Nothing is more frustrating than a housetraining challenge. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, you look in the spare bedroom and find the spot that Spot has been using for a toilet ever since that day three weeks ago when you caught him in the act in the living room and let him know in no uncertain terms what a bad puppy he was. When you communicate with your dog, you are sometimes teaching him something very different from what you intend. You thought you were teaching Spot that it was bad to go to the bathroom in the house. But he learned that going to the bathroom in front of you is a bad thing. So for three weeks now, he’s been running off to the back bedroom when he had to go. Because no one yelled at him there, he’s sure that he’s doing the right thing. Well, at least the safe thing. You could take a long time, get very frustrated, and ruin a lot of carpets trying to teach Spot all the places that he’s not supposed to use as a bathroom. But teaching him where he is supposed to go is much quicker and far more effective. Remember, think in terms of what you want him to do. Like so many other training challenges, in the case of housetraining, an ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure. If you’re just embarking on your housetraining journey with a new puppy, great! You’ve got all the advantages of starting with a clean slate. If you’re tearing your hair out because your current housetraining program has been unsuccessful with your pup, or you have an adult dog with a housetraining problem, that’s okay too—you just need to back up and start over again—and do it the right way this time. Yes, it will be more difficult, especially if your dog now has a well-established pattern of eliminating in inappropriate places, not to mention a fear of eliminating in front of humans. But housetraining is hardly ever impossible.
HOUSETRAINING IS SIMPLE
Dogs are naturally clean animals. They have an innate desire to keep their dens unsoiled. If you take early advantage of this, housetraining is usually simple.
When you first bring Spot home, whether he’s a youngster or a grown-up dog, your goal is never to allow him to have an accident in the house. The formula for this is simple, but not always easy—it takes commitment and followthrough. In the beginning, Spot will alwaysbe on a leash, in a crate or pen, or under the direct supervision of a responsible adult or older teen. You will give him lots of opportunities to do the right thing (go to the bathroom outdoors) and manage his behavior so that he doesn’t have the opportunity to do the wrong thing (go in the house). Here’s how this might look on Spot’s first day home.
Developing Spot’s Routine
Dad pulls into the driveway with puppy Spot in a crate in the back of the minivan. He takes Spot out of the crate, puts the leash on, and walks him directly into the fenced backyard to the potty spot that the family has previously agreed upon. Spot can sniff around, but he doesn’t get to go play yet. Dad waits patiently at the potty spot, resisting Spot’s nearly irresistible attempts to engage him in play. After thirty seconds of restricted exploring, Spot squats and pees. “Yes!” says Dad, and gives Spot a tasty bit of dog cookie. “Good dog, Spot!” Now Dad takes the leash off and motions to the rest of the family that they can come out and greet the pup. Twelve-year-old Sissy and fifteen-year-old Junior walk out the back door, controlling their excitement. They calmly greet Spot, rewarding him with attention, treats, and praise when he sits, and turning their backs if he tries to jump up. After several minutes of play, Dad suggests that they take Spot indoors. It’s almost the pup’s lunchtime, and Dad wants him to calm down before his meal. Spot’s puppy pen is all set up and waiting in the middle of the living room. This was Junior’s project. He first laid down a tarp, covered the tarp with a thick layer of newspapers, then set up the wire pen (often referred to as an exercise pen,or ex-penfor short) on the papers so that it pinned the edges down as much as possible. He put a Spot-sized crate in the pen (see chapter 6, “A New Leash on Life” for instructions on crate sizing and training) with soft bedding inside, placed a durable rug on the papers in the middle of the pen, and scattered several toys on top of it. Finally, he set a heavy crock water dish in one corner, away from the pen gate, and a couple of puppy pee pads in another. Now all the puppy pen needs is a puppy! Dad walks into the living room with Spot on a leash so that the little guy can’t dart off and initiate a game of chase the puppy. Dad walks into the pen with Spot and sits on the floor with him for a few minutes, encouraging the pup to play with his toys. While he plays, Mom fixes a bowl of puppy food in the
kitchen. When the food is ready, Dad exits the pen, leaving Spot inside. Mom stands by the pen, and when Spot sits and looks up at her, she says, “Yes!” and sets the bowl inside the pen. Spot devours his lunch, then looks around for something to do. The family is sitting around the coffee table eating their lunch. A little unhappy at being left out of the party, Spot whines for attention. The family ignores him. Realizing that he is very tired, the pup whines a few more times, then curls up on his rug. Mom says “Yes!” gets up, walks over to the pen, and hands Spot a small piece of cookie. Spot can barely finish chewing and swallowing before he is deep in doggy dreamland. While he sleeps, his brain processes three lessons he has begun to learn:
• That funny “Yes!” sound means I’m going to get a cookie.
• After I peed I got a “Yes!” and a cookie and then I got to have fun.
• Whining didn’t get me anything. Quiet got me a “Yes!” and a cookie.
Junior and Sissy know that when Spot wakes up in twenty minutes or so, he will need to go to the bathroom. They stay in the living room, reading a book, and keep half an eye on their new puppy. As soon as he wakes up, they put him on his leash and take him outside to his designated bathroom place. Like their dad, they wait patiently at the spot until he pees. Sissy says “Yes!” and feeds him a cookie, then wants to play with him. Junior tells her they have to wait. Because Spot just ate lunch, Junior knows he’s probably not quite done yet. Sure enough, in another minute Spot leaves a pile in his bathroom area. Junior says “Yes!” and Sissy feeds him a cookie; then they take him back inside to play. Sissy wants to take the leash off. The kids take Spot to the den and close the doors. They don’t want the pup to leave the room and get into trouble out of their sight—they know they are supposed to supervise him closely! The three youngsters play together for thirty minutes. Then Sissy remembers that she has schoolwork to do, and Junior has softball practice. They put Spot’s leash back on, walk him to his pen, and leave him inside with a kibble-andcream-cheese-stuffed Kong toy to keep him happy. Dad is cooking in the kitchen. He makes a note of the time so that he can take Spot out in another half-hour or so. For the rest of the day, while Mom does yard work and the kids are busy, Dad takes Spot out to the toilet area every hour on the hour. In the evening, Sissy and Junior take over Spot duty until their bedtime. Mom takes the little guy out for a last bathroom call at midnight. Spot spends the night in his crate in Mom and Dad’s bedroom. He fusses a bit before going to sleep, but when fussing doesn’t pay off with attention from his humans, he gives up and goes to sleep. At 3:00 AM he wakes up, aware of a very uncomfortable sensation in his abdomen. His bladder is full—he has to pee. He looks around his crate for a suitable spot, but it’s too small—he does not want to pee in his own bed. He tries holding it for a while, but he really has to go! He whimpers in discomfort. Then he starts to cry loudly. This is really serious! Finally Mom hears him. She jumps out of bed, opens Spot’s crate, snaps his leash on his collar and carries him out to his bathroom place. She knows that his bladder is so full that she can’t risk walking him through the house. Spot pees as soon as she sets him on the ground, and she gives him his “Yes!” and a treat. She waits a few more minutes, in case he has to poop too, but when nothing more is forthcoming she walks him inside, puts him back in his crate, feeds him another treat, and goes back to bed. Spot wants to play, but Mom knows that if she plays with him, he may start expecting “Romper Room” at 3:00 AM, so she ignores his crying. In a few minutes Spot settles down and everyone goes back to sleep.
Reinforce the Routine
This will be Spot’s basic routine, with gradual modifications, for the next several months. The Yes will be replaced with the clicker, and starting on day two, all family members will start using the phrase Do It when he starts to eliminate. This will teach him to go to the bathroom on cue—a very useful thing when it is pouring rain or below zero outside! Spot can also be on-leash in the house near one of his humans rather than in his pen, perhaps keeping Mom company while she works in her home office, or lying on the rug next to Junior while he does his homework. The frequency of his outdoor excursions will gradually diminish as his ability to control his bladder and bowels improves. The length of his supervised, off-leash, indoor playtimes after he potties can gradually increase as he matures. When he starts leading his humans directly to his bathroom spot, he can start going out off-leash (assuming the yard is fenced), but someone still goes with him to reward him for his superb bathroom behavior. This is important—if he goes out alone and gets a cookie when he comes in the house, he is only being rewarded for coming back in, and he may forget to poop and pee outside in his excitement to come back in for his treat. Plus, if you don’t know whether he went to the bathroom, you don’t know if it’s safe to give him some supervised free playtime. Don’t get lazy! Spot will probably be able to sleep through the night within a couple of weeks. He will always be confined, on a leash or under direct supervision when loose, however, until there is no doubt in everyone’s mind that he is fully housetrained. If he is consistently rewarded for going to the bathroom outdoors and prevented from going indoors through proper management, he’ll be housetrained before you know it!
WHEN HOUSETRAINING ISN’T SIMPLE
There are a few complications that can make housetraining more difficult. The first is medical. It is impossible to housetrain Spot if he has a urinary tract infection or loose stools. If Spot is going to the bathroom frequently, even in his crate, there’s a good chance he has an infection or digestive upset. Have him checked out immediately. The sooner you take care of the medical problem, the sooner he can get back on the housetraining track. The longer he has accidents in the house, the more difficult your housetraining task will be. Dogs and puppies who have been raised in an unclean environment can be devilishly difficult to housetrain. A dog who has been forced to live in his own filth may lose his natural inhibitions against soiling his own den—a soiled den is all he has ever known. This is one of the many insidious pitfalls of purchasing puppy-mill puppies from pet stores and disreputable backyard breeders. Clean cages in a pet store don’t tell you anything about where or how the pup spent the first six to eight weeks of his life. This is also why it is a horribly bad idea to leave a puppy crated for too long. If he is forced to eliminate in his crate because you left him there for four hours, it’s your fault. You will pay the price of losing the crate as a valuable housetraining tool if you destroy his densoiling inhibitions. As long as the basic inhibitions are intact, the housetraining program described in this chapter will work for adult dogs as well as for puppies. Prevent the accidents with good management, and reward and reinforce appropriate bathroom behaviors. If the training program isn’t working, or if you have an inhibitions problem, you need to get even more dedicated about preventing accidents. If Spot is soiling his crate at night, you may need to set your alarm every two hours and take him out—assuming there’s no medical cause for his incontinence. Be sure the problem is a housetraining challenge and not submissive, excitement, or marking urination. Those are dog behavior challenges of a different color! If you have followed a solid housetraining program and have ruled out medical and other types of behavior problems but Spot is still having accidents, it’s probably time to call in a competent positive dog trainer or behavior consultant to help you find the key to Spot’s bowels and bladder. Better to do this sooner rather than later—remember that the longer the problem continues, the harder it can be to resolve. In the meantime, you can take advantage of my favorite use for a rolled-up newspaper as a training tool: Every time Spot has an accident you can take the rolled-up newspaper and hit yourself in the head with it three times, while repeating, “I will supervise Spot more closely. I will supervise Spot more closely. I will supervise Spot more closely!”