you have built up a solid reward history for going outside, try to avoid reprimanding your dog for mistakes. Instead take steps to prevent mistakes indoors; if your dog does start to go inside, immediately interrupt him and take him out to finish.


How to handle mistakes—While your dog is in the process of learning that it is OK to eliminate outside in front of you, keeping him under your watchful eye also means that you can use his mistakes to teach him the other thing that he needs to learn—that is NOT OK to go inside the house. 

Here’s how:  When you catch him in the act or assuming the position, avoid screaming or running at him, but do interrupt him by making an emphatic noise such as “Uh-Oh.”  Then as you carry or lead him toward the door, say “Outside” or “Wanna go out?”   Stay with him outside and as he starts to do his job, say “Go potty” in a pleasant tone of voice.  When he finishes, don’t forget to praise him and give him a treat.

What not to do:  Never use harsh punishment and do not punish after the fact.  Dogs do not understand what you are punishing them for if you punish them more than a couple of seconds after they have made a mistake.  Even if you take the dog to where he made the mess and punish him there, he will not understand what he is being punished for. If you find the evidence of a mistake after the fact, just clean it as soon as possible.  Be sure to use a product available at pet stores that will remove all of the odor from the spot, so the dog won’t be attracted to go in the same place again.


If you follow the guidelines above, you will accomplish the major part of your house training program by 1) preventing your dog from going in the wrong place and 2) consistently rewarding him for going in the right place!


Tip – How to keep a clean yard: Either take your dog on potty walks or pick up the yard once a day and discard droppings in a plastic bag or empty into a covered pail lined with a plastic bag.


Using a rolled up newspaper - Finally, if your dog still has problems, remember the advice about how to use a rolled up newspaper as a training aid.  Roll a newspaper up very tight, secure it with rubber bands and keep it someplace handy.  When your dog does something to upset you, grab the newspaper and bang it on top of your head while saying, “I should have been training my dog.”

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